Behind the Model Minority Myth

by SunAh M. Laybourn

Photo: Andre E. Johnson

Last month Robert Aaron Long opened gunfire on Asian-owned/operated spas in the Atlanta metro area, ultimately killing eight people, including six Asian women. This mass shooting brought national attention to what many Asians in America were already aware of rising anti-Asian violence since the beginning of the COVID-19  pandemic. In the weeks preceding the March 16, 2021 mass shooting, Asian and Asian American activists, social media influencers, and prominent figures had taken to social media, calling out the lack of news media attention to anti-Asian harassment, particularly to attacks on elderly Asian people. While reports of anti-Asian harassment and violence began to spike in March-April of 2020, for the most part, knowledge of these attacks was internal to the Asian community.

Why has the rising anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic received scant mainstream media attention? And, why, in the immediate aftermath of Long’s mass shooting, were media hesitant to label his actions as racially motivated, much less a hate crime?

The answers to these questions can be traced to how Asians in America have historically been portrayed.

In 1966, New York Times Magazine featured an article by William Petersen, a sociologist, and demographer, entitled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style .” In it, Petersen lauded Japanese Americans for overcoming “color prejudice,” the denial of their “elementary rights,” exclusionary immigration legislation, and internment rather than becoming “problem minorities.” Over the next decade, Newsweek [1], Los Angeles Times [2], and U.S. News and World Report, among other mainstream press, ran similar stories extolling Chinese and Japanese Americans for “outwhiting the whites .”[3] Attention was also given to their educational and economic achievements, crediting their “meaningful links with an alien culture” along with their values of familial obligation and respect for authority.

“Prior to these mainstream press features, the two largest Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, desiring to attain full social, legal, and cultural citizenship within their home country, launched their own campaigns to prove their belonging emphasizing their work ethic, commitment to family values, and patriotism, while minimizing juvenile delinquency, poverty, need for social services, and discrimination experienced by their ethnic community [4]. Thus, the model minority myth was born.

These 1960s-1970s mainstream news features seemingly presented East Asians in America within a complementary light, a sharp turn given how mainstream press, the U.S. government, and academics had constructed them throughout the 19th century thru the mid-20th century, alternatively, as a Yellow Peril threatening the U.S. way of life, aliens ineligible for citizenship, and foreign enemies on American soil. Yet even as news media heralded East Asian Americans’ success, they did so by reinscribing their distinct differences from (white) American culture while simultaneously using East Asian Americans to denigrate other racially minoritized groups, specifically Black Americans. In news media and scholars’ explanations, if East Asian American’s “successful” assimilation into whiteness was a function of their “culture,” then Black Americans’ failure to assimilate into the (white) American ideal was a result of theirs. Moreover, if Asian Americans could pull themselves up by their bootstraps without government social services and in such a way as to “outdo Horatio Alger,” then other racially minoritized groups should, too. A 1966 U.S. News & World   article made this stance clear, stating, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own with no help from anyone else.”

Claire Jean Kim conceptualized this process of comparative racialization as racial triangulation. She theorized that the continuous process of creating and assigning racial meaning to groups of people is mutually constitutive and constructed across multiple dimensions. Lauding East Asian American’s “culture” and denigrating Black Americans’ while simultaneously reinforcing East Asian Americans’ persistent foreignness are examples of this process. In turn, these various cultural constructions are linked to the differing ways that racially minoritized groups are oppressed, whether through race-specific exclusionary immigration legislation, discriminatory practices, and/or unequal distribution of resources. Cultural constructions, public policies, and institutional practices together maintain white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and xenophobia.

When news media fail to identify a mass shooting targeting Asian-owned/operated spas as racially motivated, this omission continues the cultural construction of East Asian Americans as model minorities and upholds white supremacist ideology. By not connecting Long’s mass shooting to racism (and misogyny), East Asian’s “success story” of assimilation into American society is maintained. Simultaneously, Long’s targeting of Asian spas due to his seeing these businesses as a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate is similar to how Asian women have historically been sexualized, constructed as lacking moral character, and feared for carrying. It is these same ideas of Asians as disease-carrying and threats to U.S. culture and way of life that were called forth when former President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” While his words alone did not cause the rise in anti-Asian violence throughout the past year, they reinforced ideas of Asians as unfit for citizenship in America. As demands for racial justice and the end to all oppression are receiving increasing attention, we must consider the multiple and enduring ways that racism, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and other systems of power create a matrix of domination. By understanding the links between the past and present manifestations of white supremacy, we can dismantle these systems of power in all of their forms.

Dr. SunAh M. Laybourn is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Memphis. 

[1] Newsweek. 1982. “Asian-Americans a ‘model minority.’” December 6. Pp. 39-51.

[2] Los Angeles Times. 1977. “Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger.” October 17. P 1.

[3] Newsweek. 1971. “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites.” June 21.

[4] Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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