The following is a moderated email discussion between Professors Janelle Wong, Madeline Hsu, and Ellen Wu on the topic of the Model Minority Myth. All three have written extensively and insightfully on the issue in previous publications. Professor Wong moderated the discussion while Professors Hsu and Wu provided their answers to her questions.

The Asian American Law Journal (AALJ) would like to thank all three professors for participating in this discussion and offering their valuable perspectives on an issue that has affected and continues to affect generations of both the AAPI-community and other marginalized groups in this country. AALJ would also like to thank James Liu (Berkeley Law ’19) for his work in organizing and administrating this project. As the first of, we hope, many posts on the AALJ Blog, this discussion serves an important role in continuing the journal’s mission to speak truth to power.


JW: Janelle Wong

MH: Madeline Hsu

EW: Ellen Wu

***Disclaimer: The discussion below is directly quoted from the participants. AALJ has made only minor spelling and grammatical edits. The content of the discussion does not necessarily reflect the view of AALJ or the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.


JW: As you observe the racial landscape of the U.S. in 2019, what is the single most important critique of the “Model Minority” concept that you would like students and the larger public to draw from your research?

MH: The model minority stereotype has been the most powerful and commonplace way in which the tremendous heterogeneity and nuances of Asian American identities have been erased. Asian Americans are particularly vulnerable to becoming categorized into a broader group that includes many foreign-born Asians, some of whom are immigrants and many others who remain international students or persons here on some other form of temporary visa. This complicates public perceptions of the presence of Asians on higher education campuses and projects far higher numbers of Asians without the necessary nuance of their ethnicity, socioeconomic class, regional origins, and immigration backgrounds. To start, since 2008, many colleges and universities have actively recruited international students because they pay higher tuitions which make up for declining public support for higher education. These students’ tuition subsidizes education for U.S. students, even though their educational needs are often different and poorly served. The aggregated category of Asian/Asian American students obscures significant variations in access and attainment, particularly on the part of Asian American students from poorer backgrounds or with less educated parents, as is more characteristic of refugee populations.

EW: Racial stereotypes do “work”—they are cultural fictions that operate to sort human beings into different groups and justify uneven distributions of power and resources among them. It’s absolutely key for us to ask: what is the “work” of the “model minority” stereotype—a concept that casts Asians in the US as decidedly not-black? In other words, what does it do, what outcomes does it facilitate? To answer this question, the “racial commonsense” about Asians in the US (talented, hardworking, and upwardly mobile rule-followers who embrace education and maintain strong families) should be understood in relation to the “racial commonsense” about African Americans (pretty much the opposite of the above).

This relational pigeonholing has real-world, material consequences. The kinds of traits and values that many presume Asian people to possess are celebrated in US society as positive, while the kinds of traits that many presume black people to possess are denigrated as negative. In the past and today, Asian Americans can and have wielded the model minority concept in order to argue that they deserve justice—whether in the form of loosening immigration and naturalization restrictions, reparations for the World War II Japanese American incarceration camps, or amends for discrimination in college admissions.

But making claims to justice on the basis of the “model minority”—that Asians have “earned” rightful treatment—comes at a cost. It strengthens the belief that people are either deserving or undeserving of justice based on their presumed characteristics regardless of whether or not these characteristics are accurate depictions or have been honestly assessed. To put it bluntly, justice for Asian Americans predicated on “model minority” ideas comes at the expense of someone else. Historically, that “someone else” has been African Americans. And that is a very, very steep cost.

JW: In the field of Asian American Studies, we tend to trace the origins of the Model Minority Myth to the immigration reforms, civil rights claims, and media coverage of the mid-1960s. Can you provide a specific example of scholarship showing that the hyper-selection of high-skilled, highly educated immigrants from Asia occurred decades prior to the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act? How does this example help us to reconsider the power of this stereotype?

