The Emergence of Asian Americans as Definitively Not-Black Model Minorities

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 12:00 PM
Manchester Ballroom B (Hyatt)
Ellen Dionne Wu , Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
My paper traces the evolution of Asians from “aliens ineligible to citizenship” to “model minorities” and assesses the consequences of this transformation for the American racial order. With the end of Asiatic exclusion in the 1940s and 1950s, the social status of Chinese and Japanese Americans proved more ambiguous and uncertain than before. What needed to be determined were the terms on which they were to be incorporated into the nation.  I argue that this problem was resolved with the invention of a new stereotype of Asian Americans by the mid-1960s as “model minorities”—that is, a racial group that was considered well-assimilated, socio-economically successful, politically non-threatening, and definitively not-black.

I highlight three moments that illustrate the ways through which Asian Americans became racialized as “not-black” during the mid-twentieth century.  First, in the midst of the debate surrounding the Moynihan report in the mid-1960s, the popular media, social scientists, and government officials drew on the established idea of exemplary Chinese American households to make explicit comparisons between Chinese and African Americans, whose families they characterized as pathological.  Second, public discussions of Japanese Americans’ recovery from the trauma internment, framed as a “success story,” proposed that Japanese Americans’ postwar mobility serve as a model for solving the socio-economic crisis of African Americans. And third, proponents of Hawaiian statehood in the 1940s and 1950s described the islands as a racial paradise, in contrast to the troubled American South, and framed admission as a reward to’s Asian residents for conducting themselves in a non-confrontational, harmonious, and implicitly not-black manner.  These examples suggest that the presence and actions of Asians in American society simultaneously complicated, yet reinforced, the central black-white racial paradigm during the early years of the Cold War and the Civil Rights era.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation