History of the Model Minority Myth in the US

“Model Minority” is an idea that emerged during the 1960s in the US that states that nonwhite groups of people are able to essentially revoke racial and socioeconomic oppression, that pose as barriers to achieving and earning as much as whites, through hard work.  One of the main racial groups that are popularized as being a model minority group is Asians.  According to the model minority myth, Asians are the racial minority group that managed to prosper in the US through hard work and education, hence setting an example for other marginalized racial groups to follow.  Despite this, history shows that the idea of the model minority is a myth that was perpetuated by corporate media, as well as tokenizes oppressed nationalities to justify the bootstrap theory.

Asian-Americans are stereotyped as the model minority and as having significant proximity to whiteness and the upper class.  This is not necessarily true given the history and continuation of how Asian-Americans have been and continue to be treated in the US.  From the 1850s to the post-WWII era, Asian-Americans were socialized as an inferior, foreign specimen that posed a threat to the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant race.  Chinese migrants were seen as a “Yellow Peril” that is always foreign no matter for how many generations they have resided in the US.  This orientalism and xenophobia were used to subjugate Chinese male workers as underpaid indentured servants, during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  These Chinese laborers were also confined to segregated communities where they would also be fallen victim to racial mob violence.

Anti-asian laws in the US further codified orientalism as part of the institutionally racist oppression of Asian-Americans.  For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration based on national origin and required Chinese leaving the Us to receive special permits to return.  Additionally, Chinese laborers, regardless of skill level, were prohibited from entering Congress.  In 1860, California banned Asians from public schools and Asian children were rendered inferior in said institutions.  Likewise, Executive Order 9066 authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans under US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942 during WWII, when the US was at a peak of anti-Japanese orientalism.  It is more than evident that prior to the 1960s, Asian-Americans were socialized and treated as dangerous foreigners and subjects of capitalist, socioeconomic exploitation—which is far from embodying the idea of the model minority.

The 1960s marked a turning point regarding widespread perception and treatment of Asian-Americans in the US, as well as the connotation of model minority denoting Asian-Americans.  In January 1966, the New York Times published a piece titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” by sociologist William Peterson.  This article illustrated Japanese-Americans as being the most superior group in the US, even exceeding the status of white Americans.  This contrasts greatly with the 1942 internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, which hid them away from the rest of US society and contributed to their erasure and invisibility.  The elevated image of Asian-Americans spiked in the mid-1960s, greatly due to corporate media spreading the model minority myth and coinciding with growing tensions among African-Americans.  During this time period, African-Americans were dominating national attention given their demands for racial equality and the development of the Civil Rights Movement.  In the 1990s, many white college students felt racially victimized due to their belief that Asian-Americans were more accomplished than them and that US universities had implemented biased policies in favor of African-Americans, such as affirmative action.  affirmative action.  Given this, the model minority myth was applied differently to Asian-Americans and African-Americans because Asian-Americans were seen as a group that had risen up the social ladder and gained proximity to whiteness and the bourgeois class on their own, whereas African-Americans were seen as a people who gained privileges due to so-called handouts from institutions and getting by with less hardship due to that.  Both embodiments of Asian-American and African-American model minority myths also uphold the bootstrap theory.  The bootstrap theory emerged during the European era of immigration from 1880-1920 and is the idea that one simply has to work hard and “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” whereas African-Americans had supposedly become a model minority by government support and affirmative action.

The idea of the model minority myth is a fallacy because in order for a group to be socialized as such, they have to assimilate into the dominant culture and gain proximity to whiteness by all means or have racial stereotypes imposed on them.  Model minority and bootstrap theory are rooted in capitalist and individualist trains of thought, white supremacist systems of oppression and encourage oppressed nationalities to compete for capitalist, white supremacist approval.