Acting White

Eugene Volokh comments that
many of the leading promoters of racial identity politics in the
U.S. have begun to lump Asians in with white people, but declines to
attempt an interpretation. Actually this development is very easy to
understand. All you need to break the code is to know that “white” =

Asians tend to be perceived as “white” not
because they have white skin but because they behave as white people
are expected to behave — they pursue prosperity and value education,
and seek to blend into the U.S.’s broad middle class rather than
creating a defiant, adversarial ghetto or barrio culture. Compare the
epithet “acting white”, used among urban blacks to sneer at kids with
black skin who work at being good students or holding down regular

This is nothing new. Historically, “whiteness” has never been a
purely racial category. As late as the turn of the 20th century,
Irish immigrants in the U.S. were sometimes separated from “whites” in
speech and writing. Later, Eastern Europeans and Italians had to
assimilate to U.S. cultural norms before being considered as “white”
as the English, Germans, and Irish who had preceded them. Today,
prosperous Asians have edged over that border. In our big cities,
Chinese New Year is headed the way of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade,
becoming as American as apple pie.

So why aren’t black people white too? The answer, I suggest, has
very little to do with race and a lot to do with class —
specifically, the persistence of the black urban underclass. Not just
as a population but as a culture that remains mired in high crime,
high rates of single motherhood, high unemployment, and all the other
symptoms of high dependency on government largesse. The “Great
Society” programs of the 1960s and the race-hustling identity politics
that followed stalled out the assimilation process that turned Irish,
Italians, and (recently) Asians into whites.

Try to imagine a Korean equivalent of gangsta rap. Or a bunch of
Vietnamese high-school students taunting one of their own for “acting
white”. Or Chinese kids fixating exclusively on Chinese adults as
role models. These things don’t happen. And that’s why Asians are

UPDATE: Several Asians have written to tell me that I was doing OK
until the last paragraph. There are anti-assimilationists among Asian
immigrants, as it turns out; there is, in fact, even Korean gangsta
music. However, my sources agree that these phenomena don’t persist
among American-born Asians. I think it’s also significant that Asian
anti-assimilationism is not a public phenomenon — it’s
visible to other Asians but there are no movies glorifying it nor
political organizations trading on it.

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