Images & Realities: Asian-Americans Protesting the Myth of the 'Model Minority'
Organizing Principles: The Myth of the "Model Minority"
(an article by Ronald Takaki)
Today Asian Americans are celebrated
as America 's "model minority".
In 1986, `NBC Nightly News' and the `McNeil/Lehrer Report' aired
special news segments on Asian Americans and their success,
and a year later, CBS's `60 Minutes' presented a glowing report
on their stunning achievements in the academy".
Why are Asian Americans doing so
exceptionally well in school?"
Mike Wallace asked, and quickly added,
"They must be doing something right.
Let's bottle it".
Meanwhile, `U.S. News & World Report'
featured Asian-American advances in a cover story,
and `Time' devoted an entire section on this
meteoric minority in its special immigrants issue,
"The Changing Face of America".
Not to be outdone by its competitors, `Newsweek'
titled the cover story of its college-campus magazine
"Asian-Americans: The Drive to Excel" and a lead article
of its weekly edition "Asian Americans: A 'Model Minority'".
'"Fortune went even further, applauding
them as "America's Super Minority,"
and the `New Republic' extolled
"The Triumph of Asian-Americans" as
"America's greatest success story".
The celebration of Asian-American
"achievements" in the press has been
echoed in the political realm.
Congratulations have come even from the White House.
In a speech presented to Asian and Pacific Americans in
the chief executive's mansion in 1984, President Ronald
Reagan explained the 'significance' of their "success".
America has a rich and diverse heritage, Reagan
declared, and Americans are 'all' "descendants
of immigrants in search of the "American dream"
[conveniently forgetting, of course, the
`unique history' of both the Amerindian
and African-American `ethnic' groups]
He praised Asian and Pacific Americans for helping to "preserve
that dream by living up to the bedrock values" of America
the principles of "the sacred worth of human life,
religious faith, community spirit and the responsibility
of parents and schools to be teachers of tolerance,
hard work, fiscal responsibility, cooperation, and love".
"It's no wonder," Reagan emphatically noted,
"that the median incomes of Asian and
Pacific-American families are much
higher than the total American average".
Hailing Asian and Pacific Americans as `an example for all'
Americans, Reagan conveyed his `gratitude' to them:
we need "your values, your hard work"
expressed within "our political system".
BUT IN THEIR CELEBRATION OF THIS "MODEL MINORITY,"
THE PUNDITS AND THE POLITICIANS HAVE
EXAGGERATED ASIAN-AMERICAN "SUCCESS"
AND HAVE CREATED A NEW MYTH.
Their comparisons of incomes between Asians
and whites fail to recognize the regional
location of the Asian-American population.
Concentrated in California , Hawaii , and New York ,
Asian Americans reside largely in states with higher incomes
but also higher costs of living than the national average:
59 percent of all Asian Americans lived in these three states
in 1980, compared to only 19 percent of the general population.
The use of "family incomes" by Reagan and others has
been VERY MISLEADING, for Asian-American families
have more persons working per family than white families.
In 1980, white nuclear families in California
had only 1.6 workers per family,
compared to 2.1 for Japanese, 2.0 for immigrant Chinese,
2.2 for immigrant Filipino, and 1.8 for immigrant Korean
(this last figure is actually higher, for many
Korean women are unpaid family workers).
Thus the family incomes of Asian Americans
indicate the presence of more workers in each family,
rather than higher incomes.
Actually, in terms of PERSONAL INCOMES,
Asian Americans have NOT reached equality.
In 1980 the mean personal income for
white men in California was $23,400.
While Japanese men earned a comparable income,
they did so only by acquiring more education
(17.7 years compared to 16.8 years for
white men twenty-five to forty-four years old)
and by working more hours
(2,160 hours compared to 2,120 hours
for white men in the same age category).
In reality, then, Japanese men were still behind Caucasian men.
Income inequalities for other men were more evident:
--Korean men earned only $19,200, or
82 percent of the income of white men,
Chinese men only $15,900 or 68 percent,
and Filipino men only $14,500 or 62 percent.
---In New York the mean personal income
for white men was $21,600, compared to
only $18,900 or 88 percent for Korean men,
$16,500 or 76 percent for Filipino men, and
only $11,200 or 52 percent for Chinese men.
--In the San Francisco Bay Area, Chinese-immigrant men
earned only 72 percent of what their white counterparts earned,
Filipino-immigrant men 68 percent, Korean-immigrant men
69 percent, and Vietnamese-immigrant men 52 percent.
The incomes of Asian-American men were close to and
sometimes even below those of black men (68 percent)
and Mexican-American men (71 percent).