MH: In addition to my book, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015), which explores the important roles of Chinese students in the establishing of programs and policies for international education in the United States with consequences for immigration law reforms after World War II, I highly recommend Liping Bu’s Making the World Like Us: Education, Cultural Expansion, and the American Century (Praeger, 2003). Bu explores fully the confluence of missionaries, foundations, higher education institutions, and policy makers who developed the programs, provided funding, and established the systems and networks that promoted international education and recruitment of students from around the world even when U.S. immigration laws bluntly excluded immigrants from Asia before the mid-twentieth century. Bu reminds us that despite powerful beliefs in racial difference and hierarchies, through the lens of Christianity and education, some Americans saw that highly educated and acculturated Asians were highly compatible and admirable. Furthermore, if influenced properly, they could be trained to emulate U.S. values and political systems and lead their own countries to be more like the United States. The Good Immigrants takes this story a step further in exploring how U.S. policy makers came to realize that such usefully trained leaders for Asian societies could also be valuable assets for the United States if allowed to remain and become U.S. citizens.

JW: Thank you, MH, for your valuable contribution to the re-periodization of the Model Minority concept. EW, how does tracing the state’s role in creating the Model Minority to an earlier period help the field to reconsider the power of this stereotype?

EW: JW, I’m really glad you asked this question! Sometimes I joke that the periodization of the model minority concept is the tiny hill that I want to die on. My research on the origins of stereotype pinpoints its origins in World War II. This illuminates the central role of the state in reconfiguring the place of Asians in the nation’s racial order. As the United States rose to global ascendancy, liberals began to argue that flagrant white supremacy (Jim Crow, Asian Exclusion) would be a diplomatic liability. The US needed allies around the planet to win wars and shore up its dominance abroad. So policymakers, social scientists, and other influencers began to undo older ideas of “Orientals” as unassimilable aliens or “forever foreigners.” People of Asian ancestry started to be seen--even celebrated--as capable of becoming good Americans, because this type of inclusion could serve as “proof” that the US was indeed the rightful leader of the free world, and that democracy and capitalism were superior to fascism, Nazism, and Communism.

Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943 to strengthen its Pacific War alliance with China. The liberal whites who mobilized for repeal argued that Chinese were law-abiding, quiet, industrious, and upstanding--early instances of respectability politics that ground the “model minority” myth. Meanwhile, the federal authorities who ran the Japanese American concentration camps decided that the experience might actually be used to refashion prisoners into model Americans, as well as neutralize Japan’s accusations that the US was fighting a racist war. So after 1943, Japanese Americans were recruited serve in the US military, and the government and media began touting stories of their loyalty and patriotism. Additionally, some 36K prisoners participated in the state-coordinated “resettlement” program, where they moved out to places in the Midwest and East Coast. The intent of resettlement was to speed the racial integration of Japanese Americans into the white middle-class. All told, these state-run assimilationist projects laid the foundation for the recasting of Asians Americans as “model minorities.” The lesson here, I think, is that war and geopolitical ambitions opened up opportunities for surprising racial makeoever to gain traction; from the beginning, the “model minority” concept was a useful tool for US foreign policy.

JW: You have provided a historical catalogue of evidence that the academic and occupational success of Asian Americans in the U.S. results from changes in immigration policy preferences over time. Yet even in the face of this evidence, the larger public and many Asian Americans themselves insist that it is not policy, but “Asian values” for hard work and education that explain high rates of educational and occupational achievement among the group. How does your research help to inform contemporary debates, such as whether institutions like Harvard hold Asian Americans to a higher standard in admissions?

EW: Studying history really drives home the realization that “values” or “culture” are *not* unchanging, fixed “things”--that all people who belong to a certain group believe X or act like Y, and it’s been that way forever. Instead, “values” and “culture” function as blank screens, and people project onto them meanings that serve social or political purposes. These meanings and purposes change over time.

If we take the example of Chinese in the US and backtrack to the 19th century, we can see that whites often portrayed Chinese values and culture as a menace. Chinese weren’t Christians, which was a huge strike against them. White people were horrified (but also fascinated) by Chinatowns as sinful “cesspools” of sex, drugs, and gambling. Lawmakers and citizens animated these assumptions by deploying them to validate the domination and exclusion of Chinese from mainstream American life through the 1940s.

Obviously today Chinese and other Asians in the US are stereotyped quite differently as model minorities who revere industriousness, learning, family ties, etc. Again, these newer depictions serve different purposes. And let’s not forget to raise the question--who has the power to define what constitutes “hard work,” love for education, families and “family values,” and what ends do these definitions justify? These aren’t neutral categories, but social/political ones with lived consequences.

