The Complex History—and Ongoing Realities—of the “Model Minority” Stereotype
The Complex History—and Ongoing Realities—of the
“Model Minority” Stereotype
The concept of the model minority characterizes Asian Americans as smart, wealthy, and compliant. The stereotype arose in the 1950s and 1960s, promoting the idea that Asians had achieved success and overcome racism in America through assimilation—because they worked hard, were law-abiding citizens, and had become more like White folks. Nearly seventy years later, this stereotype continues to shape the way Americans address racism and our understanding of what it means to be a citizen. And it’s a damaging narrative that many scholars, historians, and Asian Americans say upholds White supremacy.
In The Color of Success, historian Ellen Wu, PhD, traces the history of Asian immigrants in America, beginning with Chinese migrant workers during the gold rush and continuing to Japanese American zoot suiters in the 1940s and through the civil rights movement. Wu wanted to unravel how Asians Americans went from being known as the “yellow peril” (a term used to describe the fear that East Asians were a threat to Westerners in the mid to late nineteenth century) to emerging as examples of the American ideal (“the model minority”). How did this shift in perspective happen, why among Asian Americans, and what do we learn from these blueprints of our past? Wu explains that stereotypes like the “model minority”—which was originally intended to benefit Asian Americans—are ultimately harmful, and this is why we need to understand and challenge the political and ideological work behind them.
Wu is currently writing her second book, on the history of affirmative action and Asian American racial politics in the United States from the 1950s and 1960s to present. “I’m interested in not just affirmative action but some of the larger issues of racial politics in our country that, fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, have clearly not been resolved,” says Wu. “Part of my hopefulness right now is that I’m seeing Asian Americans trying to do the hard work of understanding where we fit in all of this and where we’ve been complicit in reproducing anti-Blackness and how we can turn that upside down.”
A Q&A with Ellen Wu, PhD
The model minority stereotype of Asian Americans has many dimensions. In addition to caricaturing Asian Americans as smart and upwardly mobile, the stereotype also casts them as apolitical, quiet, uncomplaining—essentially embracing a don’t-rock-the-boat mindset. As “good” people of color, the model minority doesn’t get into trouble. They’re not criminals, they’re not violent protesters, they keep their heads down—and it works, supposedly.
Policymakers, social scientists, observers, and even some Asian Americans themselves hyped up these particular traits between World War II and the mid-1960s. These assumptions are still around. They position Asian Americans as what I call definitively or decidedly not Black. Political leaders, academics, journalists, and ordinary people have referred to them as a way to say, “Why can’t Black people be more like Asians?” In the 1960s, they were a useful way to dismiss or refute the claims of the Black freedom movement because they offered “evidence” that America is a land of opportunity for racial minorities. Rather than the truth, which is that America is a country built on anti-Black racism and White supremacy.
What we see in terms of Asian Americans between World War II and the 1960s is astounding. Over the course of two decades, the racial stereotypes of Asians and how they were treated basically did a complete 180. How that happened was tied to the United States’ place in the world. Many Americans can recall that during World War II, the United States fought a war to defend freedom and democracy against the Nazis and the fascists, and then, by the late ’40s, the United States began waging the global Cold War against communism. This was the period when the United States became a superpower, and historians have shown that while American leaders had big ambitions to become this global superpower and world leader, they were also very conscious of the global reputation of the United States. Specifically, they were attuned to the fact that racism made the United States look bad.
We have to give the credit here to Black folks. Black Americans never relented in fighting for freedom and justice and equality, and these efforts were ratcheted up even more beginning with World War II because many of those same folks went off to fight in the US Armed Forces. So the United States basically had a PR problem at that point. It was trying to say that it was this leader of the free world and stood for all these values, like freedom and democracy and equality, but then there was concrete evidence of racism, discrimination, segregation, and violence at home. This motivated a lot of US policymakers and liberal people of all races to think about how they were going to deal with this problem of racism. For Asian Americans specifically, this became the opening wedge to that transition of becoming a model minority.
Beginning in 1943, Congress passed the first of a series of laws that repealed immigration and naturalization exclusion laws against Asians. Asians also benefited from state and federal desegregation and civil rights efforts in housing, employment, and voting, for instance.
In 1965, the United States passed the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act. What that immigration law did was ostensibly get rid of racist criteria for selecting immigrants and shifted it to selecting immigrants based on their skillsets or family reunification. So after 1965, there was a boom of immigration of Asians to the US, and in the ’70s, refugee populations were coming from Southeast Asia.
After the ’60s and the ’70s, the Asian American population got really big. A lot of the folks that did come in after 1965 had these credentials; they were either graduate students, as my own father was, or they were professionals, like my mom, who was a nurse. A lot of them had the educational capital or ways to enter the middle class. And because of the civil rights movement, those middle-class neighborhoods and schools and professions became more open to them. So then it started to seem like it was this racial truth that Asian Americans were a model minority, because they lived in affluent areas. Their kids went to “good” schools, they had these professional jobs, and they seemed to be quiet.
