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The Complex History—and Ongoing Realities—of the “Model Minority” Stereotype

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How much of the model minority myth was perpetuated by the government and how much of it was perpetuated by Asians who wanted more inclusion?

In my research, what I found was that Japanese and Chinese Americans had what we might think of as spokespeople or leaders—people who were heard by folks outside of their communities. There was a specific group, for example, named the Japanese American Citizens League. It was similar to an organization like the NAACP. The leaders of this group, who were all men, really pushed this idea of patriotism and cooperating with federal authorities. These people intentionally put forward images of themselves as good Americans. It’s understandable why they did this because in the 1930s and 1940s, if you were Asian American, your life choices were restricted as a result of a long history of Asian exclusion. In the United States, we can think of Asian exclusion as a cousin to Jim Crow. It was a web of laws, practices, ideas, and attitudes that were designed to shut people of Asian ancestry out of any kind of meaningful participation in American society, including segregation in housing, employment, and schooling. A lot of people thought: If we show them and we make the case that we have strong families and we don’t get into trouble, that’ll protect us.

This idea that Japanese and Chinese were model citizens began to spread in the ’40s and ’50s. By the 1950s, the liberal media, government officials, and their sympathetic allies started to circulate stories applauding Japanese Americans for how quickly they recovered from the concentration camps. They explained that model behavior through their Confucian culture, where they’re obedient and they have these strong family values. That new recasting after World War II then became useful when policymakers and social scientists and journalists were looking and agonizing about how to solve what they called in their time the “Negro problem.”

If we fast-forward a little bit to the mid-1960s, Black people were leading the civil rights movement and trying to address and claim their freedom, dignity, equality, and justice. Policymakers were trying to figure out a solution and what to do about this growing unrest among Black people, so some of them turned to Japanese and Chinese Americans as an example. They said, well, first of all, these two groups seem to have made it. They didn’t seem to be criminals, and they didn’t seem to depend on welfare. That was the idea, so these comparisons between Asian Americans and Black Americans became much more explicit and common. They were used by both liberals and conservatives of all races. Today, it’s more of a conservative position. Just recently, on Twitter, I noticed a prominent Black conservative dredging up the stereotype once again, basically saying Asian American success shows that the problem isn’t the structures of US society, that it’s the behaviors and the individual choices that people make.

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