Appealing to the Model Minority Won’t Stop Anti-Asian Hate

In an op-ed for The Washington Post this week, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang urged Asian Americans to combat a recent surge in anti-Asian hate by “embrac[ing] and show[ing] our American-ness in ways we never have before.” He praised Japanese Americans who volunteered for military service from WWII concentration camps “to demonstrate that they were Americans” — conveniently ignoring the state violence that narrowed their choices, and erasing those who were enlisted against their will — and concludes that Asian Americans who face racism today should likewise “show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” 

The crisis that he describes is very real. The FBI warned of an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes after President Trump and other government officials repeatedly used racialized terms like “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu” to describe the novel coronavirus. STOP AAPI HATE, which tracks discrimination against Asian Americans related to the COVID-19 pandemic, received over 670 reports of verbal or physical attacks in its first week alone. But Yang’s claim that Asian Americans need only put on a polite smile and “wear red white and blue” to avoid racist abuse is ahistorical and dangerously wrong. 

During World War II, Japanese American Citizens League leader Mike Masaoka made similar statements, counseling obedience and assimilation to quell anti-Japanese sentiment. Masaoka’s wartime respectability politics didn’t stop the hate, but it did undermine efforts to push back against the injustice of incarceration.

Japanese American children waving a flag and saying goodbye from the train to Manzanar. The children were removed from Bainbridge Island, Washington on March 30, 1942 under Exclusion Order No. 1. Photo courtesy of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.

In an almost mirror image of Yang’s model minority appeal today, Masaoka wrote in his autobiography that, under his leadership, the “JACL urged its members to cooperate with authorities, buy war bonds, volunteer for civil defense units, sign up for first-aid classes and donate blood, look for good newspaper publicity, and, in short, do everything to project a favorable patriotic image.” 

At a New Year’s Eve celebration a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, as hundreds of Issei men arrested by the FBI sat in jails separated from their families — some of them reported by JACL members who considered them “traitorous elements” within the community — Masaoka encouraged his fellow Japanese Americans to “assume [their] duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without any reservations whatsoever.” 

Six weeks later — apparently unmoved by these performances of patriotism — FDR issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced exile of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

As the government finalized plans for the mass removal, Masaoka approached the army with a proposal to form a suicide battalion of Nisei soldiers, offering up their immigrant parents as hostages lest they falter in their patriotic duty. The proposal was, thankfully, ignored. But when the army began drafting Japanese Americans out of the camps, the JACL stigmatized more than 300 young men who refused to risk their lives for the country that had imprisoned them, suggesting they be charged with sedition on top of Selective Service violations and publishing editorials calling them “draft dodgers” who had “injured the cause of loyal Japanese Americans everywhere.”

These gratuitous demonstrations of “loyalty” — from Masaoka and others who shared his views — did not save Japanese Americans from the trauma of incarceration. On the contrary, the silencing of dissenting opinions drove a wedge through the community during a time of crisis, and created deep wounds that still fester today.

An Issei WWI veteran reporting to Santa Anita Assembly Center in his U.S. Army uniform. April 5, 1942. Photo by Clem Albers, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Nisei soldiers who Yang cites in his op-ed faced racist attacks themselves — in some cases even while wearing a U.S. Army uniform. In one of several examples of terrorist violence aimed at Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast, the family of Shig Doi, a soldier in the 442nd who was part of the famed Rescue of the Lost Battalion, endured a two-night ordeal that involved the attempted dynamiting and arson of their packing shed, followed by shots fired at their house from passing cars. Four men were arrested and went to trial. But despite a confession from one man that implicated the others, and a defense attorney who simply cited the Bataan Death March while arguing, “This is a white man’s country,” the all-white jury acquitted the men of all charges. 

Shig later recounted in an interview, “I was getting shot at from the enemy, and then at home in my own country, people were shooting at my dad. I was risking my life for this country, and my government was not protecting my folks.”

An anti-Japanese message on the door of a Parker, Arizona barbershop. On November 9, 1944, the barber, Andy Hale, evicted PFC Raymond Matsuda, a wounded Nisei veteran still on crutches, from his shop. A month later, on December 18, three Nisei soldiers—Yasuo Takasaki, Kazuo Charles Sukekane, Isami Charles Tanimura—were stoned in Parker “by a gang led by a drunken deputy sheriff” while on a furlough before going overseas. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Japanese American military service did play an undeniable role in easing anti-Japanese sentiment after the war — but so did coalitions with other communities of color, the nation’s attention shifting to the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, and many other historical events that make Yang’s analogy ring false today.

