Writing for New York magazine last week, Andrew Sullivan posed a question for those who see racism as the primary obstacle to equality and prosperity for nonwhite Americans: What about Asians?
Riffing off of the recent incident on a United Airlines plane, where an elderly Asian American man was forcibly removed from his seat to make room for United employees, Sullivan presented a question about the strength of racism and white supremacy.
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 … 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? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?
Sullivan, it would seem, is unaware of the diverse and often disparate experiences that comprise Asian American life, from that of some of the Chinese and Japanese Americans he automatically places in this “model minority” narrative, to the (less remarked on) poverty of Hmong, Cambodian, and other Asian American groups. But even if you took his premise of a singular and monolithic Asian community as a given, there is still a host of problems with Sullivan’s question-begging argument. That includes, but is not limited to, an ignorance of selection effects—a substantial cohort of Asian Americans chose to come here and entered the United States with advanced degrees—as well as an invocation of “culture” without any awareness that this image is a construction, a contingent narrative tied to the politics and political atmosphere of the mid-20th century United States.
As historian Ellen Wu explains of these historical realities in The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, “The United States’ battles against fascism and then Communism meant that Asiatic Exclusion, like Jim Crow, was no longer tenable.” The result, she argues, was the “entrance of Asian Americans into the national fold” and, in the 1960s, a “profound metamorphosis [of Asian Americans] into the model minority: the Asiatic who was at once a model citizen and definitely not-black.” Japanese and Chinese in the United States became “living examples of achievement in spite of the persistent color line and because of their racial (often coded as cultural) differences.” And this reasoning, in turn, “undergirded contentions that African Americans’ cultural deficiencies was the cause of their poverty—assertions that delegitimized blacks’ demands for structural changes in the political economy and stigmatized their utilization of welfare state entitlements.”
Even as he avoids the words black or African American, that charge—that black deficiency (or even pathology) drives black disadvantage—is the core of Sullivan’s inquiry. And his argument, unstated but clear as the blue sky, is that black Americans have only themselves and their culture to blame for continued racial inequality. That this flies in the face of what we know about structural and institutional disadvantage—of ongoing discrimination in jobs and housing, of the long and enduring effects of past discrimination and bias, of racial disadvantage among well-educated, two-parent black families, of the half-hearted efforts to remedy those accumulated burdens—is, at most, a minor obstacle in Sullivan’s narrative. It also flies in the face of what we know about Asian American gains, which followed that aforementioned—often politically motivated—mid-century decline in anti-Asian racism. Even still, Asian Americans face continued discrimination; among the highly educated, for instance, Asian men earned significantly less than their white counterparts.
There’s also nothing daring, or even novel, about Sullivan’s latest take. It’s old hat, a claim that’s been examined and discussed and litigated by a generation of scholars and experts. And the use of other nonwhite and immigrant groups to disparage blacks goes back to the 19th century. “But what has been the history of the negro race during these thousand years, while others, even the Chinese, the Hindoos, and Mexicans were marching on, according to the strength which nature endowed them respectively?” asked prolific racist theorist and author Josiah Nott in an 1866 essay arguing for black inferiority. This denigration by comparison has historically been so common that it’s a part of how social scientists measure anti-black animus.
In the major scale used to measure “racial resentment,” participants are asked to respond to questions like “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors,” and “It’s really a matter of trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder that would be as well off as whites.” People who answer yes are more likely to harbor racial resentment than others.
The reason we call this racial resentment and not simple “racism” is that it stems from different psychological processes. Less a belief in biological inferiority and more a moral and cultural judgment, what political scientists Donald Kinder and David Sears called “a blend of anti-black affect and the kind of traditional American moral values embodied in the Protestant Ethic … a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience, and discipline.” In fact, racial resentment reflects a tension between the egalitarian self-image of most white Americans and that anti-black affect. The “racist,” after all, is a figure of stigma. Few people want to be one, even as they’re inclined to believe the measurable disadvantages blacks face are caused by something other than structural racism. Framing blacks as deficient and pathological rather than inferior offers a path out for those caught in that mental maze.
It’s tempting to make any discussion of these ideas into an assessment of Andrew Sullivan and his racial views. But the insistence on black cultural pathology is a mainstream affair, long seen on centrist op-ed pages and from mainstream politicians on both sides of the political divide and endorsed by large numbers of Americans. It was even expressed directly during the presidential campaign, when Donald Trump made black dysfunction part of his winning message to the country, painting black communities as dangerous, ruined landscapes.
Indeed, that this was an aside in Sullivan’s column—whose initial topic was Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president—says something about black pathology’s place as a mainstream belief. Had Sullivan written about the biological inferiority of black Americans, there’s no doubt it would have raised red flags among his editors. But to frame the subject as a question of black culture, well, that’s just being provocative.