December 15, 2021
The idea of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has a long and complicated history. By focusing on cherry-picked indicators of “success” like income, education level, and low crime rates—while ignoring deeper social and economic factors—the model minority myth assigns seemingly positive stereotypes to Asian Americans: We work hard. We don’t complain. We’re good at math. You know the ones.
But there is real harm in even these “good” stereotypes. This myth erases disparities between the 40+ ethnic groups that fall under the “Asian American” umbrella, further marginalizes those who struggle to live up to it, and silences those who speak out against it. It’s also anti-Black at its core, and has long been weaponized against Black and brown communities labeled “problem minorities” for fighting back against racism.
In a new collaboration between TED-Ed and Densho, we created a short film and lesson that traces the origins of the model minority myth and the damage it causes. It’s a complex topic to squeeze into just six minutes, so we’ve compiled some additional resources to help you dig a little deeper. Scroll down for a timeline of the history behind the myth and where to learn more—and watch the video below!
A Timeline of the Model Minority Myth
The stereotypes that inform the model minority myth can be traced all the way back to the systems of slavery and genocide upon which this country was built, and the white supremacist beliefs that upheld them. In the interest of providing a brief(ish) overview, this timeline follows the development of the model minority myth from World War II to the present, when it begins to sharpen focus on Asian Americans.
As China becomes a U.S. ally in WWII, Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese Americans are recast as “good” Asians in contrast to “bad” Japanese. At the end of the war, Japanese Americans are released from concentration camps with explicit and implicit instructions to assimilate into white society. The record of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated, all-Japanese unit that suffered heavy casualties during WWII, is touted as a positive example of patriotism and sacrifice, and used to help rehabilitate the image of Japanese Americans.
The U.S. engages in the Cold War and devastating physical wars in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, claiming to fight communism and “bring democracy” to the rest of the world. But the growth of the civil rights and ethnic power movements puts a spotlight on racism and discrimination at home, and undermines American claims to greatness abroad. Politicians and the media popularize the idea of protesting Black and brown Americans as “problem minorities” and supposedly passive, hardworking Chinese and Japanese Americans as a “model minority.” Some Asian Americans buy into this idea, like Hokubei Mainichi editor Howard Imazeki, who stirs up controversy with a 1963 editorial calling on Black Americans to “better themselves” before asking for equal rights.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ends national origins quotas, allowing more immigration from Asia and other non-European countries. But a new tier system gives preference to “skilled” immigrants with relatives already in the U.S.—creating steep barriers to entry for poor and working class immigrants.
Many Asian Americans gain access to better housing, education, and jobs thanks to the Civil Rights Act, the overturning of restrictive housing covenants, and other achievements of Black activists. But racist practices like redlining, predatory lending, and “broken windows” policing create and maintain additional barriers that disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. Hidden beneath the veneer of Asian American “success” are stories of Southeast Asian refugees resettled in under-resourced and overpoliced neighborhoods where they lack access to social services, elderly residents of historic Chinatowns, Japantowns, and Manilatowns displaced from their homes by “urban renewal,” and Asian American youth navigating a crisis of addiction and suicide.
After more than a decade of political lobbying—much of it focused on the patriotism of the 442nd RCT—the Japanese American redress movement culminates in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which grants a formal apology and payments of $20,000 to living survivors of WWII incarceration. The descendants of those who died before the bill’s passage are excluded to avoid creating a precedent for reparations to Black and Indigenous people.
On April 29, four LAPD officers are acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. Outrage over the verdict, as well as decades of widening racial and economic inequality, erupts into five days of riots. Korean-owned businesses sustain much of the damage—fueled by anger over a lenient sentence handed down a week earlier to convenience store owner Soon Ja Du for the killing of Black teen Latasha Harlins, and tensions between Black and Latinx South Central residents and Asian shopkeepers perceived as “middleman minorities.” The LAPD largely ignores the violence in South Central LA to protect wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, while the mainstream press obscures the deeper, systemic problems behind the riots to instead create a sensationalized narrative of Black and brown mobs attacking Korean immigrants. Politicians blame the riots on a “culture of dependency” and, in the aftermath, enact policies gutting the social welfare system while investing heavily in prisons and policing.
Congress passes two laws—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)—that allow immigrants to be deported for minor, nonviolent crimes and previous convictions.