The patterns of income inequality for
Asian men reflect a structural problem:
Asians tend to be located in the labor market's secondary sector,
where wages are low and promotional prospects minimal.
Asian men are clustered as janitors, machinists,
postal clerks, technicians, waiters, cooks,
gardeners, and computer programmers;
they can also be found in the primary sector,
but here they are found mostly in the lower-tier levels
as architects, engineers, computer-systems analysts,
pharmacists, and schoolteachers,
rather than in the upper-tier levels of
management and decision making".
Labor market segmentation and
restricted mobility between sectors,"
observed social scientists Amado Cabezas and Gary Kawaguchi,
"help promote the economic interest and privilege of those with
capital or those in the primary sector, who mostly are white men".
This pattern of Asian absence from the higher levels of
administration is characterized as "a glass ceiling"
a barrier through which top management positions can
only be seen, but not reached, by Asian Americans.
While they are increasing in numbers
on university campuses as students,
they are virtually nonexistent as administrators:
at Berkeley 's University of California campus
where 25 percent of the students were Asian in 1987,
only one out of 102 top-Ievel administrators was an Asian.
In the United States as a whole, only 8 percent
of Asian Americans in 1988 were "officials" and
"managers," as compared to 12 percent for all groups.
Asian Americans are even more scarce in
the upper strata of the corporate hierarchy:
they constituted less than half of one percent
of the 29,000 officers and directors of
the nation's thousand largest companies.
Though they are highly educated, Asian Americans
are generally not present in positions of
executive leadership and decision making".
Many Asian Americans hoping to climb
the corporate ladder face an arduous
ascent," the Wall Street Journal observed".
Ironically, the same companies that pursue
them for technical jobs often shun them when
filling managerial and executive positions".
Asian Americans complain that they are often
stereotyped as passive and told they lack the
aggressiveness required in administration.
The problem is not whether their culture
encourages a reserved manner, they argue,
but whether they have opportunities for
social activities that have traditionally been
the exclusive preserve of elite white men".
How do you get invited to the cocktail
parry and talk to the chairman?"
asked Landy Eng, a former assistant vice president of Citibank".
It's a lot easier if your father or your uncle or his friend
puts his arm around you at the party and says,
'Landy, let me introduce you to Walt.'
Excluded from the "old boy" network, Asian Americans
are also told they `are inarticulate' and `have an accent'.
Edwin Wong, a junior manager at Acurex, said:
"I was given the equivalent of an ultimatum:
'Either you improve your accent or your future in
getting promoted to senior management is in jeopardy".
The accent was a perceived problem at work".
I felt that just because I had an accent
a lot of Caucasians thought I was stupid".
But whites with German, French, or English
accents do not seem to be similarly handicapped.
Asian Americans are frequently viewed
as technicians rather than administrators.
Thomas Campbell, a general manager
at Westinghouse Electric Corp.,
said that Asian Americans would be
happier staying in technical fields and
that few of them are adept at sorting through
the complexities of large-scale business.
This very image can produce a reinforcing pattern:
Asian-American professionals often find they "top out,"
reaching a promotional ceiling early in their careers".
The only jobs we could get were based on merit," explained
Kumar Patel, head of the material science division at AT&T".
That is why you find most [Asian-Indian] professionals in
technical rather than administrative or managerial positions".
Similarly an Asian-Indian engineer who had worked
for Kaiser for some twenty years told a friend:
"They [management] never ever give you
[Asian Indians] an executive position in the company.
You can only go up so high and no more".
Asian-American "success" has emerged as
"the new stereotype" for this ethnic minority.
While this image has led many teachers and employers
to view Asians as intelligent and hardworking and has
opened some opportunities, it has also been harmful.
Asian Americans find their diversity as individuals denied:
many feel forced to conform to the "model minority" mold and want
more freedom to be their individual selves, to be "extravagant".
Asian university students are concentrated in the sciences
and technical fields, but many of them wish they had greater
opportunities to major in the social sciences and humanities".
"We are educating a generation of Asian technicians",
observed an Asian-American professor at Berkeley ,
"but the communities also need their historians and poets".
Asian Americans find themselves all lumped
together and their diversity as groups overlooked.
Groups that `are not doing well', such as the unemployed Hmong,
the Downtown Chinese, the elderly Japanese, the old Filipino
farm laborers, and others, `have been rendered invisible'.
To be out of sight is also to be without social services.
Thinking Asian Americans have succeeded,
government officials have sometimes denied funding
for social service programs designed to help Asian
Americans learn English and find employment.
Failing to realize that there are poor Asian families,
college administrators have sometimes excluded Asian-American
students from Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP),
which are intended for all students from low-income families.
