MSNBC is Doing Asian Americans No Favors

How Hybrid Events Are Like Reality Television

When it comes to racial diversity among the Sunday political talk shows, MSNBC is the undisputed leader. In two studies conducted by ChangeLab (January-June 2012, and January-June 2013), MSNBC’s anchor weekend talk programs, Up with Chris Hayes/Steve Kornacki and Melissa Harris Perry included more guests of color and hosted more discussion of issues of race than all of the other networks offering similar programming combined. The difference is not just in quantity but in the depth and quality of the discourse. Now, mind you, the standard established by the major networks is set pretty low, but they do at least exceed it.

ChangeLab focused primarily on the Big Five Sunday Shows; those with the largest viewership and the longest history of framing the weekly political news cycle for the American public – Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and Fox News Sunday.

MSNBC’s entries in the weekend political talk show line up were included for the sake of comparison. The inclusion of those two shows predictably skewed the number of mentions of Asians dramatically upward. MSNBC is, after all, basically a communications organ for Democratic interests, and Democrat is, by far and away, the party of choice of Asian American voters. So, we assumed that MSNBC would be outliers when it comes to discussing issues of race.

But we were wrong, at least when it comes to Asian Americans.

In the 2012 study, the Big Five programs mentioned Asian Americans 10 times in 129 episodes aired over 26 weeks. Not a very good record. But, what’s worse, the mentions were just incidental. Asians were referenced in order to make a point about something or someone other than Asians.

From January 1- June 30, 2013, those same Big Five programs mentioned Asian Americans 13 times. 11 of those times Asians were just referenced as part of lists, with no meaningful additional information. The other two mentions are described here. You can either follow that link or take my word for it that Asians did not benefit by those references nor did the general public learn anything useful about us because of them.

But then there are those MSNBC shows.

In the six-months studied in 2012, Asian Americans were mentioned 85 times on MSNBC – 79 times on the Melissa Harris Perry Show alone. Up with Chris Hayes made up the balance.

But here’s the rub. 70 of those Melissa Harris Perry mentions were concentrated on one show. And what was said on that show is pretty well summed up by this quote by guest William Schneider,

“There’s one distinctive thing about Asian Americans as a constituency, they have not relied on politics to get ahead, as many other disadvantaged groups have done.  African Americans have faced terrible disadvantage in this country. Asian Americans certainly faced discrimination. They managed to get ahead in businesses, professions, science, popular culture.  Look at Margaret Cho, a woman of great accomplishment and great courage who has gotten ahead through her talent and her determination.  But like many Asian Americans, they have done it themselves, they haven’t had to rely on politics as much as other groups.”

In other words, Mr. Schneider characterized Asian Americans by repeating a false and damaging stereotype. That stereotype originates from highly biased, politically motivated, decades out of date propaganda campaigns mounted by Asian civil rights groups in order to deflect anti-Asian racism in the immediate post-WWII era, a period when Asian Americans were subject to widespread hatred, exclusion, violence, and political persecution, including deportation and mass imprisonment.  The pro-Asian propaganda drew the public’s attention to Asian American patriotism in the war and Asian American’s contributions to American society while purposely deflecting attention away from equally relevant aspects of life in Asian American communities, including political alienation and protest, political and economic exclusion, criminality, and delinquency.

This model minority propaganda was quickly appropriated by opponents of the black Civil Rights Movement and Black Power to promote the idea that racism is not a substantive enough obstacle to opportunity for people of color to merit programs such as affirmative action and school integration mandates, among other efforts to achieve equity. Worse, it was used to cast black people as a “problem minority,” and justify anti-black policy like the war on drugs, and the roll back of civil rights gains.

Repeating highly biased propaganda of this sort as historical fact, I don’t need to tell you, only contributes further to the promotion of this kind of “problem minority” defamation, while also framing Asian Americans as exotic others, making us vulnerable to other, less flattering forms of dehumanization. The lesson? Sometimes, silence is preferable if the alternative is racist stereotyping.

The other nine mentions of Asian Americans on the Melissa Harris Perry Show were, for the most part, merely incidental.

The six additional MSNBC mentions of Asian Americans in 2012 occurred on Up With Chris Hayes. Two were incidental while four were more substantive, and took place on a show that aired on 5/12/12.  That show featured a segment with Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and immigration reform advocate who happens to be an undocumented Filipino immigrant.

Here’s what was said in reference to Asians in that segment –

Here`s one difference between gays and immigrants and the issue of undocumented immigrants and immigration reform, is that there`s a division within the Latino and Asian community about this.

Right, that`s a very good point.

