The Model Minority is a Lever of White Supremacy

Can you imagine??

The Asian American model minority myth has been getting a lot of attention lately. Articles like this one, in Colorlines, and posts here on Race Files like this one and this one are just a few among a growing number of attempts to speak to the origins and meaning of the Asian American model minority. To me, that’s great news. Anti-black racism may be the fulcrum, or pivot point, of white supremacy, but the model minority myth is one of white supremacy’s many levers.

The articles referenced here all make the important point that the model minority is a deceit, conjured up by Asian American civil rights leaders in the middle of the last century in order to secure the citizenship of Asians in the U.S. at a time when we were considered so indelibly foreign and dangerous that the Japanese were subjected to mass incarceration, while the Chinese were targeted by McCarthy-style anti-communist witch hunts.

To promote the myth, many unflattering facts of life in the Asian ghettos of the period were suppressed. Meanwhile, Asian American accomplishments in the arts, business, and, most of all, World War II were touted as indicators of Asians’ suitability for citizenship and ability to vertically integrate themselves into the white middle class.

In other words, the Asian American model minority myth was a shield against the persecution of the Chinese and Japanese in the U.S. Sadly, that shield was quickly picked up by opponents of the Black Civil Rights and Black Power movements and used as a weapon against Black Americans who were stereotyped as a “problem minority,” mired in crime, unemployment and inter-generational poverty because of cultural deficits they would do well to overcome by making like Asians and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

But that was 60 years ago. Since then, the myth making has been taken to its bizarre yet predictable conclusion, making the claim that Asian Americans as a whole are not just rising, but have already risen, to the status of the most successful racial group in the U.S. And all those conjured up model characteristics of the Chinese and Japanese have now enveloped the much more vastly diverse Asian community of today – more than 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects who have immigrated to the U.S. for wildly diverse reasons ranging from political persecution, to famine, to economic opportunity over a period of more than 260 years.

One is left to wonder why the model minority myth has been so durable, especially when it’s tenets are so extreme and contradictory evidence is so readily available. How, for instance, can anyone who has ever ventured into the tourist magnet Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco fail to notice the poverty that runs rampant in them? And once noticed, why do they continue to defer to the idea that Asians in America are more successful than others? Certainly, the notion at least merits a “wait a minute,” to address the obvious reality that Asian Americans’ so-called success is by no means evenly distributed.

No group in the U.S. absent the English has ever been treated to such bullheaded exceptionalizing. Asians aren’t just considered more studious than others. That would suggest we just try harder. No, we also supposedly achieve more, which implies we’re smarter, at least when it comes to science and math.

And it doesn’t stop there. According to the myth we’re also less prone to criminality, more family-oriented, harder working, less egocentric, more cooperative, and less mouthy, making us ideal employees. That is, of course, as long as we don’t aspire to management. Lei Lai, an assistant professor at Tulane University, found that Asian Americans have the lowest probability of promotion to managerial positions among all non-whites, and in part for being stereotyped as having some of the same characteristics – being quiet and unassertive, among others – that lead many to call us model minorities, begging the question, is the model for the racial minorities America wants just submissive, put up or shut up robots?

Yet, in spite of the vast diversity of our experiences and the specious evidence that’s been used to describe our rise above racism, we’re regarded as a model American success story. It’s as if we’re magical.

So let’s cut through some of the fairy dust here. Asian Americans do have higher median family incomes than all others by race. However, that’s because Asian American families tend to include more incomes. Our per capita incomes still lag behind that of whites. Asian Americans also tend to be clustered in coastal cities where median incomes are higher, skewing that statistic even further. Even the supposed higher than average educational attainment level of Asians doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. When it comes to the percentage of adults without high school diplomas, the Hmong, Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians in the U.S. all exceed the national average of 19.6%, with the Hmong on the extreme end of disadvantage at 59.6%.

But oddest of all about the durability of the myth is that the category Asian American is so obviously arbitrary. Most Asians in the U.S. identify according to ethnicity and nation of origin, something anyone who knows Asian Americans cannot help but be aware of. The reality is that very little unites Asians other than the fact that non-Asians have decided we are a race, and an often hated one, and have treated us as such, whether we like it or not.

