By David Morse – New America Dimensions
In 2012, Pew Research Center published a glowing report on the state of Asians in the United States that was met by widespread criticism by Asian-American activists. Highlights included a median household income of $66,000 for Asian Americans, compared to $49,800 for Americans as a whole, and Asian-American median household wealth at $83,500 vs. $68,529 for the U.S. population. Pew reported that nearly half of all Asian-American adults have a college degree, compared with 28 percent of adults in the country, and that Asian Americans are more satisfied with their lives overall (82 percent vs. 75 percent), their personal finances (51 percent vs. 35 percent) and the general direction of the country (43 percent vs. 21percent).
Yet rather than basking in the light of such favorable statistics, thirty Asian and Pacific Island groups, “an alphabet soup of organizations,” criticized the report. “This study perpetuates false stereotypes,” charged the Japanese Citizens League. The Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education jointly announced that the study “only reinforces the mischaracterizations of Asian American students.”
The Pew study provoked such a strong reaction because it touched a nerve on many fronts. It ignored that Asian Americans have an overall poverty rate of 13 percent, including 38 percent of Hmong, 29 percent of Cambodians, 19 percent of Laotians, and 17 percent of Vietnamese. It did not mention that the high school dropout rate among Southeast Asian Americans is a staggering 40 percent of Hmong, 38 percent of Laotians, and 35 percent of Cambodians. Additionally, it did not consider the results of a Gallup survey, which showed that 31 percent of Asian Americans reported incidents of employment discrimination, the largest of any group, with African Americans constituting the second largest at 26 percent.
Rather, the Pew study seemed to suggest that all is rosy for Asian Americans, in essence confirming the stereotype of the “model minority,” silently achieving the American dream, while other minorities, as if by their own choice, are left behind. In the words of historian Vijay Prasad, “It is easier to be seen as a stereotype than as a problem.” Writes Min Zhou, a sociologist:
“One consequence of the model-minority stereotype is that it reinforces the myth that the United States is devoid of racism and accords equal opportunity to all, fostering the view that those who lag behind do so because of their own poor choices and inferior culture. Celebrating “model minorities” can help impede other racial minorities’ demands for social justice by pitting minority groups against each other. It can also pit Asian Americans against whites.”
According to sociologists Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin, being viewed as a model minority does not prevent Asian Americans from experiencing racial hostility and discrimination, particularly mocking and caricaturing. In their research, Chou and Feagin found that the Asian Americans whom they interviewed to be “excluded and othered,” often overtly. They conclude that for Asian Americans, racism is a constantly lived experience, which manifests with “a subtle or covert face, leaving its targets to wonder if an incident was indeed generated by discriminatory intent.” One of their respondents described his experience in the workplace working as a cabinetmaker:
“If you are Asian, they always pick on you. It doesn’t matter how good you are. I used to have a boss, and he would come to the shop and make fun of me, like talking in [mock] Chinese language … You don’t hear them making fun of whites, do you? If you make fun of them, then they will get angry … Take the N-word, they banned that word, but they are still calling the Chinese ‘Chinaman’.”
Being racialized as “perpetual foreigners” is another challenge that Asian Americans face. While stereotypes such as the “yellow peril” may be fading into the background of history, with immigration rates from Asia at an all-time high, Americans of Asian ancestry find themselves still having to constantly prove that they are “truly America.” Historian William Wei writes, “Whether negative or positive, stereotypes are essentially false images that obscure the complexity and diversity that is an inherent feature of Asian Americans as well as other people. Whether it be the Chinese launderer, the Korean grocery store owner, or the South Asian Maharaja, this kind of imagery reinforces the stereotype in the American mind that Asians, American or not, are ‘other’.”
When Chinese workers began arriving in large numbers to work the gold mines of California in the middle of the 19th century, contact with Asians on American shores had been only sporadic, limited to encounters with the occasional merchants who wound their way to North America, or those Chinese or Filipinos that escaped the Asian slave trade in Latin America after having been brought to the Americas on Spanish galleons that frequented the port of Acapulco. Far more Chinese landed in California than anywhere else in the United States, they were quickly labeled “coolies,” a designation that indicated they were in the country against their will.
