The above infographic from The New York Times article For Asians, School Tests Are Vital Steppingstones, was titled “1027-asians” when I tried to save it. No idea why, but I think that’s an amusing file name. My offensively titled post is inspired by the cliche reference to Confucianism in the piece. As my previous posts on “Tiger Mom’s” indicate I am not a big fan of the “Asian” way of obtaining academic laurels through brute force alone. In places like South Korea a cram-school bidding war has distorted the culture. The single-minded focus on a specific test means that the whole society has to shift to keep up with the innovators in the educational “arms race.” Think of it as the analog to the doping scandal in cycling. And it’s an irony that the term innovation is being used here by me, because this sort of “education” destroys the creativity, flexibility, and originality which is the engine which motors modern civilization. Sufficient for producing engineers, but I doubt fruitful as the seedbed for an individualistic scientific culture which aims to shift paradigms.
That being said, as highlighted in the piece linked above standardized tests are an achievable and comprehensible metric for most Asian immigrants. In contrast, even with money (and if you check the census note that Asian households in New York City have the same incomes, if not wealth, as white households), you may not be able to purchase “polish,” and the cultural fluency to allow one to be “well rounded.” If you are a reader of the history of ethnic politics in the Northeast you may recall these were the standard put-downs of Jews by the establishment WASP elite.
Racial politics in the United States until the last generation was a relatively simple affair. With the marginalization of Native Americans, the assimilation of “white ethnics,” and the legacy of the Oriental Exclusion Act, you had on the cusp of the Civil Rights period an America in “black and white.” You had white supremacy against a vision of egalitarian outcomes enabled in part through affirmative action on the part of governmental and non-governmental institutions. That narrative is no longer feasible. First, black Americans are no longer the dominant minority in numbers in this nation. Hispanics or Latinos are. However artificial you may perceive this category to be, it has a certain coherency now after two generations of widespread usage. Second, though some Asian American activists may continue to scream that it is a myth, the model minority is a reality. The social pathology of traumatized Southeast Asian refugees simply isn’t quantitatively equivalent to high yield of core elements of Asian America in domains where virtuosity is admirable.
There isn’t a “new narrative” out there yet that I can tell. One successor seems to be a rainbow coalition of People of Color against the institutional white racism. This paradigm is predicated on a myth of homogeneity of People of Color, which I doubt is robust to the reality that People of Color captures an unwieldy coalition. As the white majority declines in power and influence, so the cement that binds this coalition loses its vigor. Then there is the model of harmony forever, and unity and diversity. Nations like like Indonesia, India, or Brazil, predicated on utopian diversity myths actually have to work very hard to maintain inter-ethnic amity, even in the face of extensive hybridization. Mixing does not mean blending, but the creation of new syntheses, and the multiplication of strands of tensions. For example, my daughter, a little brown-haired green-eyed girl who is technically a person of color, and whose maternal great-grandparents were “privileged” working-class white Americans, and whose paternal great-grandparents were “oppressed” Bengali colonial landlords and professionals.
Welcome to the 21st century America!