The term “model minority” was first used in a 1966 New York Times article by sociologist William Petersen. The article was supposedly written in praise of the Japanese American success story. The article lauded the ability of Japanese Americans to achieve financial success in spite of legal, social and economic barriers fueled by racial prejudice, without any resources from the federal government. The article also starkly contrasted Japanese Americans against what Petersen called “problem minorities” — specifically “the plight of the American Negro”
Even before it had a name, the myth of the “model minority” became increasingly popular during the mid-1950s and 60s. Prior to this time, U.S. media outlets characterized Chinese Americans as gamblers, criminals or sexual deviants, and Japanese Americans were viewed as enemies of the state, most shamefully in the execution of Executive Order 9066.
By the 1960s, however, this new characterization of “model minority” was widely touted by the same outlets. Asian Americans were praised particularly as highly dedicated to the nuclear family model and obedient, disciplined with excellent business savvy. These depictions also took up the mantle of comparing Asian Americans to African Americans. As Kenji Kuramitsu writes, “The author’s implicit argument is that ‘the playing field is level now; the Asians did it, why do the blacks need help? You African Americans must be inherently unintelligent, lazy, criminal.’ ” This theory enabled policymakers to dismiss the position of the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s, arguing that proposed federal spending and social programs would not help black people, because of some imagined fundamental cultural flaw. Thus the construction of the model minority myth has its history specifically in anti-black racism, and has long served to pit minority groups against each other.
But agenda aside, are there any statistics that backed up the claim in the first place? It is true that the Asian American population surpassed African Americans in average household earnings, and closed the wage gap with whites, by 1970. But some studies argue that the assumed causes — increased investment in education and new laws that prioritized skilled Asian immigrants — are only part of the picture. The model minority myth, for all its harm, does seem to have made white people discriminate against Asian Americans differently.
A recent study out of Brown University found that Asian Americans had closed the wage gap with whites, and were being paid significantly more than African Americans of similar education levels by 1980. The gap was even more significant between Asian Americans and African Americans who had not completed high school. This suggests, according to the report, that not only were Asian Americans finding work in more lucrative industries, they were also being paid more to perform the same kind of work, suggesting a difference in employers’ base assumptions about each as a perspective employee.
Ellen Wu stresses in her book, “The Color of Success” that Asian American communities were largely complicit and even encouraged the model minority myth.
“The model minority myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asians Americans to be accepted and recognized as human beings. A lot was at stake. At the time, Asians were living life under an exclusion regime that had many similarities to Jim Crow — not the same as Jim Crow, but certainly a cousin of Jim Crow,” Wu states. “So for Asian Americans, one survival strategy was to portray themselves as “good Americans.”
The story of the model minority myth is of course far too complex to cover in one blog article. Be sure to take a look at Part II of our series — The “Model Minority”: 1980s-Present