It would be bad enough if the model minority myth were true. Everyone else would resent Asian Americans for what Asian Americans possess. It is worse that the model minority myth is false. Everyone else resents Asian Americans for what they believe Asian Americans possess.--Sociologist Frank Wu (2002, 76) on the model minority construction of Asian Americans
Social constructions are values and meanings attached to groups: they can be positive or negative, strong or weak, and can be subject to change through the interactions of events, people, media, and politics. Within the realm of public policy, social constructions are often ascribed to racial groups as a method of categorizing certain groups as "deserving" of policy benefits and others as "undeserving" (Schneider and Ingram 1997). Much of the rhetoric within debates over affirmative action policy evoke the image of Asian Americans as a "model minority" and emphasize the negative impact the policy has on Asian Americans, one of several racial minority groups it was designed to protect. Alternately, the message directed to Asian Americans emphasizes how less-qualified African Americans and Latinos acquire spots that Asian Americans are more "deserving" of. In both cases, the simultaneous construction of Asian Americans as model minorities and "victims" of affirmative action policy is strategically used to bolster an argument against affirmative action policy, as both messages maintain the larger themes of equality and individualism. Proponents of the model-minority image measure success based on a few indicators of Asian American educational attainment and income and often refer to examples of individual Asian Americans who achieved success despite difficult hardship. Opponents of the image contend that using different measures of success and examining each Asian-origin group separately would provide a more accurate picture of Asian Americans. In short, both sides agree that the model minority construction exists, but disagree on the validity and accuracy of the image.
What remains unknown from existing literature is whether this image is becoming more or less pronounced over time. Thus, this study documents and evaluates how the media's construction of Asian Americans as a model minority has either changed or remained stable in California throughout the development, implementation, and dismantling of affirmative action policy. First, I provide a brief historical overview of social constructions attributed to different Asian-origin groups and demonstrate how Asian Americans have historically lacked control over the construction of their own identity. Second, I offer a review of the literature written in support of or opposition to the construction of Asian Americans as a model minority. Third, I present a primary data content analysis of newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and investigate how the constructions of Asian Americans as a model, victim, or problem minority have evolved over time. Finally, I conclude with a presentation of results, an analysis of these findings, and a concluding discussion on the potential implications of social constructions for public policy, multiracial coalition building, and the future of the Asian American community.
Historical Constructions of Asian American Identity
Historically, Asian Americans have lacked agency in the construction of their own identity. As a racial group, Asian Americans have been constructed in multiple ways, not just as a successful model minority. History shows that at one time or another, Asian Americans were constructed as expendable labor, excludable foreigners, economic threats, inassimilable aliens, and disloyal citizens. The experience of Japanese Americans serves as a prime example of how a group's construction can change drastically over time; their image evolved from a negative problem minority prior to and during World War II to a positive model minority in the post-WWII era (DiAlto 2005). The Japanese case supports the claim that social constructions are not static; old constructions can be modified and new ones can be created.
As early as the 1800s, Chinese immigrants were exploited and treated as an expendable labor force in comparison to White American laborers. Anti-Chinese editorials were commonplace during this period in San Francisco newspapers. Resistance to the naturalization of Chinese immigrants, formation of anti-coolie clubs, and fatal mob attacks against Chinese proliferated in number and frequency (Hing 1990). "Anti-Orientalism" was a common platform for political parties vying for leadership in California (Daniels 1988). For example, in 1884, the Democratic Party platform declared that the Chinese were "unfitted by habits, training, religion, or kindred ... for the citizenship which our laws confer" (Fuchs 1990, 112). Increasingly, in popular literature, political speeches, and even in government reports, Chinese immigrants were described as "immoral by nature" and "racially habituated to filth, disease, and immorality" (Fuchs 1990, 112).
During the late 1860s, in an attempt to avoid the same nativism and discrimination the Chinese had faced, Japan was highly selective regarding their emigrants (Takaki 1989). But despite efforts to protect their emigrants, Japanese immigrants soon discovered that they were also perceived as a labor threat to White American workers and consequently treated similarly: allowed to work, but not to join the body politic. Japanese immigrants encountered violence from both individual White Americans and formal nativist organizations, such as the Anti-Jap Laundry League and the Anti Japanese League of Alameda County, all of whom feared California would soon be "overrun" by the Japanese (Hing 1990). Anti-Japanese sentiments that began in the late 1800s grew stronger as time passed, reaching a climax between 1941 and 1945. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, all individuals of Japanese descent, regardless of their U.S. citizenship status, were sent to internment camps because they were perceived as threats to national security. In this period, Japanese Americans were constructed as disloyal enemies of the state.
In 1965, immigration policies in the United States enabled large numbers of immigrants to migrate from Asian countries. Legally, more Asian American groups were offered immigration status with the rights to naturalized citizenship and its privileges. Socially, however, they were unable to shed their predecessors' historic legacy as perpetual foreigners. Ronald Takaki (1989, 18) sums up this constraint, asserting that Asian Americans were continually viewed as "strangers from a different shore." With a consistently growing Asian immigrant population who increasingly interacted with other Americans, new stereotypes of Asian Americans began to surface in the mainstream media. While the longstanding perpetual-foreigner stereotype remained, this era also witnessed the first article constructing Asian Americans as a model minority published in the New York Times Magazine by sociologist William Petersen in 1966. Both constructions continue to persevere today.
The Model Minority Construction
Many Asian American scholars hypothesize that the model minority construction is a product of a changing racial climate or changing moods or conditions of society rather than any real characteristics of the group (Sue and Kitano 1973; Osajima 1988; Hurh and Kim 1989; Suzuki 1989). What does it mean to be constructed as a model minority? According to Wong, Lai, Nagasawa, and Lin (1998) the model minority label suggests that a group works hard, conforms to the norms of society, and excels academically and professionally. Stacy Lee, author of Unraveling the Model Minority Myth (1996), suggests that the model minority …