An Inconvenient Minority
Kenny Xu's new book isn't just about Asians; it's about all Americans.
I approached this lecture, semester after semester, with the focus of a medieval knight challenging the dragon threatening to incinerate the village. I needed to summon honesty that would slice like a surgeon's scalpel, but also compassion; I needed to exercise cool rationality, while conveying the subject matter's heat. I gazed at my students' faces. They arrived in class from diverse backgrounds: housing projects in crime-ridden inner cities; wealthy, white and Asian suburbs; night jobs as janitors and EMTs; mornings getting five or six little brothers and sisters off to school. There were whites, blacks, Asians. I had told them on the first day that this class in education might, at first glance, appear boring and safe. In fact, I warned, Americans were at each others' throats over the ideas we'd be debating.
I walked to the chalk board with the brisk clip of someone bucking herself up. "It's called the achievement gap," I would say. "Americans of East Asian descent, as a group, score at the top of standardized tests." I wrote "East Asians" on the board. "Remember that 'East' part. It will be important later. Then, after East Asians, whites. Then Hispanics. Then blacks. This happens test after test, year after year. The achievement gap persists even among African Americans making as much money as white Americans."
I turned from the board to my students. My emotional torniquets were handy. I was ready to mop up any metaphorical blood. I always sought the same reaction: surprise. I never saw it. I was merely speaking the quiet part out loud. Everyone in class already knew, from their "lived experience." They knew that in 2014, for example, in nearby Paterson, a majority-minority city, only nineteen high school students – 3.2% of the eligible student population – were deemed qualified for college. They sat in classes where white and Asian kids were comfortable with mentions of World War II and photosynthesis and black kids from Paterson exchanged nervous looks with each other, and only a tiny few were brave enough to say, "Please tell me what that word you just used means. I don't understand it. I've never heard it before."
What surprised me most of all was what I saw on most of my black students' faces. No self-pity. No outraged protests that this could not be true. No insistence that "the white man" was to blame. Rather, what I saw was resignation and determination. "I am going to be different. I am here to work hard and get a degree." My black students were often ruthless Darwinians, steely little capitalists, and American dreamers, believing more firmly than I in the old adage, "Work hard and you will be rewarded."
I quoted an article. "'If Harvard admitted students based on their academic qualifications alone, Harvard would be 43% Asian, 38.4% white, 0.7% black, and 2.4% Hispanic, according to a 2013 study by Harvard's Office of Institutional Research. Instead, Harvard's undergraduates in 2013 were 43.2% white, 18.7% Asian, 10.5% black, and 9.5% Hispanic.'" I asked, "Imagine that you are the president of Harvard. Would you admit students based only on academics? Or would you practice affirmative action?"
Again, semester after semester, my students shocked me, rather than vice versa. "Admit students to college on merit, not affirmative action," they insisted. When I probed them, they explained. They lived among people who had thrown in the towel. One black student said that he had an able-bodied uncle in his fifties who had never held a job. He had lived his entire life on government largesse. Another student reported a cousin who had child after child by a string of different men. She lived on benefits to single mothers and petty crime. My students vowed that they were going to be different. They were working, sacrificing, and keeping their eyes on the prize. If Harvard admitted 0.7% black students, they would be part of that 0.7%. Maybe not this year, but someday.
"But, if Asians dominate elite universities, won't resentments build up against them?" I asked.
"So what if Harvard is mostly Asian? The NBA is mostly black," they'd respond.
"You know, my black students are more conservative than I am," I casually remarked to a superior one day.
This African American woman replied sharply, "It is not your job to discover their worldview. It is your job to change their worldview. We have to bring them around." Bring them around to a leftist point of view. In short, indoctrinate them, not educate them. Indoctrinate them into believing that any inequity between African Americans and any other demographic is the result of white supremacy and that inequity must be fixed with taxpayer-funded, government programs.
I did introduce my students to leftist ideas, but I introduced them to conservative thinkers, as well. I let them decide for themselves which set of ideas were most coherent.
