The Model Minority Myth: The Construction of a Racial Order
Today, many Americans believe their current society to be ‘post-racial,’ or one that no longer discriminates based on race or ethnicity. This ideal is not only preferable but propagated by public and political discourse, from mainstream media to school curricula fatally omitting the intricacies of race politics critical for reckoning with the circumstances of today. Although the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s undeniably made tremendous gains toward equality in both policy and public opinion, it is all too evident that the social significance of race in America has been all but repudiated. The model minority myth, perhaps the most recently constructed and subconsciously accepted racial script, reveals the surreptitious evolution of racialization beneath the gaze of public scrutiny.
Liberalism on the Rise (c. 1930-1950)
In the 1940s, U.S. leaders’ and policymakers’ postwar discourse avowing American democracy in the name of anticommunism heralded the nationwide movement of racial liberalism, a continuation of 1930s New Deal economic liberalism which saw African Americans and labor activists gain growing acceptance into the Democratic coalition (Schickler, 2010). Racial liberalism further grew as a political refutation of Soviet Union and other international accusations of the American hypocrisy of racism under the “American Creed” of equality. Open practices of racism became increasingly incompatible with and vilified under the tenets of American democracy. Community leaders and policymakers publicly reconstructed racism as an ultimate personal evil, rather than a largely systemic issue allegedly absent from a post-racial, “color-blind” society. On Independence Day in 1955, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron (pictured far right) declared a “battle” against “those in our midst who have been nurtured on the myths of the superior and inferior races” (Hosang, 2010). In so doing, the U.S. government avouched its altruism and racial innocence, problematizing only the disastrous effects of racism rather than its sources.
Japanese Internment and Reintegration
Without accountability, the rise of racial liberalism and white Americans’ proclamations of loathing for racial discrimination left unanswered people of color’s continued contention with racial segregation in education, housing discrimination, physical violence, disenfranchisement, underemployment, systemic poverty and Eugenicist publications all too prevalent throughout the 1940s. Among the worst human rights violations during this period was the detainment of over 110,000 Japanese Americans (two thirds of whom were citizens) forcefully held in internment camps by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Prior to Mayor Bowron’s declaration of the “battle” against racism, he publicly stated in 1943 his hope that “some legal method may be worked out to deprive the native-born Japanese of citizenship,” pronouncing them “a race apart” (Hosang, 2010).
The government’s post-internment relocation plans for Japanese Americans were designed to quietly integrate Japanese Americans into mainstream, middle-class society. However, rather than eliminate ethnic difference, the process of resettlement further illuminated racial lines. Deviant behavior conflated with “blackness,” such as the “zoot suits” that local law enforcement associated with drug use and gang activity of Black and Latin Americans, comprised the opposition against which the newly emerging status of Japanese Americans was elucidated. In order to enact its vision of full assimilation, the WRA forced on Japanese Americans orthodoxy such as overt patriotism, prescriptive gender roles and heteronormativity through persistent evaluations of their livelihoods, national loyalties, and co-ethnic ties. Officials regularly reminded Japanese Americans that any “delinquency” would reflect poorly on the resettlement of all Japanese Americans, each burdened with a “responsibility to serve as an ‘ambassador’” of their ethnic group (Wu, 2013). Denied individual agency and other guaranteed protections of citizenship, Japanese Americans’ acquiescence to assimilate set the stage for the non-delinquency and model minority tropes that emerged in the following decades.
Discrimination, disenfranchisement, and pressures to assimilate also affected other ethnic Asian groups navigating the divisive Black-white binary. Higher levels of postwar juvenile delinquency prompted Chinese Americans to petition their right to federal funding due them as newly naturalized American citizens. Unfortunately, these unmet communal needs revealed the stark disparity between legal status and inclusion in the United States, necessitating the Chinese American community to prove its own “fitness” for citizenship. Despite their citizenship status, white community leaders and U.S. policymakers continued to propagate the racialized “otherness” of Chinese ancestry. Conferences held by thought leaders and social workers openly debated the link between Chinese delinquency and a loss of “old Chinese culture” and church influence. Some missionaries and teachers tried to neutralize the anti-immigrant sentiment by insisting that their Chinese students were especially intelligent, even preferable to white students.
Chinese Americans soon realized the need to “rewrite their dissimilarity from stigma to virtue” in order to prove themselves deserving of full civic membership (Wu, 2013). This early conflation between good behavior and citizenship shaped the non-delinquency trope that proved central to Chinese Americans’ negotiations for equal social standing throughout the 1950s. Elite and conservative Chinatown leaders also propagated the non-delinquency trope as well, insisting on Chinese assimilability through traditional culture grounded in filial piety, virtue, and normative family values that aligned perfectly with the anticommunist U.S. ideal of the “nuclear family” as the center of morality and democracy. During the racial liberalism movement, playing into the evolving non-delinquency trope offered Chinese Americans a chance to improve their standing in U.S. society by assimilating into constructed American ideals while relieving the U.S. government of the stigma of accountability for perpetual racial division.