Abolitionists were concerned that Chinese immigration amounted to a kind of “quasi-slavery.” C.E. De Long, the former minister to Japan, declared “These coolies are more absolute slaves than ever the negroes of the South were.” As the number of Chinese grew, not surprisingly, there was a backlash, with California being the focal point, but by no means the only locus of anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1870, during proceedings to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress debated whether Asians should be included in the naturalization statute which made “persons of African descent,” in addition to “white persons,” eligible for citizenship. Despite arguments by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to make naturalization color blind, he was defeated, and Asians, as a group, would be ineligible for citizenship until 1952. Writes Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of American Studies, “In the eyes of the American legal system, the Chinese were becoming black.”
In Los Angeles, in 1871, 21 Chinese were murdered by white mobs, representing a sizeable percentage of the population. It is estimated that over 100 Chinese were killed in Idaho in 1866 and 1867, and there were major anti-Chinese riots in Denver, in 1880, in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, and in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland in 1885 and 1886. Historian Roger Daniels, writing of the escalation of violence in the 1880s, explains: “The national climate of opinion, pervaded by racism and a burgeoning feeling of ethnic superiority … certainly contributed not just to the violence but also to the virtual unanimity with which the white majority put its seal of approval on anti-Chinese ends if not means … Another factor was probably psychological. The national anti-Chinese campaign was not just a crusade for the halting of immigration. In terms of rhetoric, at least, it was a campaign to get rid of Chinese.”
On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the notorious “Chinese Exclusion Act” which suspended Chinese immigration for a period of ten years. It was renewed in 1892, under the Geary Act, which extended Chinese exclusion for another ten years and imposed other restrictions.
By 1905, the Japanese immigration issue exploded into a national and international issue, as fears of the “Yellow Peril,” which built on a well-worn narrative that had been applied to the Chinese, but took on greater urgency given Japan’s rise as an economic and military power. As had been the case with the Chinese, Japanese were declared to be “unassimilable,” and the press was replete with exaggerated examples of how Japanese were unlike Americans, indeed worse than the Chinese who had come before them. In San Francisco, violent attacks on Japanese residents became the norm; in the summer and fall of 1906, there were nearly 300 attacks on Japanese in the city. In the spring of 1907, tensions erupted.
On January 25, 1908, the United States signed the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, so named because Japan agreed to the terms voluntarily rather than be subject to a humiliating Japanese exclusion bill. It was an informal agreement whereby the United States would not impose restriction on Japanese immigration, and Japan would not allow further emigration to the U.S.
Between 1910 and 1932, over 8,000 Asian Indians arrived, and furor over a “Hindu Invasion” and a “Tide of Turbans” gripped America, particularly in San Francisco, where workers saw yet another ploy to use cheap Asian labor to lower wages. Despite being largely Sikh, they were collectively labeled “Hindoos,” in order to distinguish them from American Indians, and they were categorized as being the least assimilable of all the immigrants from Asia, despite being considered by many anthropologists of the day to be “Aryans” or “Caucasians.”
Filipinos, who arrived in large numbers during the 1920s, faced a similar brand of legal and extralegal discrimination that earlier arrivals from Asia had encountered. Filipinos were frequently portrayed as uncivilized tribal people and “jungle folk,” as the president of California’s Immigration Study Commission labeled them, possessing a “primitive moral code.” According to Judge D.W. Rohrback of Monterey County, they were “little brown men about ten years removed from a bolo and breechcloth.” Congressman Richard J. Welch called Filipino immigration “one of the gravest problems that has ever faced the people of the Pacific Coast.”
