Asian Americans happened to be one of the highest-earning and educated racial groups between 1940 and 1970 because the country became less racist toward them, according to a blog post published Tuesday at the Washington Post.
Throughout the 20th century, Asian Americans were often depicted as “threatening, exotic and degenerate.” However, by the 1950s and 60s, the media began putting Asian Americans on a pedestal, portraying them as hard-working, law-abiding citizens who kept to themselves.
Historian Ellen Wu, author of “The Color of Success,” explained that the model minority stereotype is entwined in geopolitics, the Cold War and the civil rights movement.
Accepting Asian Americans during the Cold War “provided a powerful means for the United States to proclaim itself a racial democracy and thereby credentialed to assume the leadership of the free world,” she wrote.
During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, positive portrayals of Asian Americans also became the new focus of white Americans.
According to Wu, the image of the industrious Asian became a way for liberal and conservative politicians to evade the responsibility for black poverty.
“The insinuation was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship,” she wrote.
When asked what inspired her to write “The Color of Success,” Wu explained that, in general, the U.S. has had “very limited ways of thinking about Asian Americans.”
“In the mid- to late-19th century, all the way through the late 1940s and 1950s, Asians were thought of as ‘brown hordes’ or as the ‘yellow peril’,” she said. “There was the sinister, weird, ‘Fu Manchu’ stereotype. Yet, by the middle of the 1960s, Asian Americans had undergone this really arresting racial makeover.”
Wu described some of the old stereotypes compared to how Asian Americans are portrayed today, with the two groups having clashing ideas of moral value, and issues on gender, sexuality and family.
“The major groups that came before World War II were the Chinese, Japanese, South Asians, Koreans and Filipinos,” she said. “There were both similarities and differences in how the groups were viewed, but generally they were thought to be threatening — significantly different in a negative sense.”
At the time, many Asian immigrant men in America were single and were looked upon as “sexually wayward.” The women were also considered morally depraved, being suspected as prostitutes and sexually promiscuous.
One important argument that Wu points out in her book is that the model minority stereotype for Asian Americans today was an unintended result of previous attempts to be “accepted and recognized as human beings.”
“They wanted to be seen as American people who were worthy of respect and dignity,” Wu told the Post. “So for Asian Americans, one survival strategy was to portray themselves as ‘good Americans’.”
The stereotype is believed to emerge from highly educated Asians who began emigrating to the U.S. after 1965. But as “The Color of Success” reveals, that is not the case.
“My book stops in the late 1960s, but what I think has happened since then is that the model minority stereotype story has really shifted away from the original ideas of patriotism and anti-communism,” she explained. “We now fixate more on education. There’s the image of the tiger mom focused on getting her kid into Harvard. That emphasis also speaks to a shift in the American economy, how upward mobility really depends on having a certain kind of educational training.”
According to Wu, anxieties about Asians still remain.
“Now they’re portrayed as our global competitors,” she said. “So underlying the praise there’s also this fear.”