Asians are the Wedge

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean –

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

7 replies on “Asians are the Wedge”

Thanks for your helpful analysis, Scot! The segment was really unfortunate. I found myself wondering why MHP would allow a white pundit to ‘represent’ POC voices without challenging him to show some humility. I’m usually a big fan of MHP, and hope that she and her staff can revisit this from a more informed perspective.

good points. missed this episode, but surprised mhp let this myth slide. even if it has popular traction, it’s been steadily debunked in academic circles mhp frequents. not only does it drive a wedge between asian-american communities and others of color, but it also falsely posits that asian-american communities are a monolith of experiences and minimizes (or outright ignores) the very real asian-american civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s, including asian student group protests and notable figures like yuri kochiyama.

To be fair, I think she tried. The way it played was also pretty subtle. My sense is that unless one actively addresses it when it is suggested, most folks will bite. It is one of the most frequently asked questions of me re: this blog – what about Asians and why do we function as white. Thanks for the comment. I want to post about Kochiyama. This is a good reminder.

very true, about people automatically “going there” because the belief is so dominant in popular culture. forgot to mention, asian-americans in pre-1960s civil rights struggles, particularly in court cases of the 1920s regarding race and exclusion: takao ozawa, bhagat thind, martha lum, etc.

Re: “… model minority myth is a lie.”
I think that’s a double negative.

Maybe should be:
“…model minority stereotype is a lie.”
“…model minority stereotype is trumped up.”
“…model minority stereotype is whack.”
“…model minority statistics don’t tell the whole truth.”
“…there is no such thing as a model minority”


if anything, it should be ‘the notion/idea of the model minority is a lie.’ but even that is almost as limiting as the use of the word ‘stereotype,’ since when we specifically use MMM there are so many layers – the history, the impact on individuals/the community, the heterogeneity it conceals+our need for disaggregation of data, the links to mental health issues and high rates of suicide, the need to unpack the statistics, the relation (as the author mentioned) of the MMM to other communities of color as a way of dividing/conquering, ETC, ETC.

anyways, let’s not get caught up in semantics. every good (clearly this is a joke) asian americanist can’t help but automatically add myth whenever the phrase ‘model minority’ comes out of our mouth. i’ve totally accidentally said that exact same sentence in workshops, rants, speaking at events, etc. it’s pretty instinctual at this point. i think i even did it yesterday. it happens. chill.

Comments are closed.