The Model Minority in the Liberal State
Asian Americans and the Contract with White Supremacy
by Samantha Keng
In a 1981 speech, Ronald Reagan lauded Asian Americans as “exemplars of hope and inspiration” due to their allegedly natural intelligence and work ethic. This model minority conceptualization marks a sharp detour from the Yellow Peril panic that once stigmatized Asians as unassimilable, threatening Others. The model minority myth upholds Asian Americans as uniformly educated, upwardly mobile, law-abiding, and politically docile – living embodiments of racial progress, “a vindication of the American Dream” and its promise of meritocracy, even “honorary whites.” Adherents to the model minority myth insist that wherever Asians fit on the racial spectrum, they are decidedly not Black. This implied anti-Blackness tends to lend itself to the argument that the model minority is a conservative invention aimed at undermining claims of structural inequality during the civil rights era. This paper, however, argues that the model minority construction – which serves an important disciplinary function for the state – is in reality a product of racial liberalism. The manipulation of Asian American racial positioning reveals the violence undergirding the liberal state as well as the evolutionary potential of white supremacy.
Racial liberalism – the idea that racial harmony could be attained through the assimilation of non-whites – gained influence in a Cold War climate as the U.S. scrambled to defend its professed moral superiority by distancing itself from Jim Crow racism. One direct result was the lifting of immigration strictures for a selective group of Asians through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the door to migrants with “special skills” seeking post-graduate education or careers as merchants. An unstated goal of racial liberalism was to effectively make Asians – bolstered by this influx of educated and economically mobile migrants – fade into the white middle class. Yet this assimilationist project, informed by liberal tenets of equality and progress, necessarily hinged on the construction of other people of color as distinctly unassimilable.
The model minority myth rests upon a dichotomy that casts Asians as upstanding and other people of color as problematic. Asians are imagined as apolitical and trustworthy, while other people of color – namely Black people – are portrayed as morally deficient. The insight of political scientist Claire J. Kim, who proposed a “triangulated” model of Asian Americans vis-à-vis Black people, exposes the racialization of Asians as inseparable from anti-Blackness. Asian Americans, then, become a foil against which other people of color are measured through the negotiation of civility: “The model minority’s disciplinary civility can be seen as a calculated alternative to other civilities such as the civil rights struggle.” In other words, by virtue of their silent acceptance, the model minority delegitimizes claims by those mobilizing against white supremacy. In doing so, civility becomes “an important means by which citizenship is articulated and disarticulated.”
In positing assimilation as the ultimate goal, racial liberalism wields the model minority myth as a disciplinary apparatus to instill certain norms of behavior among other people of color. The model minority, then, plays directly into the hands of white supremacy. If white supremacy is projected as a contract, as Charles Mills details in The Racial Contract, then the model minority myth becomes one mode of the Contract’s enforcement, of “inculcating subjugation.” The Contract “norms” the individual into classifications of “person” and “subperson.” Through adherence to the model minority mold, Asians are granted personhood and recognition by the state; in contrast, other people of color who fall outside its bounds are denied personhood and excluded.
In labeling Asian Americans as “honorary whites” by virtue of their ascension, the model minority upholds whiteness as aspirational. But can Asian Americans readily lay claim to whiteness or the material benefits it entails? Mills refers to Asian Americans as “probationary whites,” a term proposing that whiteness can be achieved so long as a certain set of behavioral norms and standards is obeyed. In the context of the Racial Contract, whiteness is not biologically definite but socially “invented,” determined by one’s relation to power rather than phenotype. If whiteness is a measure of one’s complicity in maintaining the structure of white supremacy, then Asian Americans indeed have the capacity to participate in whiteness, as well as the ability to be implicated in perpetuating white supremacy. Asian Americans undeniably benefit from alignment with white supremacy and the material advantages it provides, and the security of the system at large is strengthened through their collusion.
The critical implication of the model minority myth is that white supremacy is both durable and historically evolving. As Mills observes, the Racial Contract evolves by altering the membership requirements of whiteness. Acknowledging the model minority myth as one piece of a multifaceted project to maintain white supremacy achieves three interrelated goals: it dismantles traditional “cultural” explanations for Asian American success, indicates the advent of a new form of white supremacy, and underscores the violence embedded in liberal projects.
Typical attempts to grapple with the phenomenon of Asian American success occur through a cultural lens that depicts Asian Americans as “living examples of advancement in spite of the persistent color line and because of their racial (often coded as cultural) differences.” According to this argument, “traditional” values such as order, discipline, and respect for authority explain why Asians have been able to attain educational degrees and career advancement at such a rate. Aside from taking on a culturally imperialist edge, this interpretation is a “totalization” of culture that attributes the values and practices of a specific privileged group to the culture as a whole. Keeping in mind the immigration strictures that allowed only a selective cohort of educated Asian migrants into the U.S. at the time of its conception, the model minority myth is exposed as an over-generalization of the Asian American experience. The application of the qualities of a limited class of Asians to the racial group altogether creates a false image of “homogeneity and communal consensus.” This denies the many individual cultures included under the all-encompassing term “Asian” of nuance, while also de-centering the narratives of socioeconomically disadvantaged Asian Americans.
