Model Minority Myth

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Brian Chow (2005)

All through the picket line, there are many like him. Wearing a leather jacket and a black beret, this protestor of the late 1960s clutches a banner in one hand and a 2x4 in the other, demanding self-determination and liberation from the white imperialist establishment. This time, however, the angry protestor is neither a member of the Black Panther Party nor a Brown Beret. The individual is an Asian American. Passers-by give a look of astonishment as they wonder why such a seemingly nice young man would want to stir up such a commotion. Even family members and elderly people from his community find themselves in dismay as they witness his acts to disturb the peace. Many will also be surprised to learn that this Asian American speaks in black English, addresses his peers by “brother” and “sister,” and salutes with clenched fist in the air. Some may wonder what happened to the quiet, peaceful “Oriental” who lived by traditional values. Audiences of today might even ask, “What happened to the model minority?”

While the term “model minority” may not have been popularized until the early 1980s, the notion was not entirely unfamiliar to Americans of the late 1960s. Twenty years after the forced relocation and containment of Japanese Americans in internment camps, an article titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style” appeared in the New York Times Magazine in January 1966, proclaiming Japanese Americans as hard-working and law-abiding model citizens.[1] Later that year, an article from U.S. News & World Report, titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in US,” praised Chinese Americans for the same qualities.[2] These reports, along with many other similar accounts that appeared later, served to distinguish Asian Americans from other American minorities. Moreover, most of these articles elevated Asian Americans as an ethnic group whose discipline and values should be emulated, all the while reproaching every non-model minority during a volatile period of African American civil rights activism and militant revolt. Such articles, while noting that all ethnic minorities in America have had to face tremendous adversity in the history of the nation, argue that Asian Americans have been succeeding in the realms of education, business, and social standing, while fellow racial minority groups continue to falter in finding adequately paying jobs, do poorly in educational testing, and possess high crime rates among its members. Hence, in the 1960s, Asian Americans were beginning to become associated with an image of the model minority who has risen above the rest to successfully assimilate to American society.

The emergence of this model minority perception is rather surprising, however, if one is to consider the extent of the anti-Asian attitudes and the “yellow peril” belief that was prevalent among European Americans throughout the last half of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. Anti-Asian sentiment dates back as far as the earliest arrivals by Asians who hoped to make a living in America. Since the 1850s, early Chinese immigrants, most of whom left their problem-ridden country in hopes of finding gold in California, were branded as a depraved group and a threat to national identity. Entire Chinese communities became the targets of anti-Asian violence by the 1870s.[3]

The notion of the “yellow peril,” a widespread belief that Asian immigrants threatened to undermine white American values and racial qualities (as well as the economy of the nation) through rapid population growth and miscegenation, began around the early 1880s and was first applied to Chinese immigrants.[4] The initial Chinese Exclusion Act, which all but eliminated further Chinese immigration into America, was also passed during this time. As America started making its way into the twentieth century, however, the focus of the yellow peril notion began to shift toward Japanese citizens and immigrants, and manifestations of...
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