"Remember," I said to my students. "The Asians doing really well in American schools are largely from East Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan. What these countries have in common is a Confucian heritage. In that tradition, the parent-child bond is sacred. This is called 'filial piety.' Contrast that with the current state of the African American family." We watched a Prager University video featuring Larry Elder explaining how progressive policies, begun under President Lyndon Johnson, damaged the black family, driving fathers out of the home, and increasing illegitimacy.
We talked about the fifty-year-old, longitudinal, Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Experimenters told a child he could have one piece of candy immediately, or two pieces of candy after a short wait. Over time, the children who were able to delay gratification in order to gain a greater reward showed better lifetime outcomes. The presence of the father in the home was correlated with children's ability to delay gratification. Progressives have attacked the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment; they don't like its "conservative" conclusion that children benefit from having their father in the home. After all gender is "fluid," "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," "Heather has two mommies," and single mothers are to be admired. "It takes a village to raise a child." For "village" read "the government, not the parents." In spite of progressive criticisms of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, other studies support the experiment's conclusions. A 2017 study of 33 developed countries concluded that "the absence of fathers from the household … is associated with adverse outcomes for children in virtually all developed countries … this is generally true in terms of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills."
"No," I said to my students. "East Asians are not racially superior, and black people are not inferior. Remember, non-Confucian countries bordering East Asian countries have racially similar populations but their immigrants to the US are not acing exams like the immigrants from Confucian cultures. Can we apply this lesson about culture to African American populations? What would happen if black leaders like Al Sharpton began a push for intact families and parental support for academics?"
My students sneered. "Al Sharpton is not our leader."
They had no answers.
I thought of this class lecture many times while reading Kenny Xu's explosive new book, "An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy." Xu is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it any more. His book is a rant. Asian Americans, Xu points out, believe in the American Dream. They have intact families. They practice delayed gratification. They work hard, and parents support their children in their academics. They do not buck authority.
In spite of all this, American educational and corporate institutions often discriminate against Asian Americans, for fear of appearing "too Asian" at a time when "diversity" is a value, and "diversity" means visible African American and Hispanic faces in films, classrooms, and corporate suites. Indeed, leftist race activists have resorted to accusing Asians of cheating. So-called Asian-American "cheating" consists of working hard and doing well. The white leftists pushing diversity, Xu points out, are often members of socioeconomic elites, and they are not surrendering their place in the hierarchy for anything. Rather, they are picking and choosing which social groups beneath them in the pecking order will be tapped with the magic wand of preference. Rather than being identified as racial minorities in programs that favor racial minorities, successful Asians are damned as "white adjacent."
In place of current concepts of affirmative action, Xu recommends a renewed commitment to meritocracy, the principle that whoever is best qualified for a school slot or a job receives it, regardless of race. Xu reminds his reader that Americans care enough about excellence in sports – for heaven's sake! – that there is no call to produce an NBA team with a representational number of Asian-American players. We should care at least as much about academics and highly responsible jobs in government, industry, and health care as we care about sinking baskets. Xu warns that abandoning meritocracy results in incompetence in high places, and subsequent bad decisions about health, technology, and national policy, bad decisions that hurt all members of society.
There are many statistics in "An Inconvenient Minority." Here are some:
* In 2020, Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School for Mathematics and Science, ranked number one in the country, admitted a class that was 73% Asian. Of the 486 students accepted, 6 were black.
* In 2018, Asians made up 73% of students at Stuyvesant, a specialized high school in New York City. This is not about high income: almost 50% of specialized school students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.
* The Bronx High School of Science has produced eight Nobel Prize winners. Stuyvesant has produced four. These schools' traditional emphasis on meritocracy has national and international import.
* Poor and rich Asian students alike study an average of 13 hours per week. White students study an average of 5.5 hours per week.
* In a 2012 Pew poll, Asian Americans, at 69%, were the most likely to believe that hard work results in success, and the most likely to respect traditional family values, and to experience upward social mobility.
* In California in 1940, Asian Americans earned on average an amount comparable to the average black American. By 1980, Asian Americans were earning more than average whites and significantly more than blacks.
* The arrest rate for whites is 3.6% for blacks, 6.7%, for Asian Americans, 0.8%.
* To gain college admission, Asian-American applicants must score, on average, 140, 270, and 450 points higher on the SAT than their white, Hispanic, and black fellow applicants
* 15% of Harvard's student body comes from the top 1% of household income; 70% come from the top 20%; 43% of Harvard's white students are affiliated with Harvard alumni, faculty, or donors.
