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On January 9, 1966, sociologist William Petersen published “Success Story: Japanese American Style” in the New York Times Magazine. Petersen asserted that by dint of their cultural resilience, Japanese Americans had saved themselves from the fate of “problem minorities.” A few months later, US News and World Report weighed in with an article about Chinese Americans entitled “Success Story of One Minority in the US” (December 26, 1966). This latter article opened with an explicit comparison between different minority groups: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own.” As with Petersen’s article, this one pointed to the importance of family values and Chinese cultural traditions, for “[s]till being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check—in order to reach America’s ‘Promised Land.’” In 1971 Newsweek published “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” (June 21), which called to task not only nonAsian minorities, but also white Americans for their failure to keep up with Asian immigrants into the United States, whose cultural traditions more closely matched those that had historically pushed Northwestern Europe into world dominance. Not for nothing did Fortune label Asian Americans a “Super Minority” (November 1986).
In the century that preceded Petersen’s article little augured the birth of the “model minority” stereotype. White supremacists routinely reviled Asians, who were seen alternatively as deviant (opium smokers and sexual predators) or as coolies (who would lower the wages of white Free Labor). In sum, as Lothrop Stoddard, the author of The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy, put it in 1920, the “obviously dangerous Oriental” had to be barred from entry into the United States because Asians posed “the greatest threat to Western Civilization and the White Race.” This view was held not only by white supremacist elites, it was also the position of the leading trade union association (the American Federation of Labor or AFL) and its leader (Samuel Gompers). In 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was defended in 1902 by Gompers in a coauthored book, Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice; American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism: Which Shall Survive? Originally published by the AFL, the book was republished a few years later by the Asiatic Exclusion League. In 1905, at its 25th Annual Convention, the AFL argued that the “American workingman” had enough to deal with “without being required to meet the enervating, killing, underselling and under-living competition of that nerveless, wantless people, the Chinese.” Such being the historical attitude toward the Chinese and Japanese, it is not a surprise that both peoples faced immense immigration restrictions after 1924 and that the latter were interned during World War II. From the birth of the American Republic to 1966, Asia’s people represented a Yellow Peril, needed for its labor, but reviled.
What changed, then, in the mid-1960s? Between 1964 and 1965, the U.S. Congress passed three central pieces of legislation. After a century-long struggle, the civil rights movement achieved partial victories with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Both laws cut down Jim Crow segregation, but neither promised the fullness of freedom demanded by the movement. In his important Report on the Black Family (1965), President Johnson’s assistant Daniel Patrick Moynihan registered the manner in which the movement digested its victory. Quoting the sociologist and Moynihan associate Nathan Glazer, the report asserted that the “demand for economic equality is now not the demand for equal opportunities for the equally qualified; it is now the demand for equality of economic results.” Rather than simply seeking equality of opportunity, the disenfranchised had begun to demand “equality of results, of outcomes.” A move in this direction threatened to undermine the hierarchy of class and the justification for its persistence in a liberal democracy. It would inevitably lead to uncomfortable questions: What makes some rich families remain rich, and why is it that the bulk of rich families are also white?
The third Congressional bill, the Immigration Act of 1965, enabled the emergence of a novel theory of persistent inequality. The U.S. Congress reversed the prohibitions against Asian immigration, and now welcomed thousands of people who had received advanced technical training in places such as India and China. The “state selection” of the 1965 Act that allowed only highly educated migrants to enter the country provoked a reconsideration of Asians on “natural selection” lines: If it was state policy that transformed the demography of Asian America, it was a stereotype of their culture that was used to account for their success. The new “model minority,” the Asians, became a useful bludgeon against the “problem minorities.” Inequalities within the Asian American community and racism faced by Asians disappeared from the frame of reference, just as the putative recalcitrance of Latinos and blacks became part of the Asian American story. In this way the myth of the “model minority” aided the perpetuation of racism in the post–civil rights era.
Asians were not the only ones represented as a “model minority.” In December 1964 Nathan Glazer published an essay in Commentary entitled “Negroes and Jews: The New Challenge to Pluralism.” Noting the “shift of Negro demands from abstract equality to group consideration, from color-blind to color-conscious,” Glazer argued that the new demands of the civil rights movement are anathema not only to American values, but also to “model minorities” like the American Jews. Long reviled by the U.S. power structure, Jews, like Asians, became acceptable as beneficiaries of the post–civil rights form of racism that lifted up the “model minorities” as a weapon against the “problem minorities.” When conflict over community schools erupted in New York City in 1967, the concept of the exemplary Jewish American was used in much the same way as notions of the Asian model minority would later be used. Black and Puerto Rican students demanded to be taught not only by “white” teachers, but also by black and Puerto Rican teachers. As it turned out the “white” teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were Jewish Americans, who in turn became pawns in a reconfiguration of Jewish liberalism that saw it shift toward neoconservatism.
In his 1964 article, Glazer argued that Jewish Americans benefit as the “model minority” because their interests “coincide with the new rational approaches to the distribution of rewards.” In other words, so long as educational institutions are equally endowed, justice can be achieved through a color-blind system based on merit. Those minorities that can do well in such a system, because of family cultures that promote educational achievement, are model. In this conception, all historical advantages and disadvantages (such as those derived from immigration policy) are ignored.
Three ideological streams work together to absolve U.S. society from the perpetuation of inequality: multiculturalism (which promotes bureaucratic diversity and claims to value all “cultures” equally), colorblindness (which promotes individual advancement through merit), and the notion of the “model minority” (which demonstrates that some cultures are superior after all, and it is for this reason that certain “races” succeed in a colorblind merit system). Together these enable the reproduction of inequality and the perpetuation of the American ideology of “fairness” and “justice.” The “model minority” myth, therefore, plays a crucial role in post–civil rights racism.
Of course, the social power of the “model minority” myth was strengthened when upwardly mobile Asians and Jews adopted its tenets to further their own advancement. As opportunities opened up, those with saleable skills and with modest amounts of capital mobilized the constellation of ideas around the myth to gain some leverage over a political economy still shaped by white supremacist cultural expectations. In other words, the myth was largely adopted by upwardly mobile sections of minority groups, who found it valuable in gaining entry into the higher rungs of the class structure. Scholars of those who are not able to ascend the ladder afford us with empirical proof of the fallacy of the model minority myth. They also demonstrate the ways in which the myth occludes the existence of working class Asians and Jews (Stacey J. Lee 1996). The myth also prevents us from fully grasping the interaction between Asian and Jewish small merchants and the African American and Latino working poor (Jennifer Lee 2002; Kim 2000; Prashad 2001).
- Brodkin, Kar 1998. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Cho, Sumi 1997. Converging Stereotypes in Racialized Sexual Harassment: Where the Model Minority Meets Suzie Wong. In Critical Race Feminism: A Reader, ed. Adrien Katherine Wing, 203–220. New York: New York University Press.
- Fong, Timothy P. The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Kim, Claire J 2000. Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lee, Jennifer. Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lee, Robert 1999. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Lee, Stacey 1996. Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Lowe, 1996. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Prashad, Vijay. Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Prashad, Vijay. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: AfroAsian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. Boston: Beacon Press.
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