Deeper Than Words: Donald Sterling’s Racism and the Model Minority Myth


By now much virtual ink has been spilled about the racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. I’m not going to draw any more attention to that. Instead, I want to focus on a pattern of racial discrimination lawsuits against Sterling, and on the complex and critical role that Asian Americans play in battles over race.

More disturbing and worthy of bigger news than Sterling’s verbal faux pas are the civil rights lawsuits that his real estate business has faced. Sterling is best known for owning the Clippers, but his wealth comes from real estate investments he made starting in the 1960s, in California’s depressed housing market. According to this detailed profile in ESPN, Sterling bought scores of apartment buildings between Beverly Hills and the Pacific Coast, and held onto them as the housing market boomed.

At the same time that Sterling was buying up real estate, California was embroiled in a political battle over race and housing. In 1963, the state passed the Rumford Act, banning racial discrimination in public housing in response to widespread discrimination. A year later, Californians voted 2:1 for Proposition 14, a ballot measure to repeal the Act. The California Supreme Court would later declare this unconstitutional and reinstate Rumford, but suffice it to say that the political history of race and real estate in California means that Sterling’s rise to riches was the result of his whiteness. Indeed, the California Real Estate Association, made up of white property owners like Sterling himself, launched Proposition 14, seeking to protect their investments against the declining market values that they feared black neighbors would bring.

So it’s not surprising that someone who made his wealth from a system in which white landowners profited from racial exclusion might later engage in housing discrimination. The charges against Sterling’s real estate business have included refusing to rent to black and Latino tenants, but also preferring Korean American tenants. In 2003, the Housing Rights Center filed a lawsuit against Sterling with 19 tenants. It “accused Sterling of once stating his preference not to rent to Latinos because ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.’ [It] also accused him of saying ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.’” In comparison, an employee at one of Sterling’s properties reported him saying, “I like Korean employees and I like Korean tenants.” Another employee heard him say, “I don’t have to spend any more money on [Koreans], they will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent.”

The case was settled in 2005, confidentially, for an undisclosed amount described by the judge as “one of the largest ever obtained in this type of case.” But judging from Sterling’s current net worth of $1.9 billion, it wasn’t large enough to shut down his profit-making ability.

A recent Slate article explored Sterling’s bizarre fascination for Koreans. It rightly chalks up the exception to his animus toward non-whites to the Asian American model minority myth:

At a basic level, he was buying into the myth of the “model minority”: the perception that Asian-Americans, compared with other nonwhite minorities, are innately intelligent and well-behaved… This is the flip side of a deeply held, racist worldview: Alongside the ‘undesirable’, vermin-attracting minority groups, there is another group that does everything right. Why did Donald Sterling idealize Koreans? Because, in his view, they did whatever Donald Sterling wanted them to do, and they did it without complaint.

The authors of this piece argue that the black-white binary is insufficient for understanding the model minority dynamics at play in Sterling’s racism. I disagree. The model minority myth was constructed to reinforce the black-white binary. For U.S. officials, incentives for creating the myth included gaining moral legitimacy for world leadership by showing racial tolerance, while also marginalizing black political protest. For Asian Americans, previously excluded from U.S. citizenship and immigration, there were real material benefits. Japanese Americans, who had recently been interned during World War II, actively participated in transforming Asians from despised Orientals into model citizens. And they did so by explicitly playing into anti-blackness.

So the fact that the Slate writers found no public complaints against Sterling by Asian American groups or individuals should not shock us, nor should the complicity of Sterling’s Korean-born guards in discriminating against non-Asian people of color. This is how the model minority myth works, and has always worked. It maintains systems of racialized advantage and disadvantage by rewarding assimilation to whiteness and justifying the criminalization of blackness. There have always been Asian Americans who have been complicit, and those who have resisted.

Notably, the exception to Sterling’s Asian American exception was his post-9/11 profiling of those believed to be, in the words of his staff, “foreign, I mean as Muslim, or, you know…” But this, too, is not surprising. The “yellow peril” – the idea of Asians as a foreign threat – is ever present as the model minority’s reverse. Not all Asians have the same access to model minority benefits, like white approval, upward mobility, and freedom from criminalization. Asians who commit crimes, who have disabilities, who are LGBT, or who come from nations with which the U.S. is at war, have limited access to these benefits.

