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African Americans and the Politics of “Model Minority”

By Farooq A. Kperogi The discourse of “model minority” has been a central theme of America’s racial politics since the late 1960s...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The discourse of “model minority” has been a central theme of America’s racial politics since the late 1960s. The term is used to refer to racial and ethnic minorities in America that have had remarkable educational attainment and economic prosperity in comparison to other minorities—in spite of their initial social and cultural disadvantages. 

Historically, it has been applied to Asian Americans, that is, immigrants from China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. Much later, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were added to the group. These groups are said to have a higher success in education, income, and social stability than the general U.S. population, especially America’s age-old minorities.

As it should be obvious by now, African Americans are the undeclared yet apparent targets of the model minority discourse. Its elevation to the center stage of America’s popular discourse is artfully designed to show that the educational and economic successes of recently arrived non-white immigrants in America is an indication that the relative educational and socio-economic backwardness of American blacks isn’t the consequence of centuries of systematic exclusion and the emotional toll it has taken on them but of congenital ineptitude or a culture of laziness. 

George Lowery of Cornell University points out that the celebration of the model minority status of Asian Americans “derives from the perception that Asian cultural values of hard work, family cohesion, self-sufficiency and a drive for success propelled recent immigrants into and beyond the American middle class within a generation or two.”

From 2007 onwards, African immigrants (whom Ali Mazrui once called “American Africans” to distinguish them from native-born “African Americans”) have emerged as the new, if officially unannounced, “model minority.” For evidence, see the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which shows that African immigrants have surpassed Asian and white Americans in educational attainment. 

The breakdown shows that 48.9 percent of African immigrants (of whom Nigerians have an overwhelming numerical dominion) have a university degree, compared with 42.5 for Asian-Americans, 28.9 percent for European Americans, and 23.1 percent for the general U.S. population. (In an interesting parallel, London’s Daily Times noted in a January 23, 1994 article that “Black Africans have emerged as the most highly educated members of British society, surpassing even the Chinese as the most academically successful ethnic minority.”)

A 2009 study, which I republished on this page, also found that “among high school graduates, ‘immigrant blacks’ -- defined as those who immigrated to the United States or their children -- are significantly more likely than other black Americans to attend selective colleges. In fact, immigrant black Americans are more likely than white students to attend such colleges.”

So African immigrants have now supervened upon Asian Americans’ status as America’s model minority. This shift in the tenor of the model minority discourse (from exclusive association with Asian Americans to African immigrants) has activated interesting reactions from both white and black Americans.

White Americans (especially conservative white Americans) who hold a grudge with their black compatriots use this fact to reinforce their argument that the location of black Americans at the bottom of America’s educational and economic achievement ladder is the result not of racism but of black Americans’ compulsive indolence. 

News and discussions of the outstanding educational attainment of African immigrants has also inspired divisive commentaries from prominent African-American scholars such as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier who was quoted by the Boston Globe to have said, "I don't think, in the name of affirmative action, we should be admitting people because they look like us, but then they don't identify with us."

In other words, Guinier attributes the educational success of African immigrants not to merit but to their taking unfair advantage of the Affirmative Action, a policy that was designed to remedy the educational disadvantages that descendants of slaves have suffered through measures to improve their education opportunities—much like Nigeria’s “quota system.”

But there are also African-American commentators who take vicarious pride in the success of African immigrants here. For instance, Clarence Page, a popular and well-regarded African-American columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in a 2007 column on the issue, provocatively asked: “Do African immigrants make the smartest Americans?” He proceeded to answer his question by saying, “judging by statistics alone, you could find plenty of evidence to back it up.” He then lamented that “the traditional American narrative has rendered the high academic achievements of black immigrants from Africa… invisible, as if that were a taboo topic.”

Other black Americans use the high educational achievement of African immigrants as a basis to counter the arguments of their white compatriots who claim that African-American under-achievement is self-inflicted. They argue that had they not been held hostage by the psychological baggage of centuries of racial oppression they would just have been as successful as their African brothers and sisters. In other words, the fact that blacks from outside America have even outrivaled white Americans in educational achievement shows that their own comparative backwardness isn’t genetic or racial; it’s an involuntary capitulation to the psychological damage of being born in a society that has historically weighed them down on account of their race.

I can relate to that argument, although I admit that it is becoming tired and self-limiting. I’ve always told people here that given what I’ve seen of the portrayal of black males in American pop culture, I would probably never have been a PhD if I were born and brought up here. 

The black male is invariably stereotyped as a violent, angry, good-for-nothing criminal. Psychologists often talk of self-fulfilling stereotyping encapsulated especially in the concept of the "stereotype threat," which American eugenicist Arthur Jensen propounded to suggest that people who feel stereotyped, or who have been stereotyped all their lives, tend to act according to that stereotype, or inadvertently authorize it, often in spite of themselves. 

That was why although Malcolm X was the best student in his all-white junior high school, he dropped out of school and became a criminal for a while because his white teacher told him his ambition to become a lawyer was unrealistic “for a nigger.”

But most importantly, the discourses on model minority obscure a crucial fact: immigrants to any country are a self-selected group who are not always representative of the populations from which they emerge. They tend to be highly motivated, self-driven, and obsessed with success in more ways than the host population or the population from where they emigrated. 

Plus, most African and Asian immigrants to America come here first in search of educational opportunities before they transition to the workforce. They must first take rigorous entry exams (such as the Test of English as a Second Language, the General Record Exam, The Scholastic Aptitude Test, etc.) and get high grades before they are considered for admission and visa issuance. 

It is therefore predictable that they will be more educated than the general population. They are also likely to transfer the work ethic that to brought them to America to their children. But, more often than not, by the third or fourth generation, their descendants will fully assimilate and become indistinguishable from the general population.

That’s why I think the model minority discourse is odious. 

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