Yang is severely mistaken if he thinks the lesson we should take away from our history is that Asian Americans can, or should, escape racism by appealing to racists. Japanese Americans tried to prove their loyalty to this country during WWII, through military service, through quiet endurance, and, in some cases, through the vilification of those who chose to exert their American-ness in acts of civil disobedience. These demonstrations did not prevent the uprooting of our community, the years of incarceration without trial, or the onslaught of rhetorical and physical hate directed at Asian bodies.

Should we, as Yang says in his op-ed, “step up, help our neighbors… and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis”? Absolutely. Many Asian Americans are already creating community support networks to supply our elders with groceries and ensure that Chinatown and Nihonmachi businesses stay afloat. But flag-waving allegiance should not be a prerequisite for ending anti-Asian violence.

Putting on a model minority show of hyperpatriotism and unrequited loyalty will not protect us. What will protect us is solidarity. With Black folks creating pathways to liberation through both white supremacy and anti-Blackness from other people of color. With Indigenous peoples fighting to protect and nurture the land on which we stand. With survivors who are already intimately familiar with the consequences of victim-blaming, and actively engaged in building a world where we need not “prove” our worth. And with Asian Americans striving for true justice, not proximity to whiteness.

Now is not the time to cull the dissenters and resisters from our communities. Now is not the time to retreat to the center and erase those who live on the margins. Rather than appealing to notions of loyalty and “American-ness” that demand we sacrifice our cultural and political identities as a price of admission, let us instead build our own power and mutual support. 

We are enough, and we have nothing to prove.

By Densho Communications Coordinator Nina Wallace

[Header photo: Original WRA caption: San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education. April 20, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.]

Single Comment
    • 03/04/2020 at 23:36

    Okay, here’s my response to Andrew Yang’s op-ed. Selected passages from his article are marked with asterisks; my responses in-between. Be forewarned, mine contain an abundance of F-bombs. Be thoughtful about sharing…


    Andrew Yang’s recent Washington Post op-ed begins by relating an unpleasant experience he had:

    *** Last week I was shopping for groceries and preparing to hole up at home with my wife, Evelyn, and our two boys…

    *** Three middle-aged men in hoodies and sweatshirts stood outside the entrance of the grocery store. They huddled together talking. One looked up at me and frowned. There was something accusatory in his eyes. And then, for the first time in years, I felt it.

    *** I felt self-conscious — even a bit ashamed — of being Asian. ***

    More on this sad admission later… He goes on:

    *** “…The truth is that people are wired to make attributions based on appearance, including race.” ***

    Making “attributions based on appearance, including race” is another way of describing oppression – all the ways that we de-humanize people based on their identity: i.e., Asians are emotionless, women are weak, Gays are sick, Mexicans are lazy, old people are useless, blah-blah… The term “wired” suggests that something is biologically inherent to people. Yang’s statement seems to imply that people are inherently oppressors. I disagree.

    I think you have to corrupt a person’s mind – with lies, bribes, confusion, distortions and threats – to get them to collude with oppression. You have to damage people’s humanity in order to make them functionally stupid in this way. I don’t believe White people are born with a pre-disposition to be racist oppressors anymore than I believe people of color are born pre-disposed to be victims.

    Rather, we are all conditioned by a society riddled with oppressive dynamics everywhere we turn, bombarding us with bullshit from day one. Racism is an invisible current (i.e. bias) in the ocean of humanity; it is the air we breathe; it has been the norm for centuries and therefore has tended to go unnoticed and unchallenged. But I don’t believe we are “wired” to be racist towards one another. “Racism is a virus” is one of the current phrases going around and I think that much better describes it.

    *** “…The best thing that could happen for Asians would be to get this virus under control so it isn’t a problem anymore. Then any racism would likely fade.” ***

    This represents the appeasement strategy for dealing with racism – throw it a piece of meat so it doesn’t bite you. An understandable desire, but one which lands somewhere in the territory of “symptom-suppression” and then considers that to be adequate. Like, “Whew, we dodged that one! Okay, we’re good…” As opposed to, “This shit is seriously fucked up and it has to stop!”

    Racism does not “fade”. It may go underground, but don’t kid yourself – it’s virulent as ever, and the changes that need to happen in our society go far beyond symptom-suppression.

