The Rise in Anti-Asian Racism Was Not Spontaneous
Scrolling through Facebook’s “subtle asian traits”—the Asian-American’s Facebook group of choice—I stumbled across a post of actor Daniel Dae Kim announcing a $25,000 reward to identify the assailant of a 91-year-old Asian man in Oakland, California. Within minutes, news outlet notifications start popping up on my screen covering Kim’s post. A string of violent, unprovoked attacks against elderly Asian citizens have left several injured and one man dead. However, while stories like Kim’s have garnered some attention, most instances of anti-Asian violence have not made it to the national news. The minimal media coverage of these cases reflects the widespread nonchalance and ignorance towards the racial violence Asians have endured. While the onslaught is in part attributed to our former president’s inflammatory words, deeming Covid-19 the “Kung flu,” xenophobia against Asians has a much deeper root in American culture, extending far beyond these past two years.
The term “model minority,” first coined in the 1960s, has long been utilized to drive a racial wedge between America’s minority communities. The term states that Asians achieve more educational and economic success than their immigrant counterparts in American society. At first glance, the common Hollywood Asian characters acting as “nerds” (thick glasses, accents, and more) labelled Asians as intelligent and hardworking, yet docile, might seem positive. However, doing so also stereotyped Asians as math-driven, career-focused, and two-dimensional. Often, this perception of Asian success is used to dismiss accusations of Asian xenophobia, so much so that Asians are often left out of America’s racial equation. Even more worryingly, the term “model minority” has since been used by mainstream white culture to shame other minority groups, especially the African-American community, making the flawed, victim-blaming argument that the Black struggle is not due to institutionalized racism, but rather some innate character defect. In “elevating” Asians, white America delegitimizes the narratives of other groups, creating resentment between these minority groups and ultimately placing Asians in a strange state of limbo.
The “model minority” term overgeneralizes the Asian community, making it seem like a completely homogenized group. In reality, “Asian” describes more than 30 different ethnic groups. While conservative rhetoric claims “statistics” back the story of Asian-American success, a more nuanced analysis shows otherwise. Within the Asian-American group, Bhutanese-Americans have far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations. Furthermore, although some Asian ethnic groups may live comfortably, 11 percent of Asian American ethnic groups live well below the poverty line. In a historical context, the supposed success implied by the model minority myth originates from the 1965 Immigration Act, which cherry-picked Asian doctors, engineers, and scientists over other professions. This select group of highly educated Asians and their children are what make up the majority of the tailored success story.
Any argument that Asians have somehow succeeded in America due to the lack of discrimination ignores the “glass ceiling” unfairly capping Asian success. Despite having American colleges’ greatest graduation rates, Asian-Americans make up less than 1.5 percent of the top executives in Fortune 1000 firms despite being 5.6 percent of the population. Studies done in the aftermath of the 2008 recession showed that racial bias was a key factor in the disproportionate unemployment levels of highly educated Asian-Americans compared to whites of similar credentials. This enormous imbalance between education level and success reveals the reality of racism and the Asian-American struggle which the model minority myth attempts to mask.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, implicit xenophobia has taken a violent turn, yet both the American media and government fail to even entertain the possibility of anti-Asian violence due to the model minority myth. Other than the rare instances of tabloids like E! Entertainment following Asian-American celebrities’ posts regarding the violence, few national news outlets have investigated the crimes in either the depth or frequency of the occurrences. Whatever posts I see on Asian community forums such as “subtle asian traits” mostly remain there, unseen by the larger American public. Following the violent attacks on elderly Asian Americans in the Bay Area, groups of volunteers have formed, patrolling Chinatowns across the country in an effort to prevent violence. While this is an incredible feat of human empathy and solidarity, it also reveals the utter inability of the government to properly protect its citizens—clearly, African-Americans are not alone in experiencing poor protection from law enforcement. Government negligence appears to be a worrying pattern for all minority groups. Local community members, disillusioned by the police task force’s failure, have taken it upon themselves to exact vigilante justice on any prospective perpetrators. New York Chinatown’s “Guardian Angels” attests to “physical interven[tion]” should there be any harassment.
Perhaps the most destructive reaction to the recent violence is the sudden backlash against the Black community. Yahya Muslim and Antoine Watson, two prominent perpetrators of Asian violence, are both African-American. Yet the argument that the atrocities enacted by these two men are somehow indicative of the “hypocrisy” of the Black Lives Matter movement is illogical. It follows the same flawed logic of the model minority myth, generalizing the African-American community as completely homogenous, all sharing a consistent ideology. Racism and the intricate racial dynamics within America are complicated, multifaceted subjects—people from different races can be both subjected to racism and perpetuate racism. Yet most view these issues as linear and hierarchical. As a result, Asian-American are often stuck in a racial limbo, usually off the public’s radar and only occasionally appearing as either a foreign national threat or as a convenient card to put down another minority group. America constantly racially profiles Asians, yet struggles to find a definitive spot to place Asians on the “racial pyramid.” Other minorities view them as closer in status to whites, but of course, white people do not view Asians as such.
This begs the question: where do Asians fall? Have they really been subject to racism, and if so, how much? In truth, suffering is not as quantifiable as we’d like to think. No, racism in America is much messier—it is a web of interwoven communities acting and reacting to each other, hating and being hated. Most first-generation Asian immigrants have preferred to lay low; to many like my parents, bigotry was a small price to pay in order to access America’s abundance of economic opportunities. Our generation, on the other hand, grew up in America. We have inculcated within us the rhetoric of American freedom and liberty, regardless of its reality; we are tired of being mentioned solely to put down others. Already, online communities have taken to social media to establish solidarity between minorities, breaking free from destructive stereotypes and standing against racism. We are #NotYourModelMinority.