Asian Americans also find themselves `pitted against
and resented by' other racial-minorities and even whites.
If Asian Americans can "make it" `on their own', pundits
are asking, why can't poor-blacks and whites-on-welfare?
Even middle-class whites, who are experiencing
economic difficulties because of plant closures
in a de-industrializing America and the
expansion of low-wage service employment,
have been urged to emulate the Asian-American
"model minority" and to "work harder".
Indeed, the story of the Asian-American "triumph" offers
ideological "affirmation" of `the American Dream'
in an era anxiously witnessing the decline of
the United States in the international economy
(due to its trade imbalance and its transformation
from a creditor to a debtor nation),
the emergence of a `'new black underclass'
and a 'collapsing white middle class'
(the percentage of households earning a "middle-class" income
falling from 28.7 percent in 1967 to 23.2 percent in 1983).
Intellectually, it has been used to explain "losing ground"
why `the situation of the poor' has deteriorated during the
last two decades of "expanded" government social services.
According to this view, advanced by pundits like Charles Murray,
the interventionist federal state, operating on the
"misguided wisdom" of the 1960s, "made matters worse":
`it [is alleged to have] created a web of welfare-dependency'.
But this analysis has overlooked the structural
problems in society and our economy,
and it has led to "easy" cultural explanations
and [even worse' "quick-fix prescriptions".
Our difficulties, we are sternly told,
stem from our waywardness:
Americans have strayed from the
Puritan "errand into the wilderness".
They have abandoned the old American "habits of the heart".
Praise for Asian-American success is America 's most recent
jeremiad a renewed commitment to make America
number one again and a call for a rededication to
"the bedrock values" of hard work, thrift, and industry.
Like many congratulations, this one may
veil a spirit of competition, even jealousy.
Significantly, Asian-American "success"
has been accompanied by the rise of
a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment.
On college campuses, racial slurs have
surfaced in conversations on the quad:
"Look out for the Asian Invasion" "M.I.T. means Made in Taiwan ".
"U.C.L.A. stands for University of Caucasians Living among Asians".
Nasty anti-Asian graffiti have suddenly appeared on the walls of
college dormitories and in the elevators of classroom buildings:
"Chink, chink, cheating chink!"
"Stop the Yellow Hordes".
"Stop the Chinese before they flunk you out".
Ugly racial incidents have broken out on college campuses.
At the University of Connecticut , for example, eight Asian-American
students experienced a nightmare of abuse in 1987.
Four couples had boarded a college bus to attend a dance".
The dance was a formal and so we were wearing gowns,"
said Marta Ho, recalling the horrible evening with tears".
The bus was packed, and there was a rowdy
bunch of white guys in the back of the bus.
Suddenly I felt this warm sticky stuff on my hair.
They were spitting on us!
My friend was sitting sidewise and got hit
on her face and she started screaming.
Our boy friends turned around, and one
of the white guys, a football player, shouted:
'You want to make something out of this, you Oriental faggots!'"
Asian-American students at the University of Connecticut
and other colleges are angry, arguing that there
should be no place for racism on campus and that they
have as much right as anyone else to be in the university.
--Many of them are children of recent immigrants who
had been college-educated professionals in Asia.--
They see how their parents had to become greengrocers,
restaurant operators, and storekeepers in America , and
they want to have greater career choices for themselves.
Hopeful a college education can help them
overcome racial obstacles, they realize
the need to be serious about their studies.
But white college students complain:
"Asian students are nerds".
This very stereotype betrays nervousness
fears that Asian-American students
are raising class grade curves.
White parents, especially alumni, express concern about
how Asian-American students are taking away "their" slots
---- admission places that `should have' gone to their children".
Legacy" admission slots reserved for children of alumni
have [historically] come to function as a kind of
'invisible affirmative-action program' for whites.
A college education has always
represented a valuable economic resource,
credentialing individuals for high income and status employment,
and the university has recently become a contested
terrain of competition between whites and Asians.
In paneled offices, university administrators meet to discuss the
"problem" of Asian-American "overrepresentation" in enrollments.
Paralleling the complaint about the rising numbers of
Asian-American students in the university is a growing worry
that there are also "too many" immigrants coming from Asia .
Recent efforts to "reform" the 1965 Immigration Act seem
reminiscent of the nativism prevalent in the 1880s and the 1920s.
Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming , for example,
noted how the great majority of the new immigrants
were from Latin America and Asia , and how
"a substantial portion" of them did not
"integrate fully" into American society".
If language and cultural separatism rise above a certain level,"
he warned, "the unity and political stability of the Nation
will in time be seriously eroded.
Pluralism within a united American
nation has been our greatest strength.
