Indiana University Bloomington

IU professor's book explores how Asian Americans became 'model minority'

  • March 26, 2014

Editors: Indiana University Bloomington is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month through April. Ellen Wu will present a public talk about her book "The Color of Success" from 2 to 4 p.m. April 25 at the Schuessler Institute for Social Research, 1022 E. Third St. The Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society is sponsoring the talk.


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were marginalized and vilified for nearly a century. Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps at the outbreak of World War II. But today Asian Americans are seen as the model minority: smart, responsible and hard-working.

What changed? Ellen Wu, assistant professor of history in the College of  Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, explains the remarkable transformation in her new book "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origin of the Model Minority."

Telling "the success story of a success story," Wu shows how the rise of racial liberalism combined with war-time and Cold War politics and international relations to create a new stereotype of Asian Americans as people who value family and education and strive to succeed in the U.S.

"As a historian," she said, "I wanted to understand this astonishing change -- from 'yellow peril' to model minority. I wanted to understand how that happened."

Structured around alternating chapters detailing the experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans, "The Color of Success" provides a timely counter narrative to popular books like "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and "The Triple Package," which tie success to cultural traits possessed by Asian Americans and other racial or religious groups. Wu argues that the model minority idea results from historical forces and that, as a stereotype, it creates an incomplete picture of reality.

And it is a recent invention. Asian immigrants were scorned and feared well into the 20th century. They attended segregated schools, lived in separate neighborhoods, were barred from marrying whites and were restricted to menial jobs. The 1882 Exclusion Act of 1882 outlawed immigration from China.

Things changed with World War II, when the U.S. and China became allies in the war against Japan. The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and Chinese nationals in America were given opportunities to become citizens. After the war, Chinese American organizations aligned themselves with the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek and won favor as loyal anti-communists in the Cold War era.

About 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. But the camps were designed and managed by racial liberals to prepare the internees for integration into mainstream American life. After the war, they were resettled in communities where they were likely to be assimilated. The influential Japanese American Citizens League promoted the idea of the iconic Nisei soldier and other approaches that cast Japanese immigrants as patriotic Americans.

By the time of the civil rights and racial conflicts of the 1960s, Wu writes, the model minority image was taking shape, and Asian Americans emerged as a different type of minority group, definitively "not black." Policymakers, scholars and pundits cited the success of Japanese Americans as evidence African Americans should overcome poverty and discrimination through hard work and strong families.

The positive stereotype arguably built social capital and helped Asian Americans become even more successful, Wu notes. But it also has made it easier to ignore social and historical forces that produced an alignment of race with factors such as poverty, crime, incarceration and poor health.

"It lets American society and our political institutions and our leaders off the hook," she said.

Wu added that, just as 19th-century Americans viewed Chinese immigrants as threatening, today's anxiety about the rise of China as a world power and the hyper-success of Asian Americans can spill into hostility. "The model minority and the yellow peril are not that different," she said.

"The Color of Success" was published by Princeton University Press as part of its Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America series.

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