This is part one of a three-part series on U.S. public attitudes toward Chinese Americans. For more on this series, please click here.
What is a 'model minority'?
In the last major U.S. survey of attitudes about Chinese Americans, a 2009 report said their fellow Americans viewed them as "educated, having strong family values and [being] hardworking, intellectually bright and committing less crime than other ethnic groups."
The opinion poll by the Committee of 100, a New York-based organization of prominent Chinese Americans, also said 57 percent of those surveyed believed Asian Americans "often or always achieve a higher degree of overall success than other Americans." It said those perceptions were unchanged from a 2001 poll.
A more recent study of Asian American consumers collectively described them as "affluent, well-educated, geographically concentrated and technologically savvy."
The December report by Nielsen, a U.S. market research firm, called Asian American consumers a "powerful economic force that can represent significant growth opportunities for the nation’s businesses."
These flattering characterizations are a major factor behind stereotyping Chinese Americans as a "model minority” group.
But there is more.
Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, says white Americans typically see themselves as embodying the same values as Chinese and other Asian Americans. He says whites, who make up about three-quarters of the population, also feel an affinity with Chinese Americans because both have lighter skin relative to African Americans and other minorities.
"Whites and Asians cluster together," Gallagher says. "Since they regard each other as alike, they want to share 'social space' by living in a neighborhood, going to school, riding the bus or working together."
In a 2012 study, the Pew Research Center asked Chinese Americans how their community gets along with white Americans. It reported that 69 percent of respondents said "pretty well," and an additional 17 percent said "very well."
Gallagher says whites and Chinese Americans also are predisposed to gravitate to each other when it comes to romance. The Pew survey estimated that 26 percent of Chinese American newlyweds in the years 2008 to 2010 married a non-Asian American.
"Chinese Americans marry out at a very high rate, and when they marry, they marry into the dominant ethnic group," Gallagher says.
The acceptance of Chinese Americans in contemporary U.S. society contrasts sharply with American attitudes toward the first Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
History of discrimination
The first significant immigration from China to the United States began in the mid-19th century, when Chinese laborers came to the American West to build the transcontinental railroad and work in other industries, such as mining and agriculture.
Despite those contributions to the economy, many white Americans viewed the Chinese as competitors and racial inferiors.
William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says Chinese workers suffered exploitation and violence at the hands of whites, who forced the migrants to live in ghettos and pursue low-skilled occupations such as laundry and restaurant work.
"Chinese Americans were condemned as social pariahs incapable of ever becoming culturally assimilated into American society," Wei says.
Those attitudes culminated in the U.S. government adopting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese people from migrating to the United States and becoming citizens. It was the first and only U.S. law to ban a specific ethnic group.
The United States made the ban permanent in 1902. When China became an American ally in fighting imperial Japan during World War II, Washington passed another law repealing the immigration ban.
The 1943 law established quotas that initially permitted only 105 Chinese migrants per year. In 1965, Washington abolished the quota system with the Immigration and Nationality Act, ending an eight-decade barrier to Chinese immigration.
Frank H. Wu, chancellor of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, says the selective nature of Chinese immigration to the United States in the initial post-war decades is one reason why Chinese Americans have gained a reputation as highly educated.
"The Chinese people who were able to immigrate were talented, they were students on scholarships, they were people who had great potential," Wu says.
"Both of my parents came from China via Taiwan to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s because they won scholarships," he says. "They represented the 'cream of the crop.' So some of this [reputation] is what happens when you take the most educated, most promising young people of China and invite them here."
Wu, who blogs about Asian American issues for the Huffington Post, says even after U.S. immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, the new wave of Chinese migrants continued to have high rates of college attendance.
"So there is truth to this notion that Asian Americans value higher education," Wu says.
Asian Americans – foreign and U.S.-born – number at least 18.3 million, accounting for almost 6 percent of the U.S. population as of 2012, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from less than 1 percent in the 1960s.
The nation's 3.7 million Chinese Americans have led the modern immigration wave from Asia for the past 60 years.
Wu says some Chinese Americans take pride in being seen as a "model minority."
"They proclaim that they are 'tiger mothers,' " who impose traditional strict parenting on their children, "and call on others to follow their lead," he says.
But, Wu says his community should not embrace an image that also tends to contain resentment.
Drawbacks of a ‘positive’ stereotype
"Imagine someone standing up and saying, 'my race is better, you should be like me,’ " Wu says. "In a diverse democracy like the United States, I can't think of a worse way to invite other kids to beat your kids up than to say, 'yes, we really are the model minority.' "
LaSalle University's Gallagher says the idea that Chinese Americans are overachievers also creates problems for those who do not live up to that image.
"When an Asian kid enters my class, some students will think, is he going to be good in math? That is true for a subset of the Asian population, but it is not true for everyone that is Chinese or Asian American. So what happens if you are a Chinese American and you don't do well in school?"
He says people may wonder, "Are you not Chinese?"
Helen Zia, a Chinese American former journalist and author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, says the "model minority" stereotype has another harmful consequence for less fortunate ethnic Chinese citizens.
"It leads American policymakers to think they do not need to worry about the health problems or poverty of Asian Americans, because we are seen as so diligent that we will overcome everything on our own," Zia says.
Other impacts of the ‘model’ image
Historian Wei says the stereotype also is damaging to non-Asian minorities in the United States.
"Some Americans say: ‘Look what we did to the Chinese. We discriminated against them, committed violence against them, excluded them from the country, yet they still have achieved (success). Therefore, if your minority has not succeeded in our land of opportunity, it is clearly your fault.' "
Wei says such thinking leads people to blame racial prejudice and discrimination on the victims themselves, rather than the perpetrators.
Zia says the notion that Chinese Americans can overcome adversity feeds into another key stereotype of the community: that ethnic Chinese U.S. citizens are "foreigners" with sinister intent.
"If we are perceived as being able to endure everything, it also means that we can be perceived as being able to take over everything," she says.
Timeline and graphics by Idrees Ali. Additional research by Haleema Shah.