In my research, what I found was that Japanese and Chinese Americans had what we might think of as spokespeople or leaders—people who were heard by folks outside of their communities. There was a specific group, for example, named the Japanese American Citizens League. It was similar to an organization like the NAACP. The leaders of this group, who were all men, really pushed this idea of patriotism and cooperating with federal authorities. These people intentionally put forward images of themselves as good Americans. It’s understandable why they did this because in the 1930s and 1940s, if you were Asian American, your life choices were restricted as a result of a long history of Asian exclusion. In the United States, we can think of Asian exclusion as a cousin to Jim Crow. It was a web of laws, practices, ideas, and attitudes that were designed to shut people of Asian ancestry out of any kind of meaningful participation in American society, including segregation in housing, employment, and schooling. A lot of people thought: If we show them and we make the case that we have strong families and we don’t get into trouble, that’ll protect us.
This idea that Japanese and Chinese were model citizens began to spread in the ’40s and ’50s. By the 1950s, the liberal media, government officials, and their sympathetic allies started to circulate stories applauding Japanese Americans for how quickly they recovered from the concentration camps. They explained that model behavior through their Confucian culture, where they’re obedient and they have these strong family values. That new recasting after World War II then became useful when policymakers and social scientists and journalists were looking and agonizing about how to solve what they called in their time the “Negro problem.”
If we fast-forward a little bit to the mid-1960s, Black people were leading the civil rights movement and trying to address and claim their freedom, dignity, equality, and justice. Policymakers were trying to figure out a solution and what to do about this growing unrest among Black people, so some of them turned to Japanese and Chinese Americans as an example. They said, well, first of all, these two groups seem to have made it. They didn’t seem to be criminals, and they didn’t seem to depend on welfare. That was the idea, so these comparisons between Asian Americans and Black Americans became much more explicit and common. They were used by both liberals and conservatives of all races. Today, it’s more of a conservative position. Just recently, on Twitter, I noticed a prominent Black conservative dredging up the stereotype once again, basically saying Asian American success shows that the problem isn’t the structures of US society, that it’s the behaviors and the individual choices that people make.
It’s a tricky question to answer because if we looked at numbers alone, they do tell us a story that sure, Asian Americans today, in 2020, have higher levels of education and household income than lots of other groups. But the specific data also reveals there’s quite a bit of poverty and other related issues. Pew Research recently found that Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial group—that among themselves, they experience the most income inequality of all races in the US.
“Asian American” as a category is huge. We’re talking about some 20 million people across many generations, and they come from different places. And so generalizing overlooks a lot of disparities. When we talk about, for instance, undocumented immigration, a lot of people don’t realize that Asian Americans make up a significant amount of the undocumented population in this country. It is a mixture of fact and fiction, and we have to look beyond the numbers to understand the history of this idea and also what kind of ideological work that it does. Part of the problem of that stereotype of the model minority is that it glosses over a lot of disagreements and diversity within the community, and that’s something that still happens today. It’s a pronouncement about an entire group of people.
The ideological work of the model minority stereotype is about discrediting or denigrating Black people’s calls for racial justice. Part of my hopefulness right now is that I’m seeing more and more Asian Americans trying to do the hard work of understanding where we fit in all of this, where we’ve been complicit in reproducing anti-Blackness, and how we can turn that upside down.
For one, it specifically means refusing to buy into the falsehood that Black people are criminals rather than fellow human beings—to refuse to buy into the good minority/bad minority distinction, in other words. Asian Americans can and should champion the Black Lives Matter movement by helping to abolish deadly policing practices and prisons everywhere. The intentional, systematic devastation of Black people and Black communities by law enforcement and mass incarceration is morally unconscionable.
One of the most striking recent examples of Asian American complicity in reproducing anti-Blackness took place in the aftermath of the police shooting of Akai Gurley, a Black man, in 2014. Tens of thousands of Asian Americans turned out to support Peter Liang, the officer who shot Gurley and was convicted and sentenced for it. Liang happened to be Chinese American. His backers claimed that Liang had been discriminated against because he was the first NYPD officer in more than ten years to be found guilty for an on-duty killing. That rationale strikes me as misguided. The real crime, of course, was that Akai Gurley lost his life under such predictable circumstances.
We must join forces with others to rebuild our society as a place for Black people to flourish in substantive and enduring ways. This will entail the redistribution of wealth and opportunity—reparations—to begin to make up for generations of resource theft. Our tax dollars need to support public schools where Black children remain segregated. More robust affirmative action policies specific to Black students and subsidized college tuition, room, and board would be other measures, alongside cash payments to individual descendants of enslaved Africans. In 1988, the federal government, belatedly, made redress payments to survivors of the World War II–era Japanese American concentration camps. So reparations aren’t unheard of in this country. As a society we need to muster the collective will and honor the call: Black Lives Matter.
I don’t know if I would call my book hopeful so much as I hope that it’s truthful. On one level, historians would probably agree with me that when we look at the past, what we study are the consequences of people’s actions. Sometimes they’re intended or unintended, but certainly history is the outcome of people making choices.
But it is hopeful because if, as a country, Americans can understand how we have ended up with these systems in our society—our political system, our education system, our economics, our prison system, policing, our arts and culture, media, you name it—the racism, the White supremacy, the anti-Blackness that infects it has been the outcome of many, many decisions that people have made. My book, and the work of historians in general, shows us that it’s up to us and that we have the power to lay the foundation for a different kind of future, a brighter future, a more just future. Learning history helps us understand these decisions and what we do and what we would need to build in order to end up with that outcome. The model minority concept exists to uphold a system of White supremacy that has anti-Black racism at its core. If we work on unraveling anti-Black racism in all forms, there will be no more use for a model minority stereotype.
Ellen Wu, PhD, is an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research, teaching, and writing interests focus on race and immigration in the United States. She is the author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.
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