* 71% of minority Harvard students come from "well-off backgrounds." In 2004, 41% of black students at the 28 most selective campuses in America were immigrants or the children of immigrants. In other words, racial preferences at elite colleges disproportionately help economically well-off American blacks, and black immigrants, rather than members of the American black underclass.
* Black law school graduates who had received a racial preference admission to a tier one law school tend to have lower GPAs at these top schools and, because of these lower GPAs, end up earning about the same as graduates from a tier three law school, that is, the law school they might have been admitted to without any racial preferences.
* After Richard Sander's research uncovered the above facts, the University of California spent "close to a million dollars" to prevent Sander from accessing any more facts about its racial preferences and how they affected students' life trajectories, because publication of such material posed "a threat to affirmative action" and to the university's reputation. Apparently how the university's policies affected its students was not the university's concern.
* The California Institute of Technology admits students on the basis of academics, not race. Caltech's undergraduate student body is 48% Asian. Its endowment is six times smaller than MIT's, but it ranks fifth in the nation in scholarly citations per faculty member, compared to MIT's number two rank.
As we can see, above, Xu reports ample statistics to prove that Asian Americans are doing well at academics, and that academic institutions, from specialized high schools to Harvard, are erecting barriers punishing Asians for their success. Xu's clearly stated conclusions are only part of the story his book tells. Xu alludes to another, equally significant narrative. Xu never spells this parallel narrative out. In this review, I will do so.
Xu mentions discrimination Asian Americans have faced. He writes, briefly, about, for example, the internment of Japanese during World War II. Xu's sketch of anti-Asian prejudice in the US is brief and understated, perhaps suiting what Xu refers to as Asian "humility." He could have written a much more lachrymose account, one that included brutal conditions for Chinese railroad workers, Chinese immigrants assessed as "the meanest slaves on earth," laws against Chinese marrying whites, and against the importation of Chinese wives, resulting in many Chinese-American men being unable to marry anyone, and the 1871 Chinese Massacre, or mass lynching, in Los Angeles. Xu is similarly understated in his page and a half of remarks about anti-Asian violence occurring on the streets of America's cities today. Again, if Xu were tempted to play the pity card, a more detailed account of these deadly attacks, many recorded on video, would be the opportunity to do so, but Xu forgoes the opportunity to play up the suffering of his fellow Asian Americans.
Xu mentions, but does not dwell on, treatment of Asians in American film. He could have said so much more. It could be argued that American film, in spite of anti-black racism, has been much kinder to African Americans than to Asian Americans. American film has for decades attempted to address anti-black racism, see, for example, 1934's "Imitation of Life" and 1949's "Pinky." Scroll through online lists of the top American films of the 1930s and 1940s in vain to find any major American film from the 30s and 40s that addressed anti-Asian prejudice in the way that films addressed anti-black prejudice. Hattie McDaniel, in the sympathetic role of "Mammy," won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1939. The Wikipedia page of African American Academy Award winners and nominees is 24 pages long. The list of Asian winners and nominees is 17 pages long, and those 17 pages are padded with Caucasians. For example, the British actress Vivien Leigh, who happened to have been born in Darjeeling, and Armenian-American Cher are included as "Asian." It wasn't until 1957, eighteen years after McDaniels' win, that an East Asian, Miyoshi Umeki, won for an onscreen performance, as best supporting actress in "Sayonara." American films have pumped out pretty horrifying depictions of Asians, from 1915's "The Cheat," to 1919's "Broken Blossoms," to numerous Fu Manchu movies, to Mickey Rooney in 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to Long Duk Dong in 1984's "Sixteen Candles," right up to 2019's "Once Upon a time in Hollywood."
The perceptive reader will realize, given the above facts, the parallel, unspoken narrative in Xu's book. Xu insists that there is a minority population in the US that has experienced deadly persecution, highly negative stereotyping, and racist legislation, and that, indeed, is discriminated against in the present day, by powerful institutions like Harvard and Google, but that loves this country, respects the law, works hard, and achieves highly.