But even magical creatures like Santa Claus and monsters in children’s closets exist for a reason. So, what’s the reason Americans insist on all of this magical thinking about Asians?

Because Asian Americans, or at least the myths being made about us, are the Ragged Dicks of American race politics. Ragged Dick (eventually Richard Hunter, Esq.) is one of the more popular characters in the fables of Horatio Alger, a 19th century writer of short novels promoting hard work, thrift, and cheerfulness in the face of hardship as keys to the American dream. Written just after the Civil War, at a time when the U.S. was rapidly industrializing and many were displaced by the resulting changes in the American economy, Horatio Alger’s story of Ragged Dick, a street urchin who rises to the middle class, served as a lever to get poor whites from field (or tenement) to factory.

The Asian American model minority myth’s durability is testament to its utility in making the case that racism cannot stand in the way of those with the right work ethic and a cheerful or at least stoical attitude toward the suffering and disadvantage racism imposes on its victims. The myth provides a smokescreen for one of the most fundamental contradictions of U.S. democracy – our ideal of liberty and equal rights, and our history of slavery and enduring legacy of white supremacy – and allows our policy makers to avoid the systemic reforms that are necessary to address that contradiction.

 

 

 

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19 Responses to The Model Minority is a Lever of White Supremacy

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  1. Rashnu March 26, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

    Since when did somebody who is not white get to make the final decision about who belongs to what race? I’m a little confused by that statement. White people are the ones that teach people to identify and function according to a racial classification and decide how people will be treated. Non-white non-Asian people are taught by white people on how to identify an “Asian”. White people have to take most of the blame on that one.

    • darwinovich March 27, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

      I beg your pardon Rashnu, but it is incredibly insensitive and bigoted to proclaim “White people have to take the most of the blame on that one.” White people don’t have to take any blame for any action made by any individual white or otherwise. Just as my Japanese-American wife does not have to take any blame for the bombing and subsequent loss of innocent life at Pearl Harbor, nor would it be appropriate to mistake all Indians as a nonviolent crusaders for civil rights. And as a matter of fact, not all British have bad teeth. I would suggest you re-read the article again without YOUR racial bias in tow. Or maybe this is just the way that white man keep you down, you know, since we’re all affluent and oppressive.

      • Rashnu March 28, 2014 at 5:52 am #

        You use the exact same rhetoric that white supremacists use, darwinovich.

    • Roger Williams March 27, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

      I agree with you, Rashnu. That is exactly what white supremacy does. Many people don’t understand that when non-whites bring up white supremacy, it is not about hating on individual white people. In most cases, rational conversations on this issue are simply about an embedded system that continues to subjugate some and promote others.

      Frankly, Rashnu is right. Only white people, if they are willing, can really fix that because no amount of “respectability” from non-whites can or will change the current system white supremacy and racism. None.

      • Rashnu March 27, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

        That “embedded system” is white people intentionally operating a system of white supremacy. They are the system. You could even substitute the term “white people” in for “embedded system” and the statement is still accurate.

  2. Jew'l March 27, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    So “the Hmong, Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians in the U.S. all exceed the national average of 19.6%, with the Hmong on the extreme end of disadvantage at 59.6%.” I guess this misinformed writer got his stats from the much older generation of Hmong people suffering from PTSD and deprived of any education of kind because they were too busy during Nam defending the very liberty that allows him to write this article…. The new generation excels in all areas and thrives… Please do your research before spurting unfounded numbers!

    • Scot Nakagawa
      Scot Nakagawa April 1, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

      Actually, I got it from an Asian Americans Advancing Justice infographic recently published which was not trying to make the point that Hmong or any other group are under-educated nor that they aren’t achieving great things. It was to make the point that there are structural disadvantages, like racial segregation, that some Asian ethnic groups face, but that certain stereotypes tend to blind us to these unfair disadvantages. And, yes, I did check their sources, which are current, though all research is better at looking at what was, and not what is becoming, an unfortunate shortcoming as you point out. Research also tends to aggregate. Disaggregation often reveals the kinds of things you’re pointing out, so thanks for doing that.