Related to this is what I would call social capital. For 50+ years, whites have generally considered Asian Americans (especially East Asians) to be decidedly not-black. This means we can count on a certain level of security or safety denied to black people: we aren’t assumed to be criminals; we’re assumed to have wealth or at least the ability to generate it; we’re assumed to be smart and self-sufficient and therefore assets--rather than burdens--in today’s economy.

Just as important, policy changes over time have made model minority typecasting possible. Yes, changes in immigration and naturalization law or US relations with Asia were a big part of this. But so were reforms in housing segregation, employment discrimination, and access to quality pre-K12, post-secondary, and extra-curricular education.

I’m not only referring to changes to immigration and naturalization law or US foreign relations, but also reforms in housing segregation, employment discrimination, and access to quality pre-K12, post-secondary, and extra-curricular education. Asian Americans benefited from immensely from the rights revolution of the mid-to late-20th century, which led to affirmative action and kindred policy initiatives intended to achieve substantive equality for minorities in US society.

MH: The model minority stereotype is so powerful in part because it co-opts very human instincts to seek praise and material success, through hard work and targeted ambition. These traits are, however, human characteristics that are not specific to Asians or any other racial or ethnic group. Asian Americans are singled out as exemplars of these values as a politically divisive measure that blames non-model minorities for lacking these traits, thereby masking the ongoing effects of structural racial discrimination. Model minority Asian Americans serve as symbols that persons of color can succeed, vindicating the multiracial egalitarianism of the United States. This image works against them, however, in elite spaces in which they are already well represented. On college and university campuses, Asian Americans are already highly visible so that their symbolic value as representing multiracial democratic processes at work are significantly less than that of African American or Latinx students.

These levels of highly educated Asian Americans are the product of deliberate shifts in immigration policy and foreign relations programs. During the Cold War, the State Department sought admissions of limited numbers of Chinese to signal U.S. support for fellow anti-communist peoples. Refugee programs for Chinese served humanitarian agendas in name only. The State Department and Congress realized that small numbers of Chinese could be admitted but publicized to optimize the U.S.’s hospitality to non-white immigrants. Furthermore, they could be screened not only for anti-communist politics, but also to be highly educated, readily integrated into the U.S. society and economy, and be counted on to raise their children to be similarly well-educated and aspirational. These admirable traits would ease their reception with the American public. This set of policy shifts started during the 1950s and became part of general immigration policy with the 1965 Immigration Act and transformed the positionality of Asian Americans in the United States.

JW: One of the through lines in your work is that the racial position of Asian Americans as “Model Minorities” has a powerful influence on public perceptions of other non-white groups, such as Latinos and African Americans. Can you provide a compelling example of this relational analysis from your own work?

MH: I can provide a couple of examples, one personal and the other based on research. My mother immigrated in the early 1950s as a young teenager to join her parents in a small town in Arkansas. At the time, major institutions such as schools and churches were still segregated. Upon arrival, my mother was admitted into the white school and attended the white Methodist church. She was allowed to participate on the “white” side of the racial line.

A more general example can be found in the confluence of the Confession Program (1956-1965), which was intended to address decades of immigration fraud by Chinese Americans by providing a process whereby they could “confess” their illegal status and names, implicate others in their networks, but then gain normalized status. Only about 30% of Chinese Americans actually participated because they did not trust the immigration bureau. In contrast, between 1954 and 1955, “Operation Wetback” targeted Mexican Americans for round up and deportation, claiming to have expelled 1 million in total. The racial lines being drawn are very clear.

In addition to racialization as welcome and redeemable immigrants, as opposed to unwelcome and deportable, another major factor at play are relative numbers. In 1950, there had been only about 150,000 Chinese in the United States, compared to 2.3 million reported with Spanish surnames. Sizes of immigrant populations contribute significantly to perceptions of their threat.

EW: The story of Hawaiʻi statehood stands as a powerful case for relational analysis. Before World War II, most white Americans could not fathom elevating Hawaiʻi to statehood because it had a sizeable Asian presence.

But in the 1940s and 1950s, the majority Asian population suddenly became the justification for admission. Champions argued that the people of Hawaiʻi could serve as a “bridge” or “stepping stone” to Asia. An “Asian” state could serve as a valuable tool for winning hearts and minds in the context of the Cold War and the worldwide decolonization movement. Hawaiʻi provided what they described as a “concrete example of self-determination influencing all the peoples of the Pacific.”

