Andrew Sullivan’s latest piece of writing for New York is a bizarre thing indeed. Entitled “Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry For Hillary Clinton?”, it spends most of its length making the (correct) argument that the person most responsible for the poor management of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was Hillary Clinton. But after laying out the thoroughly convincing case for this bleedingly obvious proposition, Sullivan takes a rather unexpected detour into the politics of race. Suddenly pondering on the causes of achievement gaps among racial groups, Sullivan muses thusly:
Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?
As I say, for anybody who had been pleasantly savoring Sullivan’s Clinton critique, the abrupt transition is somewhat jarring. But apparently this is the format of Sullivan’s new New York column; he meanders from subject to subject, riffing on whatever he finds important or what comes into his mind.
And so it’s curious that this, of all things, should be occupying Sullivan’s thoughts. He is, after all, restating a version of an argument that has been made for about forty years, one that has been the subject of countless responses from social scientists. The argument has a name (the “Model Minority” argument) and an extensive Wikipedia article. In its core form, it goes roughly as follows: “I don’t see why black people are always whining about racism in this country. After all, Asian people seem to do just fine. If there’s so much ‘racism,’ why are Asian test scores so high, hm?”
There are more sophisticated versions of this argument, but Sullivan is stating it in its absolute crudest form, suggesting quite openly that instead of America being a “profoundly racist society,” a better explanation for why some races are “earning more” and are more “well-educated” on average is that members of those racial groups have made better choices, e.g. the choice to have marry and tell their kids to get an education.
Now, I think the above paragraph by Sullivan is deeply and obviously racist. I also think it is willfully empirically ignorant. But since the argument he is making is very common, and since charges of racism and ignorance are very serious and require substantiation, let me explain why Sullivan’s perspective is both bigoted and mistaken.
The first objectionable aspect of Sullivan’s argument is his suggestion that Asian-Americans have “turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones.” In and of itself, this is a racist notion, because it suggests that certain racial stereotypes can be “true” and “positive.” Because I believe that racial stereotypes are inherently racist, since stereotypes are crass and prejudiced generalizations, I find Sullivan’s idea that stereotypes about Asians could be “true and positive” to be racist.
There are several problems with Sullivan’s embrace of racial stereotypes about Asians. First, as Matthew Bruenig documented at Jacobin, because racial stereotypes treat race as a helpful analytic category (even though “Asian American” lumps together people of totally different backgrounds), they lead to poor social science. Bruenig points out why it’s ignorant to discuss “Asian Americans” as being “better educated” or “more prosperous.” First, Asian Americans as a group actually have a higher poverty rate than non-Hispanic whites. But more importantly, using “Asian American” as a category obscures the massive differences among different Asian Americans, with Filipino Americans having a substantially lower poverty rate than whites and Hmong Americans having a far, far higher poverty rate than whites. Because some subgroups of Asian Americans have far higher incomes than white Americans, statistics for Asian Americans overall look pretty good. But one can only posit a theory of how “Asian” emphasis on education and family ties has led to their success if one ignores the fact that many groups of Asian Americans have not achieved this incredible success, even though they share whatever distinctively Asian cultural characteristics Sullivan thinks are important.
But stereotypes don’t just create empirical failures by obliviously viewing distinctive groups as amorphous racially-defined blobs. They are also deeply harmful, and there is no such thing as a “positive” racial stereotype. By saying there are such things as “positive” racial stereotypes to begin with, we are allowing for the possibility of ordering racial groups hierarchically (the “diligent” races, the “lazy” races, etc.), and if some groups are associated with “positive” racial traits it is inevitable that others will be associated with negative ones. Members of the British Colonial Office during the 1950s, for example, praised “the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians,” contrasting them with “the unskilled and largely lazy Asians.” It may seem as if calling West Indians “industrious” is paying them a compliment, but in doing so one is adopting a framework by which character traits are assigned to ethnicities, a framework which views people not as individuals but as the prisoners of their racial identity.
Regardless of what judgments are being made, positive or negative, the inclination to judge people by their race is poisonous. Certain white people see nothing wrong with classifying Asians as “smart” or “hard-working.” After all, what could possibly be objectionable about stereotyping someone as intelligent? But all racial stereotypes have deleterious impacts, particularly on children. For many young Asian Americans, the “Model Minority” stereotype causes serious psychological anxiety. Because, thanks to racial stereotypes, they are expected to be scientifically-minded, humble, and diligent, Asian American students often feel a sense of inadequacy if they cannot live up to unreasonable expectations, an incredible psychological burden of racial expectation that leads to not seeking help when they are struggling and has been linked to suicide. (Some schools even offer counseling for Asian students trying to deal with the mental health consequences inflicted by Sullivan’s worldview.) Every racial stereotype is ugly, and every single one hurts the people to whom it is applied, and the very idea of a “true, positive” racial stereotype is both unscientific and insidious.
(It’s worth mentioning that Sullivan’s perspective also conforms to a common line of thinking among those who emphasize the importance of racial categories: that if one sees Asians as superior, one cannot be racist. I have seen this repeatedly from those who attempt to defend Bell Curve-type thinking; they believe that if they claim Asians are equal or superior to whites, they cannot be white supremacists. Here we should note the implications of this worldview: that someone who used the n-word and advocated the return of Jim Crow would not be racist so long as he carved out an exception for Asians. And that’s not a theoretical argument: white South Africans exempted Japanese people from Apartheid restrictions by making them “honorary whites.” The fact is that it doesn’t matter what your racial hierarchy is; if you have a racial hierarchy at all, you’re a racist. If you think black people are lazy, but Asian people are superhumans, you are being racist against both groups by treating them as cartoons instead of people.)
There are other serious deficiencies with Sullivan’s argument. For one thing, in his attempt to blame racial cultural traits for differing economic outcomes, Sullivan does not give a moment’s consideration to the differences in history between groups. It’s been pointed out over and over that since black people disproportionately consist of the descendants of slaves, while large numbers of Asian American immigrants are among the most prosperous and well-educated in their home countries, it’s absurd to attribute the resulting economic disparities to freely-made cultural and behavioral choices. An honest person would at least mention and discuss the importance of differences in background, including the education levels of Asian immigrants and the fact that black people spent two centuries being whipped, raped, and killed. Sullivan does not mention and discuss these things. Therefore Sullivan is not an honest person.
That dishonesty is the central problem with Sullivan’s passage. The causes of people’s economic and education outcomes are of central concern to the social sciences; an extraordinary amount of research is done on these topics. Sullivan pretends that this research does not exist, acting as if the long conversation on the errors and dangers of the Model Minority myth simply has not been happening, even though it has been going on for multiple decades. He wishes to beat up on the “social justice” types for their comical view that America is racist, without considering any of the actual evidence they put forth to support the view that America is racist. This means that Andrew Sullivan is not interested in finding out the truth, but in advancing a particular prejudiced worldview.
One has to conclude, then, that Sullivan hasn’t learned much since the days when he helped midwife The Bell Curve and grant flimsy race science a veneer of intellectual respectability. He still believes race is a reasonable prism through which to view the world, and that if only our racial stereotypes are “true,” they are acceptable. He is therefore an unreliable and ideologically-biased guide to political and social science. He is also a racist.