      • C (@jaunehana) April 5, 2014 at 7:55 am #

        I wrote a response but perhaps your website has a problem and the response didn’t go through. I apologize if there are multiple responses.

        I think you two should come hang out with us. I laugh at the idea that MY generation of Hmong excel and thrives in all areas. Not at you personally, Jew’l, but at the assumption. This is exactly the kind of “model minority” stereotype that neglect the problems in my community. The stats do not lie even though the stats do include data from those who had no chance at an American education. Comparing people like the Hmong whose American history date back only 40 years to those such as the Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese whose American history date back generations if not more than a hundred years. Many of us grew up having to fill in the bubble that say “undeclared education” or “parents did not finish more than high school” when asked about our parents’ education, because our parents have no educational background.

        I was disappointed upon seeing the stats in the Asian Americans Advancing Justice data but I understand how important it is to measure the whole community even those who never had an education. This is so we can look at our community and plan for progress. The stats compared those like the Hmong, Laotians, and Cambodians who came here after the Indochina mess, to those such as the Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, and Japanese who came generations before (and if they came later, they came from countries with better education institutions). The Stats clearly show that we are not all the same, thus debunk the model minority myth.

        However, don’t assume that just because you see a few high achievers and a few success stories out of my community’s 40 years in America, that we are doing very well. That mentality only hurt us more than help us; it only push us back into the model minority stereotype. I agree with Scot that “t there are structural disadvantages, like racial segregation, that some Asian ethnic groups face, but that certain stereotypes tend to blind us to these unfair disadvantages.” My community is not excelling and thriving in all areas. Southeast Asians in America are like the minority of the minorities in the AAPI realm. Others like Jew’l, please come hang out with us before spurting assumptions.

  3. skg March 27, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    really? it was Asian Americans who coined the term?

    “The articles referenced here all make the important point that the model minority is a deceit, conjured up by Asian American civil rights leaders in the middle of the last century in order to secure the citizenship of Asians in the U.S. at a time when we were considered so indelibly foreign and dangerous that the Japanese were subjected to mass incarceration, while the Chinese were targeted by McCarthy-style anti-communist witch hunts.”

    • Scot Nakagawa
      Scot Nakagawa April 1, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

      I don’t think Asian Americans coined the term. I think the term was coined by non-Asians in the media, though that’s just based on where I saw it first. But the idea of Asian Americans as less prone to crime and delinquency, especially hard working and patriotic, etc., originated with and then was misappropriated and amplified by non-Asians for a variety of reasons, not least of which was to promote tough on crime policies that targeted black communities.

  4. p duggie March 28, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    “How, for instance, can anyone who has ever ventured into the tourist magnet Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco fail to notice the poverty that runs rampant in them? ”

    They notice other things though, like a relative lack of crime or feeling of ‘safety’ (for whatever reason) that feeds the relative stereotype

  5. stachio March 31, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    there’s some misinformation in this article regarding the creation of the model minority myth. you totally erase the ways it was promoted and institutionalized by a white-dominant white supremacist system, including through publications such as new york times and life magazine where asian voices were completely shut out. you overestimate how much asian americans get to decide our public perception, especially during the earlier decades. maybe some asian american civil rights leaders did help perpetuate that myth, but only because they were handpicked to have a platform by a white supremacist system where all access is controlled. i really wonder why you framed it that way.

    • Scot Nakagawa
      Scot Nakagawa April 1, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

      Actually, I think it did say that Asian American civil rights activists promoted the myth originally as a shield against exclusion and persecution, but that it was then coopted, basically misappropriated, by opponents to black civil rights and black power in order to make the case that blacks were/are a problem minority. I’m aware of the role that white racists and race sensationalists in the media played in taking they myth from something mainly contested within the Asian American community where there was a lot of resistance to it, and popular outside the community primarily among race liberals and making it into a lever or anti-black racism. A number of posts on this site actually address that, including at least one of those linked in this article. But, it’s a fact worth putting an exclamation point on and I appreciate your doing just that. Really appreciate you reading the article and taking the time to comment.

  6. cheeky April 23, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Here’s a really good article about the concept of the “model minority” here:

    http://racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=310:model02a&catid=64:asian-and-pacific-americans&Itemid=235

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