The conclusion a perceptive reader cannot help but draw is that the Asian American narrative threatens the leftist version of the African American narrative. Extremely powerful persons and institutions, including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, cultural superstars Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, kindergartens through elite universities using critical race theory curricula, corporations using affirmative action hiring, and entertainment media producing content all insist on a very different narrative. That power narrative asserts the following as unquestionable: the achievement gap and higher rates of violent crime among African Americans are inevitable, they are attributable exclusively to white supremacy, African Americans are powerless to change these trends, and the only solution to the achievement gap and all inequities is for whites to surrender their tangible and intangible goods to blacks. Thus the achievement gap can only be closed by white people giving up school slots to blacks, and abandoning grading and testing completely. Crime rates can be lowered only be "defunding the police."
As Kendi puts it, "The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination." An infamous internet meme, "Equality v Equity," illustrates this approach. Three black males, an adult, a child, and a toddler, are standing on crates behind a wooden fence, attempting to watch a baseball game. The toddler is too short to see over the fence. The adult man gives up his crate so that the toddler can stand on it and see the game. The person with more gives his belongings to someone who has less. That's equity. That's Kendi's "present discrimination."
This limited-good, zero-sum worldview has been applied to commodities as diverse as Hollywood films and test scores. Recently NPR film critic Eric Deggans insisted that Tom Hanks, by making well-received films about white heroes, made it harder for films about black heroes to be made. Hanks, to be "anti-racist," must "dismantle … white American heroism."
Similarly, Asians must be chastised, not lauded, for their success. Xu quotes Ice Cube's over-the-top anti-Asian racism, hate, and threats of violence as expressed in his rap "Black Korea."
"Every time I wanna go get a f------- brew
I gotta go down to the store with the two
Oriental one penny countin' mother-------…
"Look, you little Chinese mother------ …
"Mother ---- you!"
… your little chop suey ass'll be a target …
pay respect to the black fist
Or we'll burn your store right down to a crisp"
Korean families stick together, support each other, work hard, and open stores in underserved neighborhoods. For this, they must be insulted and threatened, not praised. Leftists accuse Asians of "opportunity hoarding." As if opportunity were a limited good, and as if Asians, by grabbing at the brass ring, prevent others from doing so. This is, as Xu points out, the logic and tactics of a Maoist struggle session.
Ibram X Kendi writes, "The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an 'academic-achievement gap' based on these numbers."
Asians are inconvenient because Asians throw this powerful narrative into question. In Paterson, NJ, Asian-American students, largely Muslim, attend class side-by-side with African American students. These Muslims are often recent immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. In Woke parlance, they are the "brown" half of "black and brown." They speak a different language at home than at school. Their parents still dress in saris, abayas, and shalwar kameez. They are members of a religious group for which many Americans feel great hostility and suspicion. They attend the exact same low-rated schools as black students. Even so, Asian-American students in Paterson do better than African American students in Paterson (see for example here).
Further, black females attend the exact same classrooms that black males sit in, and black females are doing better at academics than black males. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports that "Black women currently earn about two thirds of all African-American bachelor's degree awards, 70% of all master's degrees, and more than 60% of all doctorates. Black women also hold a majority of all African-American enrollments in law, medical, and dental schools." The Woke dogma of intersectionality decrees that female black students suffer from misogyny as well as white supremacy. And yet female students are outperforming males. And then there is this difficult fact: whites, on average, score less than Asians. By Kendi's own rule, that any inequality is the result of racism, white students' lower place in comparison to Asians must be explained by anti-white racism and Asian privilege. Absurd. Kendi's and others' insistence that white supremacy is the one-size-fits-all explanation for the achievement gap is transparent in its inadequacy. If Kendi had any compassion for black students at all, he would echo the many black conservatives who insist that culture must be examined.
Asian Americans, just by living their lives, prove the critical race theorists wrong. Those who have faced prejudice are not doomed. White supremacy is not the Rosetta Stone that explains everything about black people's lives. African American adults, like all other adults, are equipped with agency, that is, the ability to make choices about their lives. Some of those choices are good, and some of those choices are bad. If adults in the African American underclass were to make different choices, their children's academic and life outcomes would improve.
