Open with Ctrl + K | Press Esc to exit

Asian Americans and the Black Community: How the Model Minority Myth Keeps us Divided

Asian Americans and the Black Community: How the Model Minority Myth Keeps us Divided

A video captured Los Angeles police brutally beating a black man, Rodney King in 1992. 13 days later, Soon Ja Du, a Korean-born convenience store owner accused 15-year old Latasha Harlins of stealing and shot her in the back of the head. Later, police concluded that there was “no attempt at shoplifting.” Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced with only a $500 fine and community service, an unjustly light sentence for the murder of an innocent young black girl.

The long-brewing tensions between the Korean-American and African American community came to surface at a time where people were outraged by the death of Rodney King. Frustrated over systemic racial violence against black people by the Los Angeles Police Department, and further enraged by the racial tensions between Korean-American and black communities in LA, protests and riots erupted in April of 1992. Looting disproportionately affected Koreatown, as 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed. Many Korean-Americans defended their businesses with rifles from their rooftops as police were overwhelmed.

The LA riots have been labeled as “race riots” between the black and white binary, black citizens against the white police system. But inter-minority racial tensions between the Korean-Americans and the Black community also surfaced. Korean Americans owned a large portion of the convenience stores, liquor stores, and businesses in Koreatown that served black customers. For years, Black customers complained that Korean merchants treated them with rudeness and contempt, and that Koreans found it hard to resolve conflicts because of a language barrier. Tensions were well-known to those who lived in the neighborhood. And when the courts let Du of the hook for Harlin’s murder, it was obvious that Asian Americans were preferred in the eyes of the white law.

The tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans in LA were not unexpected, though. Their resentment did not just exist in the bubble of LA, but was planted there on purpose. The white conservative media had been pitting the Asian American community against the black community for decades.

The term “model minority” was coined in 1966 by sociologist William Pettersen in an article he published in the New York Times entitled “Success story: Japanese American Style.” It applauded Asian American culture for its two-parent family structure and work ethic that allowed them to “overcome” discrimination in America. Success, in this case, is defined by average income: Asian Americans made about the same amount or even more than whites since 1970. The “Model Minority” stereotypes and praises Asian Americans for their quiet, hardworking, and un-disruptive “nature” which juxtaposes stereotypes about African-Americans.

The real reason for the “success” of Asian Americans lies in immigration patterns,  rather than any changes in the Asian American population itself. In 1965, after finally repealing all immigration bans on Asian immigration, large numbers of selectively college-educated immigrants were let into the country. These Asian immigrants were more likely to be educated than those who did not immigrate from their country of origin. According to Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at Columbia University, Chinese immigrants to the United States are 12 times as likely to have graduated from college than Chinese who did not immigrate. With their degrees, it was easier for them to get high paying jobs, therefore reinforcing the ideas of Asian American success.

Unlike the black community, Asian immigrants chose and were chosen by the American government to be let into the country. Their success was curated. Though Asians in America do suffer from racism and discrimination, it is not at the same systemic level as it is for Black Americans. As Janelle Wong, the director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, says the Model Minority Myth:

“1) ignores the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success followed by 2) making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.”

Why did America suddenly change its perspective on Asian Americans? Just two decades before the birth of the Model Minority Myth, in the midst of the Cold War, the media portrayed Asians as dirty, sleazy, and immoral, nicknaming the xenophobia towards Asians as “Yellow Peril.” Yet starting in the early 60s, the media switched to praising them for their success. This was a strategic move to discredit the growing Civil Rights movement. Holding up Asian Americans as an ideal minority allowed the United States to boast itself as a “racial democracy,” turning its stories of Asian American success into propaganda. After years of selective immigration from Asia and reinforcing the myth, many Asian Americans have internalized this message and aligned themselves with the anti-black ideas they were fed. Unfortunately, no matter how “white-washed” Asian Americans try to make themselves, the white supremacist sentiment is never going to see them as fully “white.” Asian Americans may be in closer “proximity to power” to white people than Black Americans, but by aligning themselves with the white majority and adopting their anti-black sentiments, they are just reinforcing racist sentiments while still being oppressed for being non-white. All this has done is create divisions between minority groups which directly benefits the white majority and no one else.

Even though Asian Americans have not suffered as much as Black Americans, who live under the legacy of slavery followed by a century and a half of systemic racism, all people of color are still living in a society built to serve the white majority. Asian Americans suffer from stereotypes of being “boring, obedient, and bland,” which prevents them from getting job promotions and makes it harder for them to get into selective colleges like Harvard. Most recently, as the coronavirus pandemic reveals America’s quiet but dangerous anti-Asian sentiments, the number of assaults, harassment, and hate crimes against Asian Americans has risen at a concerning rate.

While this kind of racism is on a lesser scale than of generational poverty and racial profiling by police, the Asian American community needs to see past the curated myth of the Model Minority and support the fight against the white supremacy led by Black activists. Asian Americans benefited from the Civil Rights Movement led by Black activists and it is time to address and end anti-blackness in both the Asian American community and on a larger scale.

As riots in LA today protesting the death of Geroge Floyd remind LA residents of the traumas of 1992, they acknowledge the progress that has been made between the Korean and Black communities in LA. It is important especially now, for all people—not just black people, but all people of color and allies—to speak up against the white supremacy that terrorizes all our minority communities, and to reject the narratives that have been projected onto us to protect those in power. Asian Americans aren’t exempt from racism; and it is important especially now, for our community to support the Black community and speak up against an oppressive white system that hurts everyone in the long run.