Thousands of Southeast Asian refugees are targeted for detention and deportation in the wake of AEDPA and IIRIRA. In Chinatowns across the country, an influx of luxury real estate development displaces many low-income residents and the businesses and institutions that serve them, triggering a housing crisis and increasing poverty for many Asian immigrants. These stories are rarely included in mainstream coverage of Asian Americans.
Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang kills Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, just a few months after the police murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner that ignited #BlackLivesMatter protests across the country. In response to his 2016 indictment, thousands of Asian Americans rally in support of Liang, claiming he is a scapegoat for white officers who were never held accountable for similar shootings. The rallies are widely denounced as an example of the model minority myth in action—including by many Asian Americans—but pro-Liang and anti-Black sentiment remains in many Asian American communities.
Meanwhile, a small but vocal group of Asian Americans align with white conservatives seeking to end affirmative action, joining a lawsuit and filing federal complaints against Harvard University claiming their race-conscious admissions policy discriminates against Asian applicants in favor of Black and Latinx applicants.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparks global protests and calls for abolition. Many see the role of Hmong American officer Tou Thau, who did not act to stop Chauvin, as a symbol of Asian American complicity in anti-Black violence—which then becomes a call to action for Asians to stand with Black communities against white supremacy.
Verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by political rhetoric attributing the virus to China. Amid viral videos of attacks on Asian elders and the horrific murder of eight people in two Asian massage parlors in Atlanta in March 2021, some argue that Asian Americans should protect themselves through appeals to patriotism while others say the violence shows just how little protection the model minority myth truly provides.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know there is a mountain of literature on the model minority myth. This list of readings, archive materials, and a few other resources—arranged chronologically to follow the myth’s historical arc—is intended as a starting place to learn more. We welcome suggestions of additional resources in the comments below.
Creating “Model” and “Problem” Minorities
“How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” LIFE Magazine, December 1941.
“Home Again. Japanese-American Farm Families Pick Up Peaceful, Industrious Lives,” The Seattle Times, April 1947.
Denaree Best, “California’s Amazing Japanese,” Saturday Evening Post, April 30, 1955.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (more commonly known as The Moynihan Report), 1965.
William Petersen, “Success Story: Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966.
“Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1966.
“Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites,” Newsweek, June 21, 1971. (Reprinted in the 1972 Pacific Citizen holiday edition.)
“Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1977.
Asian Americans Push Back against the Model Minority Myth
Amy Uyematsu, “The Emergence of Yellow Power,” Gidra Vol. 1, No. 7 (October 1969).
Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love,” in Seeing Through Shuck, ed. Richard Kostelanetz, 1972.
“Japanese Americans: Model Minority?” Pacific Citizen Vol. 103, No. 25 (December 1986)
Mari Matsuda, “We Will Not Be Used: Are Asian-Americans the Racial Bourgeoisie?” address to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990. (Reprinted in Where Is Your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender and the Law, 1997.)
Janice D. Tanaka, “When You’re Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment” (film), 1999.
Satsuki Ina on the cost of the model minority myth, Densho interview with Tom Ikeda, March 14, 2019.
Nina Wallace, “Rooted in Japanese American Concentration Camps, ‘Model Minority’ became Code for Anti-Black,” Densho Catalyst, May 5, 2016.
OiYan Poon, “Racial Choices: Justice or ‘Just Us’?” TED Talk, 2019.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, “How the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans Hurts Us All,” Time, June 25, 2020.
Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2021).
Tamara K. Nopper, “Safe Asian Americans: On the carceral logic of the model minority myth,” The Margins, May 7, 2021.
Scholarly Works on the Model Minority Myth
Bob H. Suzuki, “Education and Socialization of Asian Americans: A Revisionist Analysis of the ‘Model Minority’ Thesis.” Amerasia Journal 4.2 (1977): 23-52.
Chris Iijima. “Reparations and the Model Minority Ideology of Acquiescence: The Necessity to Refuse the Return to Original Humiliation.” Boston College Third World Law Journal Vol. 19, No. 1 (1998).
Alice Yang Murray. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford University Press, 2008).
Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2010).
Kurashige, “Model minority,” Densho Encyclopedia.
Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015).
[Header: Still from Densho and TED-Ed video lesson on the model minority myth. Art by Léon Moh-Cah.]