The late, great George Mason University economics professor, Walter E. Williams, published, in 2005, an article entitled "How Not to be Poor." "First, graduate from high school," he wrote. "Second, get married before you have children, and stay married. Third, work at any kind of job, even one that starts out paying the minimum wage. And, finally, avoid engaging in criminal behavior."
To those who insist that white supremacy prevents African Americans from escaping poverty, Williams replied, "Is it racial discrimination that stops black students from studying and completing high school? Is it racial discrimination that's responsible for the 68% illegitimacy rate among blacks? … Among black households that included a married couple, over 50% were middle class earning above $50,000, and 26% earned more than $75,000. How in the world did these black families manage not to be poor? Did America's racists cut them some slack?"
To Williams' suggestions, one might add: if you want to thrive as well as just survive, take a cue from Asian Americans. Work together as a family. Keep that nose to the grindstone, at school as well as work, delay gratification, and someday your ship will come in.
I return, in my mind, to the lecture I delivered so many times. I never answered the question I asked my students. If I were president of Harvard, would I practice race preferences? I do not believe that any racial group is superior to any other. I believe that there are as many budding Bill Gates and Nobel Prize winners in Paterson as in any other city. I know that the black kids here are deprived. I know that that deprivation is totally unfair and is the result of choices made by adults, not relatively powerless children. I know that most are growing up in fatherless households. I know that Paterson's single mothers are overwhelmed and can't give their kids a fraction of what kids need to thrive.
All the breast-beating in the world about the horrors of slavery, and all the articles like this citing statistics that show that strong families can overcome tough circumstances and mold children who advance to society's highest levels, have zero impact on Paterson kids' lives. What does have an impact on their lives? Exactly what has an impact on most of our lives. What is right in front of them: streets full of garbage, loud and violent rap broadcast, day and night, from car stereos, mothers too stressed to offer consistent love, and a popular culture full of cheap images of sex and violence. Too many of the men they interact with are standing on street corners, day in and out, smoking marijuana, drinking from bottles, and lying in their own waste.
Government programs? White guilt? There is no deficit of these "solutions" here in Paterson. Men sleep on the street across from the Salvation Army. They could sleep inside but doing so would require that they surrender drugs and weapons and many choose not to comply with those requirements. Skeletal junkies, white and black, beg and prostitute themselves steps away from treatment centers, welfare offices, and Catholic Charities. They are adults and have made their choices. The students walking past them on their way to school are what we all were once – relatively powerless children, vulnerable to the choices of adults, adults like the nearby junkies; adults like the distant president and ubiquitous race activists.
Do I want Paterson kids to go to Harvard? Yes I do. When they graduate from local high schools, are they at all prepared to benefit from being airlifted onto the Harvard campus? No, they are not. Is there any force in America right now communicating to Patersonians the practices that will prepare children in Paterson's black underclass for Harvard? If there is, I don't know what it is. And I despair.
Kenny Xu's book speaks important truths. America's Kendi-mandated flight from meritocracy is harming and will further harm America. Asian-Americans are discriminated against exactly because of their investment in the American Dream. A national return to traditional values will advance America in general and Asian Americans specifically.
But I hope and pray that we don't stop there.
I hope and pray for these ideas to be applied more widely than they are now in cities like Paterson. Yes, there are charter schools, old-fashioned parents, and other pockets of resistance to Woke. We need more. We need brave voices that will speak up for personal responsibility, delayed gratification, for stable, two-parent families to support academics, for respect for the authority of teachers, for standards, for orderly classrooms that facilitate learning, rather than the "indoor street corners" condemned by veteran Paterson teacher Lee McNulty in this video.
Let's remember who will benefit first and most from a return to traditional values. An Asian-American student rejected by Harvard who later accepted a place at a lower tier, but still respectable, university will be okay in the long run, in spite of the unfairness of race preferences that discriminated against him. Yes, Asians like Kenny Xu will benefit from a return to traditional values, but Xu's strong background will stand him in good stead in spite of the left-wing, anti-Asian, anti-meritocratic racism he has faced. Rather, those who will benefit most from any return to traditional values will be the innocent African American children who have been damaged by well-meaning but destructive policies, policies that have effectively shut them out of a full intellectual life.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.