Model, Victim, or Problem Minority? Examining the Socially Constructed Identities of Asian-Origin Ethnic Groups in California's Media

By Rim, Kathy H. | Asian American Policy Review, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Model, Victim, or Problem Minority? Examining the Socially Constructed Identities of Asian-Origin Ethnic Groups in California's Media


Rim, Kathy H., Asian American Policy Review


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

Introduction

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).

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