The idea of the Asian-American “model minority” is one that has been long contested ever since its inception in the 1960s. The language first appeared in two articles from 1966 that praised Chinese and Japanese Americans for gaining economic success despite being discriminated against. The claim that Asian-Americans are a model minority broadly asserts that Asian-Americans have succeeded in spite of adversity due to their self-reliance, diligence, individualism, family values, emphasis on education, and respect for authority, in contrast to other people of color in America. This, of course, is a generalized blanket statement but the model-minority stereotype has developed and transformed throughout the years; it has been molded to fit the agendas of certain groups time and time again, specifically regarding the issues of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the restoration of trust in capitalism in the 1980s, and now the dilemma of reforming the affirmative action system today. In this way, the understanding of how the Asian-American model minority myth was used as a tool to discredit the African-American civil rights movement and bolster capitalist values in the past clarifies and contextualizes how the model minority myth is used today as a tool for the Trump administration to argue for affirmative action reform.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the idea of the Asian-American model minority was used as a foil to African-Americans who protested and marched in the streets for their rights. While the African-Americans organized rallies and made use of specific government programs designed to help them, the model minority myth portrayed Asian-Americans who also faced discrimination based on their race as independent people who “toiled diligently in silence to overcome oppression,” pulling themselves up by the bootstraps to succeed. Because of this perception, many people who oppose government intervention programs have consistently used Asian-Americans in a “if they can do it, why can’t you all” way that effectively blames African-American and Latino groups for their own oppression and pits minorities against each other. Thus, the concept of the Asian-American model minority was effectively used as a way to shape the language of civil rights in the 1960s, shifting the focus away from the “rowdier” African-Americans to the “silent and successful” Asian-Americans. Since the stereotype asserted that Asian-Americans were more successful than their counterparts in their adoptive land, it redefined the race question in a way that was different from the “liberal black establishment” by centering the debate around rugged individualism and the willingness to toil within the structures of American sociopolitical society rather than around government intervention and set-aside government contracts. The perception that Asian-Americans were a minority that was successful, and at the same time, “self-contained, safe, and politically acquiescent” thereby became a powerful point in countering those who wanted to contain African-American demands for the systematic and structural dismantling of racial discrimination in the 1960s.
During the rise of the New Right in the 1980s, the model minority stereotype was used yet again as a means to further a different political agenda -- to “restore trust in capitalism and values associated with free enterprise.” The flourishing of the model minority stereotype at this time coincided with the corporate offensive against the poor, which transferred resources from the poor to the rich on a massive scale. In this political climate, the Asian-Americans, as a model minority, became the symbol for the moral vision of capitalism; they were said to represent a “celebration of traditional values, an emphasis on hard work and self-reliance, a respect for authority, and an attack on prevailing civil rights thinking associated with the African-American community.” Many neo-conservatives and conservatives cited Asian-American accomplishments such as the record enrollment of Asian youth in colleges and universities, the increasing numbers of Asian-Americans in business and politics, and Asian “whiz kids” in elementary schools as examples of Asian-American excellence during this time. However, they attributed such successes to certain moral values rooted in conservative thinking that they believed Asian-Americans to possess -- family cohesion, sacrifice and toil, rugged individualism, and self-reliance. In this way, the model minority stereotype “took on an ideological importance above and beyond the Asian-American community,” distorting Asian-American success to align with the neo-conservative image of a model minority and resurrect capitalist values associated with free enterprise.
Today, the model minority stereotype still persists and has transformed again in its use, particularly during discussions about the current Trump administration’s investigation into the possible anti-Asian bias in Harvard University’s affirmative action system. Affirmative action is a controversial program designed to increase diversity within an organization by considering a person’s underrepresented or disadvantaged status as a small bonus in their application. In August of 2017, the Trump administration set to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division towards examining “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” following a complaint by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups that certain Harvard admissions affirmative action policies were discriminating against them. In the context of affirmative action, the model minority stereotype propagates the belief that hardworking and deserving Asian-Americans with better test scores and applications get passed over in college admissions in favor of other African-American and Latino who are less qualified due to unspoken quotas on the number of Asian admits. And while this belief is one that some Asian-Americans share, the affirmative action system has also famously been criticized by white people for the same reason of their spots in colleges being “taken” by “less deserving” minorities who have applications of a lower caliber.
