The social perception of Asian Americans has moved through many phases over more than two centuries of U.S. history. Early migrant workers commanded almost no social status as they toiled to create much of the country’s early infrastructure, including the Transcontinental railroad. From being viewed as a “yellow peril,” Asian Americans endured internment camps during World War II and emerged as a “model minority.” Ellen Wu, assistant professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington, traces this evolution in her new book, The Color of Success, as she tells VOA’s Jim Stevenson.
How did Asian Americans go from a so-called “Yellow Peril” state into a model minority?
WU: The idea of the model minority became common thinking in American society in the 1940s. It began with World War II. At that time, the United States was of course fighting the Nazis, fighting the fascists and really invested in becoming this emergent world leader. America’s leaders were really interested in making sure that the rest of the world knew that the United States stood for freedom and democracy and aspired to achieving equality for people of all racial backgrounds.
With that global ambition in mind, U.S. political leaders knew they would have to start cleaning up race relations at home in order to gain a kind of global legitimacy. Liberals especially began to attack the structures of white supremacy, but in the U.S. west that was the kind of web of laws and social practices known as Asian exclusion. In my book, I talk about how in the 1940s and 1950s people of Asian ancestry start to be considered by other Americans as what I call “assimilating others.” In other words, they are still different from white folks but they are certainly capable of becoming like white folk.
And then there is another turning point that starts to happen in the 1950s and 1960s. That is really when I would say the geopolitics of World War II and the Cold War intersect with the demands of the black freedom movement. Really the model minority stereotype emerges out of that.
STEVENSON: The 1960s African American movement clearly was not focused on Asians and equality among Asians, but how did that help Asians gain more equality in our society?
WU: If we backtrack a bit and think about the civil rights movement and the things that it accomplished, I would say at that time Asian Americans did sometimes join forces with African American groups and others to push for things like desegregated housing. I would say Asian Americans are 100% indebted to the achievements of African American black freedom movement activists because they were very much at the forefront of pushing the nation to dismantle the structures and practices of racial discrimination. So Asian Americans then did benefit from increased access to better schools, better jobs, better housing and more integrated neighborhoods.
STEVENSON: Asian Americans are a very complex group. You are talking about Chinese, Japanese, Korean, many nations in Southeast Asia all being lumped together as Asian Americans. Going a little beyond your book, is the so-called model minority still a positive model?
WU: The thing about the model minority stereotype, what it hides from public view is that Asian American communities face all kinds of struggles – poverty, immigration struggles, public health problems. One example is Asian American women I believe are the one group with the highest suicide rates of any racial and gender group in the United States.
I don’t see the model minority stereotype as ever having been positive because it has always worked to further the problems of not only Asian Americans, but also further the injustices and problems and challenges that people in these other groups have faced. Many Asian Americans I would say are working actually to destroy or obliterate the model minority mythology once and for all.