It is no secret that racism is a problem in America. Unfortunately, it seems that some people are still in denial about its existence or its impact.
One such person is H. L. Dalton, who recently penned an article entitled “Horatio Alger.” In this piece, Dalton argues that the success of African Americans is due to their own hard work and determination, and not to any form of systemic racism.
This argument is flawed for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the fact that many African Americans have been held back by racism throughout their lives. Second, it assumes that all African Americans have the same opportunities to succeed, which is simply not true. And third, it fails to acknowledge the role that privilege plays in success.
Yes, hard work and determination are important factors in achieving success. But they are not the only factors. To pretend that they are is to ignore the reality of racism in America.
The model minority myth was created to stop the discrimination against Chinese and Japanese Americans. However, people began using it as a way to argue that Black Americans were inferior, and that is why they suffer from racism today. This false stereotype conveniently ignored all of the structural disadvantages that Black Americans face.
The model minority myth is also used to argue that affirmative action and other race-based programs are unnecessary and even counterproductive because, as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) put it in a 1965 report on “The Negro Family,” these programs foster a “tangle of pathologies” by promoting dependency and discouraging self-help and initiative.
Of course, the reality is that Asians are not a monolithic group, and there are significant socio-economic disparities within the Asian American community. Moreover, Asians have been in the U.S. for much longer than many people realize, and they too have faced discrimination and racism.
But the model minority myth persists because it is useful to those who seek to maintain the status quo. It is a way of divides and conquer, of pitting one group against another. It is a way of saying, “Look at those Asians. They’ve made it. Why can’t you?”
The model minority myth is harmful because it reinforces false and damaging stereotypes about both Asians and African Americans. It is time for us to dispel this myth once and for all.
That was 60 years ago, though. The mythmaking has gone on for far too long, culminating in the assertion that Asian Americans as a whole have already achieved the position of most successful immigrant group in America.
This claim is most often made by those who wish to deny the existence of racism, or to minimize its effects. They will point to the high rates of educational attainment and income among Asian Americans as proof that anyone can make it in America if they just work hard enough.
But what these people fail to mention is that not all Asian Americans are doing equally well. In fact, there is a large achievement gap between different groups of Asian Americans. For example, Chinese American students have higher test scores than Filipino American students, who have higher test scores than Vietnamese American students. And all three groups have higher test scores than African American and Latino students.
What this suggests is that race still matters in America, even for those who are considered to be part of the model minority. The success of some Asian Americans does not negate the existence of racism or the experience of discrimination by those who are not doing as well.
So when we hear the Horatio Alger myth being trotted out yet again, we should remember that it is nothing more than a myth. It is based on a false understanding of history and a willful blindness to the reality of racism in America today.
Ragged Dick, or Richard Hunter Esquire eventually, is one of the more popular characters in the fables told by Horatio Alger. He was a 19th century writer who created short novels that promotedideals such as hard work and thriftiness despite difficult times. This served as motivation for poor whites to get from rural areas into cities to find work in factories when America began industrializing after the Civil War.
The success of Alger’s novels, particularly Ragged Dick, has much to do with their ability to tap into a very powerful American myth: that of the self-made man. This is the idea that anyone, no matter their circumstances of birth, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves through hard work and determination. It’s a Horatio Alger story.
But there’s a problem with this myth, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his 2014 article “Horatio Alger’s fraud.” The self-made man is a white man. And while Alger’s novels were clearly intended to be inspirational for all Americans, they were also very much a product of their time and place, which was Reconstruction-era America, a time when white supremacy was being codified into law.
In his article, Coates argues that Horatio Alger’s novels are “fraudulent” not because they promote hard work (which they do) but because they omit the fact that for black Americans, the deck is stacked against them from the start. They are born into a system where they are considered 3/5 of a person, where they can be bought and sold like property, where they can be lynched with impunity. In short, they are born into a system of racism that is baked into the very foundation of our country.
And so, while Horatio Alger’s novels may be inspiring for white Americans, they are little more than a fairy tale for black Americans. As Coates so eloquently puts it, “The self-made man is a lie.”
The model minority myth’s endurance testifies to its usefulness in demonstrating that racism can’t stand in the way of those with the right work ethic and a pleasant or at least stoical attitude toward suffering and disadvantage.
The story of Horatio Alger, who rose from being a poor boy on the streets of New York to become a successful businessman and writer, is the classic rags-to-riches tale that has been used to prop up the myth.
But Horatio Alger was not real. He was a figment of the imagination of his namesake, nineteenth-century writer Horatio Alger Jr., who penned more than 100 stories about young men making their way in the world through hard work and pluck. The Horatio Alger myth has been repeatedly debunked, most recently by William Deresiewicz in an essay in The Atlantic.
Deresiewicz points out that while there have always been poor people who have managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they have always been a tiny minority. The vast majority of poor people have stayed poor, not because of any personal failing on their part, but because of the structural barriers to upward mobility that have always existed in American society.
Racism is one of those structural barriers. While it is true that some African Americans have been able to overcome racism and achieve success, they are the exception, not the rule. For every Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey, there are millions of African Americans who continue to experience the daily grind of racism in its many forms: job discrimination, housing discrimination, unequal access to education and health care, police brutality, and mass incarceration.