    *** …I’m an entrepreneur. In general, negative responses don’t work. I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. But saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” won’t work. ***

    That is partially true. Racism is not a rational human function, and as such it is not necessarily going to respond to a rational admonition like “don’t be oppressive”. And most of us are familiar with the utter futility of trying to talk someone out of their bigotry (usually on Facebook).

    BUT –

    It does make a difference when we take a visible, audible stand against oppression. It makes a difference when bigotry is condemned and not condoned (especially by our leaders). It makes a difference when we, as a society, say “This is wrong. Don’t do it.” So yeah, we should be saying it. Except I would say it with a slightly different emphasis: “FUCK NO, DON’T BE FUCKING RACIST TOWARDS ASIANS, YOU FUCKING FUCK-FACE.”

    (guess I need to work on my tone some more…)

    *** During World War II, Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans. ***

    The experience of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the unit of all-Japanese American soldiers during WWII, was a paradoxical and complex phenomenon. As the most highly-decorated combat unit in U.S. military history, their heroic actions did indeed “win over” some White men, mainly within the military, but all the way up to President Truman. The Japanese American men of the 442nd proved their American-ness beyond a shadow of a doubt, with their blood and with their lives.

    But here’s the truly fucked-up part: THEY NEVER SHOULD HAVE HAD TO DO THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE. They were born and bred in America, just as much as any Iowa farm-boy.

    Plus, their blood-sacrifice as proof of their loyalty didn’t exactly erase racism from the minds of White America. The Honorable Senator Daniel Inouye, back from the war minus his right arm lost to a German grenade, was still refused a haircut by a barber who “didn’t serve Japs.”

    Which brings me to where Andrew Yang is totally wack with his solution to anti-Asian racism: Asian Americans need to try harder to prove their American-ness. In other words, Asian Americans are the ones who need to change — not the racists, not the racist attitudes, not the targeting and idiotic, unjust blaming.

    A key insight can be found in Andrew Yang’s admission of feeling “…a bit ashamed – of being Asian” – evidence that he has internalized a tasty morsel of racism.

    To be clear, this is in no way any fault of Yang’s. Most people do internalize aspects of the oppressions that target them, and thus to varying degrees live their lives in reaction to having been oppressed. It happens. And to blame someone for having internalized their oppression is just wrong, like blaming someone for having gotten hurt.

    It is, however, an explanation for why Andrew Yang might think it is he who must change, him who is the problem, him who has to compensate, try harder, make adjustments – not the bigots.

    *** We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need. ***

    “We need to… wear red white and blue”? Give me a fucking break. Could there be a more pathetic, superficial gesture of beseeching bigots for acceptance? It echoes what I found to be the most distasteful aspect of Yang’s Presidential campaign: pandering to stereotypes about Asian Americans vis-à-vis his “I’m Asian, so I’m good at math” tactic. I get it, it was his attempt to defuse the racism, but it still kinda made me wanna throw up in my mouth. I’m Asian, so I’m gagging…

    Asian Americans have NOTHING to prove regarding our American-ness. To assume we need to do so is to accept the false premise that, by our race, we really ARE less American to begin with. Sorry, no. That is racism’s fucked-up perspective, not mine. And I refuse to jump through hoops to win America’s approval.

    I wanna say this: I like Andrew Yang. I was not onboard with The Yang Gang nor his policies, but in listening to him speak throughout his campaign I came to appreciate many things about him: his thoughtfulness, his integrity and character, his focus, his honesty, his heart. I am not attacking Andrew Yang personally, but I do want to demolish his proposal. He is so terribly off-target here, it’s downright painful. It represents a huge step backwards for Asian Americans, one that is potential dangerous because it puts out a message that non-Asians in this country can expect us to kowtow for their approval. It suggests we re-install an inferior American-ness into our consciousness. Again, no thanks.

    Just like most folks in this country, Asian Americans are deeply engaged in the battle to end suffering and help save lives in our country, trying to make a positive difference against this colossal pandemic. And we do this for various reasons: because we come from cultures that honor and practice cooperation. We understand what it means to prioritize the good of the larger group above the individual. We come from traditions of generosity and caring. Because we care deeply about our country, and want to do the right thing.

    But one reason sure as hell won’t be because we need to prove our American-ness. Fuck that shit, and fuck the ethnic-neutral virus it rode in on.

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