Every campaign season seems to throw political pundits and journalists in a tizzy when sources of big donations are revealed to be Asian-Americans. When John Huang and other Chinese-Americans were revealed as fraudulent donors in Clinton’s second presidential bid, the March 1997 cover of National Review featured Clinton, Hillary and Gore in yellowface with various accoutrements like pigtails, coolie hats, and begging bowls. The point was that while Huang and his ilk might be de facto citizens but they were indisputably alien and other. It was not simply money to influence policy on China that was the problem; it was yellow money.
Asian-Americans have always been seen as alien, as the yellow hordes who descended California in the late nineteenth century, ate too little, worked too hard, saved too much and therefore were a threat to the economic well being of the nation; as untrustworthy enemies who needed internment so the nation could be safe. Since the Sixties, however, Asian-Americans could be counted upon to be model minorities (as opposed to be irascible and demanding “bad” minorities such as African-Americans and Hispanics). In 1966, Berkeley sociologist William Peterson offered a diagnosis of Asian-Americans that was immensely pleasing to white America and self-defensively internalized by many Asian-Americans. Internment, he argued, had not hampered Japanese-Americans but rather enhanced their determination to succeed. Japanese-Americans were model minorities because they worked hard, expected nothing in return, respected authority, didn’t complain, and stayed away from crime. Soon, most Asian-Americans were labeled model minorities. Almost half a century later, although young Asian Americans are being seen as constituting a nerd peril at Ivy League universities, the need for white America to see Asian-Americans as model minorities continues.
Enter Norman Hsu, New York businessman, mega donor to the Democrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign, a fugitive with a fifteen year old outstanding warrant for defrauding investors since he failed to show up in San Mateo County courtroom. So what’s so unusual about a possible crook being a major political donor? To a public weary with the machinations and political coziness of the Halliburtons and Bechtels, Hsu should hardly be big news. But if the consummate (if criminal) political businessman whose political donations help him raise money for his investment schemes is Asian-American, our racial roadmaps go haywire. Hsu looks almost white and we can’t let that happen.
But if we think hard enough, we can see that Hsu is simply a model minority who knows his place. Hence the September 16, 2007 article in the _New York Times_: “Troubled Fund-Raiser’s Wallet Matched His Need to Please.” Even though Hsu’s business motivations are mentioned in the articleHsu’s political status “helped him raise money for his investment schemes” this little nugget is buried within the larger story of the troubled Hsu’s motives. We are relieved because Hsu can’t be confused with white/insider. He is the perpetual alien, the weirdo, who desperately wants in but has no demands. As the New York Times puts it, “Norman Hsu was desperate for invitations” but once he got in, he “seemed awkward and out of place.” He donated generously but “appeared to want nothing in return.” He was “eager to please,” “never said no” and hardly sought acknowledgment. Political acquaintances either remembered his awkwardness, their discomfort at being with him, his nervous mannerisms, his unintelligible speech or barely recalled him. The bottom line was “He wouldn’t ask for anything.” In case we were worried we were losing a minority that was undemanding, unthreatening and in its place, we can all relax. Criminal or not, we can be relieved knowing that Hsu confirms the existence of a model minority.
MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER is a professor at the department of English at the University of Florida where she teaches courses on American literature culture. She is the author of U.S. Orientalisms and most recently, “Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New Imperialism,” published by Duke University Press in June 2007.