Non-delinquency rhetoric was substantiated by theories and misleading evidence; for example, some publications praised the exceptionally low divorce rates in Chinese communities, despite the prevalence of arranged marriages. Others proclaimed the low use of federal welfare by the Chinese, despite their racial ineligibility as non-citizen aliens before the 1950s, as well as a median income higher than that of whites despite more working family members and underrepresentation in certain fields of work. Community leaders and media outlets continued to circulate high-profile appraisal on the success and assimilability of Chinese Americans based on cultural and family tradition grounded in virtue and discipline. The resultant “pigeonholing” of an entire ethnic group into a predictable pattern of culture and behavior would soon substantiate the “model minority myth”—the positing of Asian Americans as a problem-free, racial “other” as proof of America’s racial progress.
The Cold War Period and the Civil Rights Movement (c. 1950-1970)
During the Cold War period of the 1950s, the U.S. government relied on its racially democratic ideals to maintain legitimacy as a global force tasked with containing communism. The emerging “model minority” stereotypes of docile, assimilating Asian ethnic groups legitimized the U.S. government’s reliance on personal responsibility as the sole metric of success in a “color-blind” society, simultaneously delegitimizing people of color’s contentions against withstanding inequality. Additionally, an idealistic image of complete “melting pot” assimilation into American society successfully disguised continued abuse under the guise of “national security,” such as the threat of authorized deportation of Chinese American “communist subversives” following the 1949 Communist Revolution in China. Like Japanese Americans during World War II, Chinese Americans were also forced into submission in ways their white counterparts were not: under threat of unconstitutional detainment and deportation. Ultimately, despite the pervasive narrative of assimilation, full political participation in society under a shared American identity cannot be fully realized so long as the disparity remains “between the continuing reproduction of racial difference and the process of ethnic assimilation (Lee, 2010).”
As the 1960s gave rise to the Freedom Rides and the myriad other forms of civilian demonstrations that constituted the Civil Rights Movement, government officials continued to mold the model minority myth to fit the necessary emphasis on ethnic assimilation and the absence of institutional inequality based on race. Particularly, the 1960s saw a drastic increase in culture-based theories and empirical evidence used to substantiate allegedly more objective, and seemingly subtler, racial scripts. While perpetuating an exaggerated representation of Asian American success, this rhetoric delegitimized the struggles of other ethnic minorities, specifically those of African Americans, by denying the ever-present issues of systematic inequality and disenfranchisement. Perhaps the most emblematic example of this refutation of persisting inequality in Black communities written by institutional figureheads is The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, more commonly known as the Moynihan Report.
During the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (pictured right), a liberal democrat, published his Moynihan Report in response to African Americans’ demands for political, social, and economic equality as American citizens. Moynihan stated his belief in the individual equality of Black people, but identified cultural depravity as their primary barrier to collective success. According to Moynihan, Blacks were disadvantaged due to previous racial prejudice, and so “collectively, Negroes are among the weakest” in American society. However, he places accountability not onto government institutions and prevailing structural inequalities, but rather onto a cultural deficiency centered on single motherhood, insisting that “Negro family structure in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” By proclaiming his belief in the equality of individuals while supporting theories of cultural inferiority, Moynihan appealed to the democratic idealism of the times while holding African Americans themselves accountable for their own subordinate status within the American polity.
Asian Americans, on the other hand, were held to unrealistic standards and stereotypes, praised for innate cultural characteristics including discipline, hard work, filial piety and Confucian virtue. The 1966 New York Times article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” written by William Peterson was among the first of many that circulated the narrative of the model minority during the Civil Rights Movement to elucidate and justify the United States’ evolving racial order. Supported by both conservative and liberal political agendas at the time, this rhetoric intended to portray postwar America as a democratic and free meritocracy, where success and achievement was determined by individual effort rather than by the consequences of systemic racial disadvantage.
Based on Japanese Americans’ forced relocation following internment, Peterson asserts that “Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites.” Despite the cruelly unconstitutional treatment they faced in detention, Japanese Americans allegedly not only maintained the utmost loyalty to the United States but continued to work hard to secure their livelihoods as a result of ostensibly ingrained cultural and familial values that reward discipline and hard work. Gender ratios and anti-miscegenation laws contributed heavily to Japanese Americans’ late marriages, despite which “they developed a family life both strong and flexible enough to help their children.” This public and unbridled praise directly contradicts the depraved perception of single-parent Black families to whom Moynihan attributed a pathological “culture of poverty” only a year prior.
This model-minority narrative, like countless others, relied heavily on misleading data and crude cultural stereotypes. The New York Times’ “Success Story” used numerical evidence to convey Japanese Americans’ allegedly longer education, higher median income and lower use of welfare, but again failed to acknowledge the higher number of working family members, the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in executive positions and the legal bar from citizenship that rendered welfare unattainable for so many.