The unity comes from a common language and a core
public culture of certain shared values, beliefs, and
customs, which make us distinctly 'Americans.
'"In the view of many supporters of immigration
reform, the post-1965 immigration from Asia
and Latin America threatens the "traditional
unity" and "identity" of the American people".
The immigration from the turn of the century was largely a
continuation of immigration from previous years in that the
European stock of Americans was being maintained,"
explained Steve Rosen, a member of an organization
lobbying for changes in the current law".
Now, we are having a large influx of third-world people, which could
be potentially disruptive of our whole `Judeo'-Christian heritage".
Significantly, in March 1988, the Senate passed a bill
that would limit the entry of family members and
that would provide 55,000 new visas to be
awarded to "independent immigrants" on the basis of education,
work experience, occupations, and "English language skills".
Political concerns usually have cultural representations.
The entertainment media have begun
marketing Asian stereotypes again:
where Hollywood had earlier portrayed Asians as Charlie Chan
displaying his wit and wisdom in his fortune cookie Confucian
quotes and as the evil Fu Manchu threatening white women,
the film industry has recently been presenting
images of comic Asians (in Sixteen Candles)
and criminal Asian aliens (in Year of the Dragon).
Hollywood has entered the realm of foreign affairs.
The Deer Hunter "explained" `why' the
United States lost the war in Vietnam .
In this story, young American men are sent to fight in Vietnam ,
but they are not psychologically prepared for the utter cruelty
of physically disfigured Viet Cong clad in black pajamas.
Shocked and disoriented, they collapse morally into a
world of corruption, drugs, gambling, and Russian roulette.
There seems to be something sinister in Asia and the people there
that is beyond the capability of civilized Americans to comprehend.
Upset after seeing this movie, refugee Thu-Thuy Truong exclaimed:
"We didn't play Russian roulette games in Saigon !
The whole thing was made up".
Similarly Apocalypse Now portrayed lost innocence:
Americans enter the heart of darkness in Vietnam and become
possessed by madness (in the persona played by Marlon Brando) but are
saved in the end by their own technology
and violence (represented by Martin Sheen).
Finally, in movies celebrating the exploits of Rambo,
Hollywood has allowed Americans to win `in fantasy'
the Vietnam War they had lost `in reality'.
Do we get to win this time?" snarls Rambo,
our modern Natty Bumppo, a hero of limited
conversation and immense patriotic rage.
Meanwhile, anti-Asian feelings and misunderstandings have
been exploding violently in communities across the country,
from Philadelphia , Boston and New York to Denver and
Galveston , Seattle , Portland , Monterey , and San Francisco .
In Jersey City , the home of 15,000 Asian Indians,
a hate letter published in a local newspaper warned:
"We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City .
If I'm walking down the street and I see a Hindu
and the setting is right, I will just hit him or her.
We plan some of our more extreme attacks such as breaking
windows, breaking car windows and crashing family parties.
We use the phone book and look up the name Patel.
Have you seen how many there are?"
The letter was reportedly written by the "Dotbusters,"
a cruel reference to the bindi some
Indian women wear as a sign of sanctity.
Actual attacks have taken place, ranging from verbal
harassments and egg throwing to serious beatings.
Outside a Hoboken restaurant on September 27, 1987, a gang
of youths changing "Hindu, Hindu" beat Navroz Mody to death.
A grand jury has indicted four teenagers for the murder.
Five years earlier a similarly brutal incident occurred in Detroit .
There, in July, Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American,
and two friends went to a bar in the late afternoon
to celebrate his upcoming wedding.
Two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and
Michael Nitz, called Chin a "Jap" and cursed".
It's because of you motherf******* that we're out of work".
A fistfight broke out, and Chi, then quickly left the bar.
But Ebens and Nitz took out a baseball bat from the
trunk of their car and chased Chin through the streets.
They finally cornered him in front of a McDonald's restaurant.
Nitz held Chin while Ebens swung the bat across the victim's shins
and then bludgeoned Chin to death by shattering his skull.
Allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter, Ebens and Nitz were
sentenced to three years' probation and fined $3,780 each.
But they have not spent a single night in jail for their bloody deed".
Three thousand dollars can't even buy a good used car these days,"
snapped a Chinese American,
"and this was the price of a life".
"What kind of law is this? What kind of justice?"
cried Mrs. Lily Chin, the slain man's mother".
This happened because my son is Chinese.
If two Chinese killed a white person, they
must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives....
Something is wrong with this country".
[Excerpted from `Strangers From a Different Shore: A History(Related Article) The Other Side of the Model Minority Myth
of Asian Americans' (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), pp. 474-487]