The term “model minority” refers to minority groups that have ostensibly achieved high levels of success in contemporary society. As part of their effort to deny cultural explanations for why there’s disparity in the world, woke prohibitionists have done everything in their power to discredit “model minority” theory. By citing the success of “white adjacent” Asians and Latino groups, the woke argument goes, people who promote the model minority myth are engaging in a form of anti-Blackness.
What the woke prohibitionists are really saying is that it is illegitimate to make cultural arguments that some immigrant communities have done better than others because of certain cultural attributes. Liberals who care about the future of liberal discourse must insist on the ability to make cultural arguments, which includes examining the successes and failures of various minority groups in the West.
None other than Spike Lee took up the theme of “model minority” in his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” in a scene depicting three older black men in Brooklyn discussing a successful Korean-owned store in their neighborhood:
Coconut Sid: “Look at those Korean motherfuckers across the street. I bet you they haven’t been off the boat a year before they opened up their own place. A mother fucking year off the motherfucking boat and they already have a business in our neighborhood. A good business. Occupying a building that had been boarded up longer than I care to remember. And I’ve been here a long time. Now for the life of me–I can’t figure this out–either these Korean motherfuckers are geniuses or you black asses are just plain dumb…I will be one happy fool if we open our own business right here in our own neighborhood…”
ML: “It’s gotta be because we’re black. Ain’t no other explanation.”
Sweet Dick Willie: “When are you gonna get your business? You ain’t gonna do a goddamn thing. I’m going to tell you what I am going to do. I am going to go over to those Koreans and give them some of my money.”
“Do the Right Thing” hints at how Spike Lee himself might have struggled with such perplexing, thorny issues. Like the rest of the film, the scene raised questions but offered no answers.
It has become much harder to speak of the success of various minority groups in the past 30 years since Lee made the film. Kat Chow argues in NPR that “At the root of…(this) pernicious argument is the idea that black failure and Asian success cannot be explained by inequities and racism, and that they are one and the same; this allows a segment of white America to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism or the damage it continues to inflict.”
Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, argued that model minority involves “1) ignoring the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success followed by 2) making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.”
Duke University sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva takes it a step further, arguing that to maintain white supremacy, whites will allow certain Asian and Latin American groups to become honorary whites and succeed, so they can ally with them to oppress blacks and other, generally darker-skinned Asian and Latin Americans. How precisely this happens he never explained. Apparently the forces of white supremacy work in mysterious ways.
The contention that relative Asian American success can be explained away as selective immigration or white adjacency does not hold water. Rav Arora points out that for nearly four decades in the 20th century Japanese Americans were “legally prevented from owning land and property in over a dozen American states. Moreover, 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. But by 1959, the income disparity between Japanese Americans and white Americans nearly vanished. Today, Japanese Americans outperform whites by large margins in income statistics, education outcomes, test scores and incarceration rates.”
While some Asian and Latino groups came to America with significant social advantages, others did not and still found success. Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist and author of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, points out that “many non-white American groups, including both Asian Americans and African immigrants, appear to have lower crime rates than whites do.” He continued, “caucasians dominate a whole range of socially problematic behaviors ranging from suicide to car wrecks to opiate abuse.” Indeed, the success of certain immigrant communities shines a bright light on the cultural maladies of whites, particularly in the south, as well as inner city blacks.
No doubt, invoking the model minority motif can be insensitive and even demeaning. It can easily be weaponized as an ugly canard, e.g., “Asians value education and hard work and blacks don’t.” Unfortunately, in this restrictive environment, too often the only people with the temerity to say anything out loud about culture are witless boors. Speaking a partial truth in a demeaning manner does not advance understanding. Such chauvinism emboldens woke prohibitionists, some of whom genuinely want to protect vulnerable people from unfair attacks. It turns out that when liberals fail to make thoughtfully-stated cultural arguments, they cede the floor to both bigots and woke ideologues.
While I do not know how to precisely weigh the various factors, such as cultural differences and legacies of oppression, selective immigration and institutional racism, in answering the question of why certain subgroups experience higher levels of success than others, it is beyond dispute that culture matters. Wilfred Reilly asserts “an especially important cultural variable…is the presence of a father in a child’s life…The National Center for Fathering states the plain facts bluntly: “Children from fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, become involved in drug and alcohol abuse, drop out of school, and suffer from health and emotional problems. Boys are more likely to be involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens.” Reilly states that “the anti-success effects of illegitimacy—and most notably of being raised by a young single mother—seem to be exactly the same for whites, Hispanics, and Blacks.” With a 75 percent illegitimacy rate in the Black community, it should surprise no one that there is an achievement gap.
Woke prohibitionists have made it nearly impossible to discuss the cultural variable. It’s too important a question to let them have their way.