The Sterling case also illuminates the politics of gender and sexuality built into the model minority myth. As the ESPN article explains, “In 2003 he had 74 white employees, four Latinos, zero blacks and 30 Asians, 26 of them women.” Sterling has faced at least two lawsuits for sexual harassment. In one, a female employee testified: “He would tell me that I needed to learn the ‘Asian way’ from his younger girls because they knew how to please him… If I made a mistake, I needed to stand at my desk and bow my head and say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Sterling. I’m sorry I disappointed you. I’ll try to do better.'”

The model minority demands conformity to specific gender roles required for maintaining the logic of straight, white, male domination. The idea of Asian female submissiveness is part of what makes the myth so potent in the white male imagination, by producing a sexually available, exotic, obedient female other who is definitively not black. The counterpart of course is the emasculated Asian male. Together, these ideas support the model minority profile – compliant, non-threatening, and not black.

Asian American political identity emerged during the radical social movements of the 1960s, taking inspiration from the Black Panther Party. This, too, shouldn’t surprise us, since Asians also faced racial discrimination and violence, including Alien Land Laws that barred them from owning land until 1952. The Asian American movement made important gains, including the fight for ethnic studies, alongside black-led racial justice struggles. Blackness has always been a part of Asian American racialization and political identity, and vice-versa.

As Asian Americans, how we organize for our rights matters. The model minority myth creates real incentives for remaining silent in the face of anti-black racism, but this obscures the ways that we have benefited from black liberation struggles, and how our struggles intersect. Complicity also costs us in political terms, by bartering away real solidarity on issues that matter to us, for shaky stakes in an unjust racial system of winners and losers. Beyond the issue of housing segregation, we are seeing this now in the fight over affirmative action. Conservatives are counting on us to be on the wrong side of the color line, and we should prove them wrong.


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By Soya Jung

Soya has been active in the progressive movement for over 30 years. During the 1990s she worked as a reporter at the International Examiner, communications and policy staff for the WA State House Democratic Caucus, and executive director of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. She was the founding chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in 1996 to restore food and cash assistance for low-income immigrants and refugees in Washington State. During the 2000s she worked at the Social Justice Fund, a public foundation supporting progressive organizations in the Northwest, and consulted for various institutions like the Western States Center, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Nonprofit Assistance Center, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

At ChangeLab Soya has authored two research reports: "Left or Right of the Color Line: Asian Americans and the Racial Justice Movement" and "The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think", and co-authored the Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. She has convened numerous public events uniting scholars with social movement activists to explore race, gender, war/empire, and Asian American identity. Her writing has been published in Othering & Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, and cited in places like the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ColorLines, and The Guardian.

6 replies on “Deeper Than Words: Donald Sterling’s Racism and the Model Minority Myth”

I enjoyed reading this.

I’m a half black half white male. Though I’m more focused on the black diaspora the social issues of other communities hurt me just as much.

While I can’t speak for Asians (because I’m not Asian) I can only talk about what I see (please correct me if you feel I’m out of line whit my opinions)

I think the reasons most Asians do not speak up as much and fight the model minority myth is because the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

My advice is that if you want people to respect your community then you will have to fight for it. You have to make people HATE you. It’s the price you pay to be seen as a community that deserves respect and recognition. Part of the reason why black people are given such negative stereotypes is because we do not back down. That is how we went from slaves to the second most represented group in the media, whom everyone is afraid to offend :-p . Yes people hate us, but that is the price that we paid to be heard…and we are still fighting to this day.

While I love Asians and deeply respect them (I never personally had a racist encounter with one, as a matter of fact, I’m ashamed to admit, I have seen black people treat Asians poorly for no reason which makes me sad) I do have this one thing to say about the Asian community. A lot of times I see Asian activist jump on the backs of black suffrage to further there own cause and back out when things get tough, leaving the black community to take the heat. If the Asian community desires respect you cannot continue to do this. You need to stand independent from black people, not all the time mind you, we need each other, but enough where your own voices are heard and people recognize you as a unique culture that has it’s own challenges and gifts to offer and enrich America. It is only then that the model minority myth will be broken and America will see you as you truly are.

Sorry if I stepped out of line when saying this, again, I respect Asians and all they have accomplished

Asians rock 😉

Well said,brother man—I also want to say that both black and Asian folks rock and this site rocks as well!

To the author: Liked the article–a lot of what you said about the minority myth is on point–people need to read this—one thing I noticed is that this stereotype persists about Asians, and yet white folks in particular always seem to completely ignore the Asians who don’t fit into the MM stereotype–like the ones involved in organized crime or any Asian-Americans that aren’t middle-class and college bound. Here’s an article that’s a couple of years old, but it’s notable for featuring two young Asian-Americans whose lives and struggles don’t fit the model minority myth either:

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