When you poll them, they don`t say immigration is their number one issue. They say economy. They say jobs, they say education. It`s not really on the map of most Asian American, you know, political –

There’s a lot of shame. And there’s a lot of fear, especially in the Asian-American community, I have to say, as somebody who’s Filipino.

The word “Filipino” is included as a mention, to give you some idea of what we mean when we say they are “talking” about us.

But that was all in 2012. What happened in 2013? Again, the lion’s share of mentions of Asian Americans on the Sunday shows occurred on MSNBC. 33 of 46 mentions of Asian Americans over those first six months of 2013 occurred on either Melissa Harris Perry or Up. That’s a more than 50% drop in the number of mentions, but at least they’re talking about us, right?

But what did we learn about Asians as a result of those references?

  • Some of us are undocumented immigrants.
  • Exclusionary immigration bans limited our ability to come to the U.S. about 60 years ago.
  • We’re the fastest growing group of immigrants in the U.S., even in some places in the South.
  • We voted in the majority for Barack Obama, in part because of perceived GOP hostility towards immigrants of color.
  • Asian women are less likely than white women to undergo breast cancer screening.
  • Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is full of funny Asian stereotypes.
  • The Asian “race” is an American invention.
  • Asian Americans are mainly only active on the issue of immigration reform in California.

All of those things are true except the last statement, that is, if you find Harold and Kumar funny. Asian Americans aren’t just activists on the issue of immigration in California. We’re active all over the country, including in places like Louisiana, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Nevada, Washington, D.C., and Illinois, among others.

It’s also worthwhile noting that Asians are, like some other immigrants, being deported from the U.S. We also face anti-Asian defamation, are being misrepresented in research that is nonetheless regularly cited by the whole spectrum of media outlets, face police brutality and hate crimes, and suffer gaps in the provision of vital public services because of language and cultural barriers.

Asian women are disproportionately affected by human trafficking. Many Asian immigrants are refugees of wars, often wars sponsored by the U.S. Other Asian immigrants come here as refugees of the U.S. dominated global economy. Their stories contradict the dominant narrative concerning America as a global leader on human rights and a beacon of freedom and economic development around the world.

And here in the U.S., Asian American ethnic groups such as the Hmong, Vietnamese, and Laotians suffer among the lowest rates of per capita income of any groups by race or ethnicity. Chinatowns in the U.S. may appear to be nothing more than quaint tourist attractions to most Americans, but they are, in fact, ghettos, where living conditions are shockingly low and concentrations of poverty are as high as they are just about anywhere in America.

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Yet, even the poorest Asian Americans in the most overcrowded Asian ghettos are more likely to experience upward social mobility than poor African Americans. That reality speaks to an aspect of anti-black racism in America about which we are mostly silent, in part because we are so silent or misinformed about Asian Americans. I suggest these stories are important, and not just for the sake of coloring up the news. These stories are important because ignoring them excludes a critical feature of the peculiar dynamics of race and racism in the U.S., and let’s us off the hook concerning our failure to address the legacy of historical racism in America.

It’s about time Asian American stories get told, and not just to benefit Asian Americans. Until they are told, our understanding of the experiences of every other racial group in America is incomplete, and  much of the story of the persistent problem of racism, both attitudinal, institutional, and structural is being excluded from public discourse to the detriment of all of us.

Are these stories not being covered because there is so much more important stuff to talk about that there just isn’t room in the line up? Maybe, but on those same MSNBC shows, in just one month, June 2013, Paula Deen’s name was said 27 times, and all because she admitted to having used the “n” word in the past. So that story about one TV cooking show host’s clumsy racism got almost as much air time as the fastest growing and most politically dynamic group by race in America.


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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.

5 replies on “MSNBC is Doing Asian Americans No Favors”

Thanks, Grace. I did see that segment and really appreciated it. You did a great job and Ms. Boggs was, as usual, terrific. The segment didn’t air during the period studied. Even in the context of the year, that segment is a bit of an outlier, kind of the exception that proves the rule. We’re trying to track what it typical rather than what is exceptional, though we’re aware those exceptions exist and will, at some point, I’m sure, want to dig deeper into those. Meanwhile, I hope people will follow your link!

[…] Improving voter turnout among Asian Americans has been a passionate mission for many within our community; these data strongly suggest that there is still a lot of work to do. Asian Americans have a long history of political involvement in this country. We can ill afford to remove ourselves from political participation today; if we do so, we give tacit permission to the rest of America to ignore us as a political force, and to continue to sweep our issues — the economy, immigration, healthcare, etc — under the rug. We in part justify the consistent over-looking of Asian Americans in discussions of the American pol…. […]

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