Entry from June 12, 2008

An account in The New York Times the other day told of a report by New York University, the College Board and selected educators of Asian descent that “pokes holes in stereotypes about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.” Everybody knows that stereotypes are bad, of course, but this is one that some might mistakenly have supposed to be a good stereotype — namely that Asians do way better educationally than members of other ethnic groups:

“Certainly there’s a lot of Asians doing well, at the top of the curve, and that’s a point of pride, but there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve, and we wanted to draw attention to that,” said Robert T. Teranishi, the N.Y.U. education professor who wrote the report, “Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight.”

Does it seem just a little suspicious to you that these educators should be at such pains to insist that Asian-Americans are “diverse” not only ethnically (since “the federally defined categories of Asian-American and Pacific Islander included dozens of groups, each with its own language and culture, as varied as the Hmong, Samoans, Bengalis and Sri Lankans”) but also, well, intellectually? In other words, in its broad, inclusive sense, the resident Asian population includes a lot of thickoes as well as the ones who are getting into medical school ahead of thee and me.

Does that make you feel better now? True, the report acknowledges that Asians earned 32 per cent of the doctorates granted by American universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics while making up only five per cent of the population, but four-fifths of those degrees went to foreign students — who of course will all go straight back home and decline all opportunities to become Asian-American themselves. Meanwhile, the Times neglects to mention that the remaining fifth still translates into numbers well above, proportionally, their numbers in the population. Not that anyone ought to care about that!

I thought at first that this study was a pre-emptive attempt to defuse what with the best will in the world would have to be described as a pretty feeble backlash against Asian success — the so-far pretty much non-looming spectre of “the yellow peril” of our grandfathers. But it was only when I got to the end of the Times’s report that I realized what it was really about.

The report quotes the opening to W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic “The Souls of Black Folk” — “How does it feel to be a problem?” — and says that for Asian-Americans, seen as the “good minority that seeks advancement through quiet diligence in study and work and by not making waves,” the question is, “How does it feel to be a solution?”

Except, of course, that the solution creates a new problem, which is that it embarrasses the less diligent and so, according to the reporter for the Times, “diverts attention from systemic failings of K-to-12 schools, shifting responsibility for educational success to individual students.” Far be it from me to wish to ignore “systemic failings” of K-to-12 or any other schools, but it has come to something when the educational establishment regards evidence that those failings can be overcome by individual students taking responsibility for their educational success as a dangerous stereotype in need of having holes poked in it.


And in the lowering the bar of political astuteness department, in the same day’s Times  Simon Romero applauds the dictator of Venezuela in an article headlined: “Chávez Goes Over the Line, and Realizes It.” Having been caught giving aid and encouragement to the Marxist insurgency in neighboring Colombia, Hugo Chávez is now saying that such aid and encouragement are inappropriate. This earns him plaudits for being “astute enough to know when his policies do not find enough support” — as he also did when his recently-proposed overhaul of the Venezuelan intelligence services produced a public uproar and had to be withdrawn.

“Chávez has incredible political instincts,” said Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan historian at the University of Michigan. “He has shown to have had, with few exceptions, the pulse of the country, to read its changing political mood better than anyone else.”

It seems to me that “incredible political instincts” are hardly required to recognize a blunder of this magnitude and might be more plausibly attributed to someone who had sense enough not have tried to set up a police state in the first place. But I suspect that what’s really behind this report is a desire to single out for praise any politician, anywhere in the world, who abruptly changes course for any reason as a way of sub-textually furthering the paper’s on-going and increasingly ill-judged criticism of the Bush administration for not doing so.

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