The Struggles and Successes of a Model Minority

By Zhaoyang Liu

While Asians are now seen as one the most successful groups of immigrants in America, this was not always the case. Asian immigrants in the United States have experienced discrimination on multiple different occasions. It is important to remember their history in order to fully understand how they factor into the dynamic of the United States.

The first Asian immigrants did not come to the country in search of business opportunities, a better education or the chance to prove their intellectual abilities. The first large wave of Asian immigration took place in the 1850s, coinciding with the California Gold Rush. The majority of these migrants were Chinese, seeking refuge from the Opium Wars and a chance to send money back to their families at home. They were seen as a way to fill the demand for cheap labor, most notoriously working on the Transcontinental Railroad. Throughout the late 1800s, Japanese, Korean, and South Asian immigrants also arrived, filling similar labor demands. Along with this was a growing nativist sentiment, leading to the term “yellow peril”, which postulated that East Asians were dangerous to Westerners, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which initially placed a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration.

In 1917 the United States passed the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, which prohibited many Asians from immigrating to the country based on the sentiment that they were “undesirables.” Those already in America were unable to become citizens and thus lacked the rights guaranteed by that denomination. It was not until 1943 that Asians were allowed to immigrate to the United States again. Yet even then there were tight restrictions on the number of immigrants that were allowed to settle in the country.

Things were not easy for Asian-Americans during the 1940s as Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps amidst a fury of fear and paranoia as a result of the war in the Pacific. After the war exclusionary policies finally began to recede, giving place to the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which provided policies for the naturalization of Indian and Filipino nationals, and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which repealed certain parts of the Naturalization Act of 1790. However, there was still a clearly defined immigration quota system in place during this time. It was the Immigration Act of 1965 that truly changed the dynamic of Asian immigration to the United States.

Nowadays the reception of Asian-Americans has changed drastically. Not only are they oftentimes stereotyped as model students or scientists, many aspects of their culture are becoming increasingly popular among Americans. Unfortunately, the concepts of both ‘model minorities’ and positive stereotypes carry with them their own problems. These factors can oftentimes interfere with or even stifle progress towards the acceptance of other immigrant groups.

While Asian-Americans are now perceived in a better light than in the past, it is important to retain their legacy. Scott Simon presents this idea in an NPR podcast:

“David Henry Hwang, whose plays include M. Butterfly, Yellow Face and Chinglish, says, ‘In my lifetime, Asians have gone from being seen as poor, uneducated laundry men to a stereotype of the kids who raise the curve in math class. But we’re still often seen as perpetual foreigners. We still get told, ‘You speak good English.’’ Mr. Hwang doesn’t want a modern stereotype to eclipse the story of the struggle many Asian immigrants had and still have. There are, he says, still Asians who come to the United States as stowaways in storage containers, men and women who aren’t coming here on scholarships but a hope: to build new lives with their own hands.”

The full podcast, titled “Behind The ‘Model Minority,’ An American Struggle” can be heard below:

Reflection Questions:

1. What factors influence how attitudes towards groups evolve over time? Compare and contrast these different elements.

2. Why did the perception of Asian-Americans change so drastically over such a short period of time? Was this largely due to the relaxation of Asian immigration laws and people getting to know Asians? If so, what implications does this have for the overarching process of integrating an immigrant group?

3. Consider the term model minority. What does it mean? What is implied by suggesting one group is a model minority? What factors – culturally, economically, or otherwise – might cause one minority group to be more highly regarded than another?

4. How does the history of a particular immigrant group factor into its identity? How can Asian-Americans reconcile the discrimination they faced in the past with their current ‘model minority’ status?

5. How much of a role does the media have in facilitating stereotypes such as the idea of the ‘model minority?’ In what ways can the media influence our understanding of immigrant groups and cultures?