Sunday, May 1 marked the beginning of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. And 2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of University of California sociologist, Thomas Petersen, coining the pernicious term "model minority" in the New York Times Magazine. What better way to commemorate Asian Pacific Heritage this month than to end once and for all use of this label on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), which has been employed countless times by major media outlets like Time, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times since 1966?
Academic scholars and AAPI community-based organizations like my own have fought against the myth of the model minority for decades. The term, which may seem a compliment to some, has been used to define our broader community as uniquely intelligent and universally hard-working and financially successful, especially when compared with other communities of color. In Petersen's article, he specifically compared the economic attainment of Japanese Americans to that of less economically successful groups, whom he described as "problem minorities," not only because of their lack of upward mobility, but also because of their need of "Great Society" anti-poverty programs and their demand for increased civil rights.
Beyond the harm of labeling an ethnic group a "model" minority, the tag is simply inaccurate when it comes to describing the AAPI community as a whole. The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles, a joint publication of Duke University, The New School, UCLA and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which was released on March 10, examines the economic disparities faced by several ethnic communities in the Southland and found that a number of Asian American communities have much lower income and net worth than White Americans. For example, the median total assets possessed by Korean Americans in the Southland is only $28,000 and $40,000 for Vietnamese Americans. White Americans in Los Angeles, by contrast, have a median total assets exceeding $350,000. Similarly, the per capita income in Los Angeles for some AAPIs is significantly lower than for Whites; the per capita income for Tongans is a mere $8,146, for Cambodians, $14,276, and for Bangladeshis $18,909 while the income for Whites is $47,503, according to the 2006-2010 American Community Survey.
Despite this evidence, the model minority myth continues to be perpetuated in mainstream media. In his October 10, 2015 column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof discussed the "Asian Advantage," describing Asian Americans as "disproportionately stars in American schools and even in American society as a whole." Similarly, at the February 28 Academy Awards, Chris Rock brought three AAPI kids onto the stage as the apparent accountants responsible for tallying the votes (read: Asian kids are so good at math, they can do the job of adults).
To be sure, some segments of the Asian American population are doing quite well financially. The median net worth of American households of Indian and Chinese descent are among the highest of any groups in Los Angeles, exceeding $450,000 and $400,000 respectively. But what most media outlets fail to recognize is that a majority of those immigrants welcomed to the United States after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act were well-educated professionals who possessed higher levels of wealth than the average American prior to entering the U.S., as noted by the Color of Wealth authors.
AAPIs are a diverse population. Treating them as a monolith fails to account for differences between AAPI communities, especially in terms of their immigration pathways and socioeconomic origins. Moreover, assigning them a label that assumes generalized wealth or educational success prevents government resources and philanthropic investments from being distributed equitably across all Southland communities; and it leaves tens of thousands of low-income and frequently limited-English proficient Tongans, Cambodians, Bangladeshis, Koreans and Vietnamese in Los Angeles without access to necessary medical services, affordable housing and adequate wages.
Acknowledging the community's complexity is a step in the right direction. Members of the California Assembly and Senate with Governor Brown should take that first step by enacting AB 1726 to collect and disaggregate data for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in publicly-funded colleges and universities and a number of state Departments. State and local policymakers and foundations can then begin to allocate resources more equitably and develop appropriate responses to meet the challenges experienced by individual AAPI communities.
Accurate, disaggregated data, not false, outdated narratives and stereotypes should inform public opinion and state policy. Let's celebrate this month by abolishing the model minority myth and spend the next fifty years recognizing the rich diversity of the AAPI community.