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The Model Minority Myth: The Construction of a Racial Order

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

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.

LA mayor Fletcher Bowron
LA mayor Fletcher Bowron

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).

Monument of WWII Japanese internment camp in Manzanar, CA
Manzanar, CA monument. Photo by Edoardo Frezet.

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.

Chinese Non-delinquency

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.

A 1950s Chinatown
A 1950s Chinatown

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 min