[Editor's Note: This piece is a reply to Miranda Oshige McGowan and James Lindgren, Testing the "Model Minority Myth", 100 Nw. U. L. Rev. 331 (2006) (link).]
As the legal and political wars rage over affirmative action, the role played by Asian Americans is increasingly disputed. Should Asian Americans be included in affirmative action programs? Do such programs harm Asian Americans because spaces that should be given to them are instead given to less qualified Blacks and Latinos? Does Asian American success indicate that affirmative action polices are unnecessary? At stake in each of these questions is the notion that Asian Americans are the "model minority."
The model minority designation often depicts Asian Americans as achieving success through cultural values and hard work, presenting them as a blueprint for others who want to achieve similar success. These positive attributes of Asian Americans are used to illustrate their ability to overcome discrimination and to juxtapose them with other racial groups, whose failure to overcome discrimination is then blamed on a lack of these cultural traits and an ethic of hard work. This juxtaposition may then be used to imply that social policies such as affirmative action, welfare, or reparations might be wrongly directed.
Critical discussion of the model minority designation is now standard fare in Asian American jurisprudence. A number of scholars have critiqued the veracity of the success stereotype and the validity of indicia such as household income or education as a measure of ongoing discrimination against Asian Americans. They have also posited that the model minority designation has had a negative impact on those Asian Americans who do not fit the success model. Additionally, they claim the stereotype has harmed other racial minorities and poor whites who have not achieved similar success.
Professors McGowan and Lindgren make an important contribution by trying to test the causal connection between the model minority stereotype and these posited harms. They set out to test this empirically through statistical analysis of survey data, concluding that their "results do not confirm the Model Minority Hypothesis." Instead, they contended that their research demonstrated "slightly more evidence conflicting with the Hypothesis than confirming it." They concluded that "we must all be careful to present our generalizations, not as essences or necessities, but as conclusions that are true only to the extent that they fit the world and untrue to the extent that they do not fit what they claim to capture." This cautionary note is directed to "Asian [sic] critical scholars" who critique the model minority designation, suggesting that we are making a claim that does not fit the world.
We turn this cautionary note back on McGowan and Lindgren. Their conclusion is only as good as their test design, which depends on their assumptions and the validity or accuracy of their underlying data.