The heralding of Asian Americans as model minorities illustrates the emergence of a “multiracial white supremacy” in which people of color, sparingly and with great precision, are allowed into the gates of whiteness. Because white supremacy requires participation to fuel its survival, it coerces even non-white people – given certain stipulations and “investments in whiteness” – to collude with it, offering both material (e.g. land, capital) and immaterial (e.g. political voice, national belonging) benefits in exchange. This membership, however, is implicitly predicated on their willingness to “share in the destruction” of other people of color. The ability of Asian Americans to collaborate with white supremacy, suggests that white supremacy is in fact capable of mutating, although it always retains its fundamental character. Despite the slightly more “diverse” group at the top rungs of the hierarchy, the system itself is unfazed. As Ethnic Studies scholar Dylan Rodriguez remarks: “While the phenotype of white supremacy changes – and change it must, if it is to remain viable under historical conditions – its internal coherence as a socialized logic of violence and dominance is sustained and redeemed.” Contrary to the belief that Asian American success disproves racism, the model minority myth in reality signifies not the dismantling of white supremacy but the revamping of it.
That racial liberalism would deem the ascension of Asian Americans an assimilationist triumph is a stark indictment of the liberal state as one that conceals racial violence in the language of equality. The celebration of Asian exceptionalism – a linear narrative of upward mobility that directly correlates hard work with success – is not a means of “disproving” racial privilege; rather, it is a symptom of a white supremacist state. The model minority myth claims to put to rest the central contradiction in U.S. history: How is a society founded on liberty and equality also one deeply steeped in white supremacy? As Lisa Lowe observes, liberalism comprises a “multifaceted, flexible, and contradictory set of provisions.” Political philosophers have long struggled to reconcile the espoused ideals of liberal states with the violently hierarchical societies they reinforce. In the model minority myth, those who wrestle with this dilemma find a delusional peace.
The model minority myth exonerates a white supremacist system through a staunch defense of colorblind meritocracy. If Asian Americans triumphed over racial discrimination thanks to their hard work and self-reliance, as the model minority idea claims, then there is nothing inherently unequal about the system. In other words, the playing field is equal; the results, however, depend on one’s effort. Racial inequality can then be ascribed to individual shortcoming instead of structural injury; blame is shifted onto the shoulders of those who feel the system’s inequities most acutely. The ideological bedrock of liberalism – equality – is preserved through an illusory meritocracy. Through disciplinary techniques such as the model minority myth, the liberal state metes out citizenship and defines the parameters of exclusion. The consequence of exclusion is disempowerment, disfranchisement, even death. The prize for recognition is the chance to participate in sustaining the cycle by inflicting violence on other people of color.
If robust solidarities depend on our own willingness to interrogate our complicities, then Asian Americans today should be actively engaging with questions of how our urges to “belong” in America have forestalled the possibility of justice for Black and Brown people. How have our efforts to secure the privileges of citizenship and recognition undermined solidarity against white supremacy? A commitment to aligning ourselves with other people of color entails stretching the goals of our political mobilizations beyond assimilation into white institutions or ascendancy within corrupt channels of power. Working under a more expansive, collective vision of liberation allows us to imagine methods of resistance and versions of the future that transcend the borders of the liberal nation-state, ultimately rendering us all more free.
1Frank Wu, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 41.
2 Ibid, 44.
3 Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today 4Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968), 31.
4 Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 4.
5 James R. Edwards, Jr., “Keeping Extremists Out: The History of Ideological Exclusion,” Center for Immigration Studies, September 2005, http://cis.org/HistoryIdeologicalExclusion.
6 Thy Phu, Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012),12.
7 Phu, Picturing Model Citizens, 15.
8Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 89.
9 Ibid, 53.
10 Mills, The Racial Contract, 81.
11 Ibid, 63.
12 Ibid, 81.
13 E. Wu, The Color of Success, 6.
14 Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), 15.
15 Moon H. Jo, “The Putative Political Complacency of Asian Americans,” in Political Psychology 5, no. 4 (1984), 587, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791229.
16 Falguni Sheth, “The Irony of MLK Day 2013: A Renewed Invitation into White Supremacy,” Translation Exercises, January 21, 2013, https://translationexercises.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/the-irony-of-mlk-day-2013.
17 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012), 18.
19 Dylan Rodriguez, “Inaugurating Multiculturalist White Supremacy,” Colorlines, November 10, 2008, http://www.colorlines.com/articles/dreadful-genius-obama-moment.
20 Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 10.
Samantha Keng is currently a first-year student in the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA School of Law. As an undergraduate studying History and Gender & Sexuality Studies, she became broadly interested in Asian American racial politics, with a particular focus on examining the roots of anti-Blackness within Chinese communities. Last year, she co-wrote a zine on Chinese American movement history. She is grateful for her time at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, where she learned the importance of multilingual, intergenerational community-building. A good bowl of hand-pulled noodles has been known to make her cry.