What’s Wrong With the Model Minority Myth?
The model minority myth served to mold all Asian ethnic groups into a new racial category of “non-white” that at the same time was definitively non-black, constituting positive but erroneous stereotypes of Asian assimilability. An opportunistic political position rather than a sustained effort at cultural understanding, the model minority myth completely reduces the systemic repression of people of color, who are expected to uphold the full burden of personal responsibility for not only themselves but for their entire ethnic group. Politicians held up the lofty standards of Asian Americans over other racial groups, particularly African Americans, effectively pitting people of color against one another and away from their political qualms in the plight to prove personal responsibility as the ultimate, democratic arbiter of success. Asian Americans, on the other hand, in having to prove their eligibility for civic membership in a racial grey-area, heralded a new age of pan-Asian American identity and solidarity.
The model minority myth has resulted in a devastating failure to acknowledge both the historic and contemporary inequalities, struggles, and disenfranchisement of communities of color. In addition to perpetuating criminalized notions of blackness, the model minority myth has also deprived ethnically diverse Asian American communities of much-needed federal funding and resources. Disaggregated statistics are one way to repudiate the erroneous yet widely accepted data upon which political leaders and media outlets perpetuated the idealistic stereotype. Many statistics used to measure Asian American economic and academic success are highly misleading in that they erase not only ethnic differences but disparities in socioeconomic status, acculturation, and access to resources and opportunities. For example, despite the figure of 50.5% representing those who identify as Asian and have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, as compared with a national average of 29.8%, a closer analysis of the Demographic Data & Policy Research on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPI Data) paints a very different picture. While some Asian ethnic groups have a high percentage of academic attainment and returns on education, the corresponding figure for Southeast Asian populations such as Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Bhutanese Americans remains roughly between 14-17% (Shih et. al., 2019). Asian Americans, while varied in livelihoods and professions, are also considerably underrepresented in executive, corporate roles in the fields of law, government, and academia.
Additionally, model minority stereotypes are substantiated with skewed data regarding financial success claiming that “Asian Americans have the highest average household incomes as compared to other racial groups” (Shih et. al., 2019). According to American Community Surveys, Asian Americans earned a median household income of $71,709 between 2008 and 2012, compared with a national average of $53,046. However, individual Asian ethnic groups vary significantly in their financial status. While some groups earned considerably higher than this average, such as Asian Indians ($95,000) and Filipinos ($80,000), the incomes of Southeast Asian populations including Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian Americans were considerably lower than the cited national average. Also, despite the assertion that Asian Americans have the lowest poverty rate of all racial groups in the U.S., AAPI Data from 2007-2011 reported a 60% increase in poverty since the Great Recession of 2008 as compared with the national average of 27%, making Asian Americans the fastest-growing population in poverty since.
The model minority myth, by portraying Asian Americans as a successful and assimilating “other,” completely disregards intra- and inter-ethnic variance in experiences with institutionalized disadvantage and current social and economic needs, especially those of the more vulnerable, South Asian refugee populations. Despite the increasing poverty rate of Asian Americans, these communities only received 1.4% of New York City’s social service funding between 2002 and 2014 (Shih et. al., 2019). The propagation of the model minority myth, which posits Asian Americans as a completely self-sufficient and problem-free racial other, is extremely detrimental to Asian ethnic populations in denying them sufficient access to much-needed federal services, funding, resources and opportunities.
While the Civil Rights, Black Power and Asian American movements of the 1960s produced significant milestones of racially inclusive policies and institutions, including the establishment of Ethnic Studies curricula and the Voting Rights Act, the evolution of race and the construction of the model minority myth reinforced narratives of immutable racial difference rather than problematizing them, the whole purported goal of racial liberalism. As a result, the propagation of the model minority myth throughout the public consciousness during the 20th century enabled policymakers and political leaders to applaud their alleged achievements of curing the chronic disease of racism in American democracy while merely rewriting the prescription for perpetualized racial difference. Unmitigated racial disadvantage is devastating both for people of color and for U.S. society in its entirety, systematically barring countless millions of citizens from contributing to the progressive and economic growth of American society by means of equal access to resources, opportunities, education, employment, protection against violence, and otherwise all-around acceptance into both the American polity as well as an American identity. Fostering a society of truly equal opportunity for the power and potential of all its citizens cannot occur before properly acknowledging, dissecting and mitigating the causes and effects of an ancient and deleterious legacy.
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About the Author:
Alyssa Boyle is a recent graduate of Binghamton University with a B.A. in Linguistics and Korean Studies. An aspiring young professional in journalism, she strives to ensure the dissemination of credible information on all things current events, politics, wellness and more via original and informed content. In addition to Start:Empowerment, she has also worked on several other editorial teams to produce, publish, and optimize valuable and verified content, including Weill Cornell Medicine and The Muse. In her free time, she enjoys writing stand-up comedy and political cartoons. Say hi on LinkedIn or Instagram @_alyssa_boyle_