Yesterday, I did an interview on Connections with Evan Lawson on NPR. The discussion focused on my recent Intercollegiate Review interview; however, other topics were addressed. Other than forgetting Sebastian Gorka’s name and a moment of inarticulateness, it was a decent performance for an extemporaneous interview, especially since I do not do them often. For the past few years, I have turned down several interview requests because I have been extremely busy.
During the interview, I defended Dr. Ben Carson against the unfair criticism he received for pointing out that poverty is partly a mindset. (See my Twitter thread on the topic.) Had Carson said that poverty is solely a state of the mind, I would have joined anti-poverty activists in their vigorous denunciations of his comment. However, what Carson said is patently accurate. In order to escape poverty, there is a wealth-building mindset that one ought to have, especially in a free-market economy. Carson, a man who grew up poor and became one of the most prominent pediatric neurosurgeons in the world, should be listened to on the topic of poverty. This does not mean that everything he says on the topic is beyond critique, but the idea of dismissing his comments with a wave of hand and heinously distorting his point is wrong.
Advancing the idea of a poverty mindset is not an attempt to dispute the existence of oppressive structures. Only someone being willfully uncharitable to Carson would suggest that is what he meant. Racism and discrimination exist. In defending Carson, I also made the point that there are older Chinese immigrants who arrive in America with nothing and work extremely hard to create opportunities for their children. (Kay Hymowitz’s piece Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers describes this very well.) Many immigrants do not subscribe to the notion that discrimination and oppression are unconquerable, which is why immigrant groups in America outperform the national average in many areas of educational and economic achievement. For highlighting this, I was told I was perpetuating the “model minority myth,” and I was also laughably accused of racism.
Let us start with racism.
How is racism promoted when one points out that both black Dr. Ben Carson and certain poor Chinese immigrants have the mindset required for the building of wealth in a free-market society? Which group did I suggest was inferior or superior because of their race? How can it be considered racist to praise the grit and determination of a certain demographic and argue that those characteristics are worthy of emulation? In a sociopolitical climate where the sitting President of the United States was rewarded with that office for calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, using the term “racist” to describe someone earnestly praising immigrants is the zenith of absurdity.
As for the model minority point, I do believe that Asian Americans are used to castigate and pillory other ethnic minority groups. I have written on the strategic use of the success of Asian-American groups as a ruse to deny white supremacy. (See my piece from three years ago addressing Bill O’Reilly’s use of Asian Americans in this way, and the way in which statistics on Nigerian Americans expose his sophistical reasoning.) However, there is a fundamental difference between using Asian Americans and their successes as a tool of white supremacy and simply pointing out that there are some objectively salubrious attitudes and behaviors that some Asian-American groups demonstrate that are worthy of emulation. Unlike white supremacists, I am capable of acknowledging the fact that many immigrant groups have these characteristics, and I praised Dr. Ben Carson for also exhibiting these characteristics. Simply repeating “the myth of the model minority” is not a refutation of the fact that there are groups that have shown the behaviors needed to socially climb in a free-market society. (For more on this, Dr. Thomas Sowell’s The Economics and Politics of Race is fantastic.)
It is also important to note that “Asian American” is an ambiguous term. As a result of my upbringing in London, whenever the term “Asian” is used, my mental picture is of South Asians. In Britain, “Asian” refers to South Asian people. In America, when “Asian” is used, it generally refers to people from East Asia. Asia is a massive continent, and Asian people are not a monolith. For instance, there is a difference between Chinese immigrants in America and Hmong immigrants in America. The latter being poorer than the former. In the same way, people use “African” in ways that conflate very different groups. Nigerian immigrants in America are not the same as Somali immigrants in America. Again, the latter are poorer than the former.
This leads to the important point of separating my sensible argument regarding successful Chinese immigrants from Andrew Sullivan’s imbecilic column that justifiably received critical feedback. Sullivan attempted to deny the reality and ferocity of anti-blackness in America by pretending that anti-Asian discrimination is analogous to it. Any sociologically and historically literate person knows that there is no group in America that has been subjected to the centuries of malefic discrimination that African Americans have suffered. Sullivan’s ignorant remarks in his column were just as offensive as the fallacious idea of Irish slaves, a myth the historian Liam Hogan has thoroughly debunked.
My argument, as outlined above, pointed out that both Dr. Ben Carson and poor Chinese immigrants to America have the same mindset. No group was reduced. No sociologically or historically unlettered claims conflating group oppression were made. Again, talking about group differences can be done without engaging in white supremacist historical revisionism. Also, one should note how I used a specific subgroup—Chinese people—in order to make my point. Sullivan sloppily lumped Asian Americans together, which is to be expected of someone mounting a cheap anti-black argument.
The shyness that many liberals show with respect to talking about differences in group behavior is embarrassingly adolescent. It also shows how cowardly the ideology of colorblindness is. Strangely, some liberals seem to think that noticing differences between groups is unavoidably Hitlerian. In reality, noticing differences is simply a part of sociological analysis. Granted, group differences, whether real or apocryphal, can be used to discriminate and harm, but that does not make noticing genuine differences inherently problematic. Suggesting that noticing group differences is wrong because white supremacists do it and use it to harm would be as absurdist as suggesting that nobody should use the Internet, inasmuch as white supremacists also use it to harm.
Certainly, there are immigrant groups—such as the groups discussed in Chua and Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package—with characteristics that are worthy of emulation by all Americans, including the poor white Americans they routinely outperform. This is not a racist statement, nor should it be automatically conflated with the views of people who conveniently use immigrant groups to advance white supremacist, discrimination-denying, and anti-black narratives.