This is why the current investigation into affirmative action shares particularly troubling ties with earlier history in the 1960s and 1980s of the use of the Asian model minority as a tool to further an ulterior agenda. Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, his “Make America Great Again” strategy has sought to “turn back the clock of the country to a time that in some ways never existed and in other ways never changed.” Similar to the destructive stereotypes that Trump has perpetuated in the past about rapist, job-stealing Mexicans and terrorist Muslims, the possibility of an affirmative action program that discriminates against whites exploits conservative white fears that they are losing control of “their country” to people of color. Therefore, the Asian-American case against Harvard admissions presents a convenient shield for the Trump-directed Justice Department to pursue the interests of certain white people who oppose affirmative action under the claim of supposed anti-Asian discrimination, effectively using the model minority image of Asian-Americans to serve white, political interests. One particularly interesting aspect of the investigation that may support this theory is that the project is to be run out of the front office of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, where Trump’s political appointees work, instead of out of the Department’s Educational Opportunities Section, where work that pertains to schools and universities is normally handled. This implies that the investigation may have an ulterior political agenda, similar to that of the neo-conservatives in the 1980s, to characterize Asian-Americans in a certain light as a stepping stone to creating a conservative tilt under the Trump administration.
In addition, there are other factors surrounding the overall anti-Asian discrimination affirmative action argument that appear inconsistent with the concern for equal Asian-American representation, implying that the push for reform may stem from ulterior motives other than ensuring fairness. For example, Asian-Americans were among some of affirmative action’s biggest beneficiaries in the 1970s and 1980s; the program rapidly increased the enrollment rates of Asian-Americans at competitive institutions. In fact, this growth partially contributed the rise of the Asian-Americans’ reputation as a model minority in the first place, yet many who oppose affirmative action on the basis of anti-Asian discrimination fail to acknowledge that affirmative action has helped Asian-Americans at all. Additionally, the model minority stereotype tends to group the Asian population into one large, homogenous monolith, ignoring the diversity among Asian-Americans and the significantly lower rates of educational attainment and higher rates of poverty among Southeast Asian-Americans as opposed to East Asian-Americans. Furthermore, while white opposers of affirmative action claim to care about ensuring that Asian-Americans are fairly and equally represented based on their merit, the same sentiment is not reflected in the professional realm. This is evident in the phenomenon of the “bamboo ceiling,” which describes how Asian-Americans are overrepresented at universities and lower-level positions in the workplace yet vastly underrepresented in higher-level positions. This disparity, along with the failures to acknowledge the facts mentioned earlier, effectively reveals a “complex web of racism that simultaneously serves to rhetorically lift Asian-Americans over black Americans and Latinos while ensuring that they don’t rise too high above their stations as minorities” within the context of affirmative action.
In combination, this information reveals not only the disingenuousness of the aims of the Justice Department’s investigation into affirmative action discrimination but also the value of the broader context which the history of the model minority stereotype in the 1960s and 1980s offers us. The insight into how the Asian-American model minority stereotype was used by those opposed to government intervention programs to discredit the African-American civil rights movement in the 1960s contextualizes the same power dynamics at play between white, African-American, Latino, and Asian-American groups in the conflict over affirmative action reform. In both situations, the white opposers of either government intervention or affirmative action use the model minority concept to drive a wedge between minorities and pit them against each other. Similarly, the way in which the New Right used the model minority stereotype to portray Asian-Americans as symbols of capitalism in the 1980s in service of their conservative agenda offers insight into how the Justice Department has used Asian-Americans as symbols of race-based discrimination in the affirmative action system to serve anti-white discrimination interests today. In all the circumstances above, certain groups used the Asian-American model minority stereotype to exploit people’s perceptions and hide their true ulterior motives under the guise of uplifting Asian-Americans. Although the model minority concept is one that may portray Asian-Americans in a positive light, in reality, the stereotype only proves to do a disservice to all people of color -- whether black, Latino, or Asian.
Glenn Omatsu, The “Four Prisons” and the Movements of Liberation: Asian American Activism from the 1960s to the 1990s, 326-7.
Robert G. Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth,” Asian American Studies Now, (2010): 269.