Statehood proponents reminded the country that Hawaiʻi was a "Pacific Melting Pot" characterized by aloha rather than hostility. They often cited the islands’ high rates of racial intermarriage as proof. Some even suggested that islanders' reputation as a racial paradise could help move the nation past the life-and-death conflicts of the Civil Rights Movement--essentially a model minority community. These arguments convinced the American public. Hawaiʻi became the 50th state in 1959.

Crucially, the racial paradise claims made sense only by omitting the contentious, violent history of the United States' illegal seizure and colonization of the Independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Native Hawaiians suffered greatly under U.S. rule. Many of them opposed both annexation (1898) and statehood. Erasing the struggles of Hawaiʻi’s indigenous peoples allowed Americans to portray themselves as inclusive and benevolent and qualified to lead the free world.

The mythology of Hawaiʻi as racial paradise lived on after statehood. As the nation sought "law and order" fixes to the urban crises of the late 1960s, observers again praised Hawaiʻi as a model. Journalists drew clear contrasts between the islands' residents and African American protesters. As one put it, "In Detroit, Newark, and other big cities, it's the young Negro who is the disillusioned troublemaker. In Hawaii, it's the young generation which is building up a loyal citizenry, setting an example of racial understanding." The effect of such commentary was to undermine the legitimacy of African Americans’ grievances and reproduce assumptions of black people as unruly criminals.

JW: You raise up the stories of those who were ultimately overshadowed by the imperative to perform and gain citizenship through the Model Minority stereotype, such as Nikkei zoot suiters and conscientious objectors like George Yamada. What does resistance to the Model Minority stereotype look like today and what potential consequences does such resistance entail?

EW: This is a tricky question because I’ve come to question whether “resistance” is a useful analytical category, or a helpful way to understand or explain human action and choices. “Resistance” is not always that useful because it divides the world of activity into two stark camps: for- or against-; oppression and resistance; villains and heroes. But life is messier than that. I’m much more interested in considering the fuzzy middle, the blurry lines in-between that aren’t so clear cut. What arrangements of power and privilege are subverted or questioned with any act of “resistance”—but what are also sustained and reproduced?

“Resistance” to the model minority stereotype today can fall into the trap of upholding certain kinds of power and privilege. For instance, when people’s first impulse is to respond, “Model minority is a stereotype because not all Asians are good at math, some Asians are criminals, some Asians are poor” etc. – these kinds of challenges do little to undermine the foundations of that racial logic.

When my book first came out and people started asking me “OK, but what do we do about the model minority myth”? I took me awhile to come up with response that I felt was right. In the book’s epilogue, I emphasize the important of widening our imaginations to acknowledge the diversity and range of Asian Americans’ humanity. While this is important, what I wish I had underscored even more is the need to undermine the model minority’s very foundations—anti-black racism, imperial domination, xenophobia, heteronormative gender and sexuality, class bias, and so forth. To do that, we will need to pair an informational or cultural rewiring (availability of more refined demographic data, better Hollywood scripts) with deeper structural changes. So many issues are interlocking and what academics call “mutually constitutive,” it’s hard to know how to tackle it. But one key place to begin for our times is to end the criminalization of black and brown people and our country’s inhumane, racialized system of mass incarceration, including immigration detention. If we get rid of the outcomes that model minority logic justifies (its “work”)—we can cut the lifeline to the stereotype.

MH: The model minority stereotype is so powerful in part because it coopts fundamental instincts and aspirations. To rebel against the model minority stereotype is to not seek success in endeavors proven to provide material stability and security, to not aspire by not working hard, and to court legal and institutional discipline through noncompliance with laws and established norms. It’s counter intuitive, even for persons deeply opposed to the stereotype.

I think a necessary step towards dismantling the stereotype is to raise attention to the ways in which many populations and kinds of persons also have the same aspirations and drives to accomplishment associated with the model minority stereotype--work ethic, ambition, a desire to provide stability and prosperity for their families, attention to education and home ownership, as well as reasonably remunerated careers. Some succeed more than others due to institutional barriers and lack of opportunity. The 2018 movie, “Sorry to Bother You,” captures many of the racial and class dynamics that entrap certain populations.