World War II impacted different Asian communities in the United States in different ways. For Japanese Americans, lives were shattered when immigrants and those born in the United States were systematically rounded up and placed in internment centers, following the signing of Executive Order 90966 on February 19, 1942, just 74 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Koreans, classified by the Alien Registration Act of 1940 as subjects of Japan, though not incarcerated, were identified as “enemy aliens.” On the other hand, Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos fared much differently as a result of the war. China was an important ally, and in 1943, after decades of exclusion, immigration quotas, albeit small ones, were allotted to Chinese nationals, and Chinese immigrants were granted the right to become citizens. In 1946, Congress passed a bill granting naturalization to Indians and Filipinos living in the U.S. and allowing a small but symbolic number to immigrate to the United States. At the same time, the “aliens ineligible to citizenship” category was retained for Korean and Japanese women, as well as all non-Chinese Southeast Asians.
The advent of the Cold War brought with it, like World War II, divergent attitudes toward different Asian groups, reflecting as much America’s geopolitical concerns as events occurring in the United States. After China “fell” to Communism in 1949, Americans now distinguished between the hostile Chinese on the Communist mainland and the “loyal” Chinese nationalist forces, the Kuomintang, in Taiwan, and many Chinese living in the United States found themselves under suspicion of being part of a dangerous communist threat. Japan, once a dreaded foe, was now America’s ally, and as the U.S. established military bases throughout Japan in order to “contain” Communist aggression in Asia, tens of thousands of soldiers became romantically involved with Japanese women, many of whom returned to the United States under the War Brides Act, passed in December 1945. Between 1947 and 1964, about 72,700 Asian women entered the United States, of which 45,853 were Japanese, 14,435 Filipina, 7,000 Chinese, and 6,500 Korean, and women’s migration helped balance the heavily male-skewed gender ratios of Asia-American communities.
The term model minority appears to have been coined in 1966 in a New York Times article entitled “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” In the article, sociologist William Petersen attributed the success of Japanese Americans after World War II to cultural values, a strong work ethic, family structure, and genetics. In 1971, Newsweek added other Asian nationalities to Petersen’s thesis on Japanese advancement with an article entitled “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites.” In the late 1980s, as American automakers were being killed by Japanese competition, Time magazine profiled “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” on its cover.
In 1960, over half of Asian Americans were Japanese, a quarter were Chinese, and 20 percent were Filipinos. By 1985, while the proportion of Chinese and Filipinos remained relatively the same, Japanese Americans accounted for only 15 percent of the Asian American population. During those 25 years, Korean and Indian immigrants took advantage of amendments to immigration law that led to a shift toward highly skilled immigrants, and U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s led to waves of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees. In 1985, Southeast Asians accounted for nearly 20 percent of Asian Americans, while Koreans and Asian Indians each accounted for about 10 percent.
Asian immigration waves continue to bring gains to Asian populations. In the 20 year period from 1990 to 2010, the Chinese population more than doubled to 3.3 million, the Asian Indian population more than tripled to 2.8 million, becoming the second-largest Asian population in the United States; Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans also increased by large numbers. The only decline was that of the Japanese-American population. These six groups make up 85 percent of the Asian population.
As sociologists Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin note, “Subtle and blatant stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans still predominates in many areas of U.S. society.” In 2006, Adidas launched a new, limited-edition shoe, decorated with the face of an Asian character with buckteeth, a bowl haircut, and slanted eyes as a logo, provoking a heated debate about racism. That same year, Rosie O’Donnell used the expression “ching chong” to describe Chinese people talking about Danny DeVito’s drunken appearance on The View: “The fact is that it’s news all over the world. That you know, you can imagine in China it’s like, “Ching chong … ching chong. Danny DeVito, ching chong, chong, chong, chong. Drunk. The View. Ching chong.” In March 1997, the National Review released a cover titled “Manchurian Candidates,” with then President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton as slant-eyed, bucktoothed caricatures in Mao suits and turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chinese hats.
While not always in the limelight, and caught up in what is often a binary racial dynamic in the United States between black and white, the current experience of Asian Americans, while lacking the lacking the venom of the last century, is laden with stereotypes from days gone by. With Asian Americans taking their place as the fastest growing minority in the United States, and with an overwhelming number of younger Asian Americans having been born here, this previously scorned and excluded group is taking its place, front and center, in reshaping the America of today and tomorrow.