A piece from New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan over the weekend ended with an old, well-worn trope: Asian-Americans, with their "solid two-parent family structures," are a shining example of how to overcome discrimination. An essay that began by imagining why Democrats feel sorry for Hillary Clinton — and then detoured to President Trump's policies — drifted to this troubling ending:
"Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn't possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn't be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?"
Sullivan's piece, rife with generalizations about a group as vastly diverse as Asian-Americans, rightfully raised hackles. Not only inaccurate, his piece spreads the idea that Asian-Americans as a group are monolithic, even though parsing data by ethnicity reveals a host of disparities; for example, Bhutanese-Americans have far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations, like Japanese-Americans. And at the root of Sullivan's pernicious argument is the idea that black failure and Asian success cannot be explained by inequities and racism, and that they are one and the same; this allows a segment of white America to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism or the damage it continues to inflict.
"Sullivan's comments showcase a classic and tenacious conservative strategy," Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in an email. This strategy, she said, involves "1) ignoring the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success followed by 2) making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values."
"It's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ellen D. Wu, an Asian-American studies professor at Indiana University and the author of The Color of Success. Much of Wu's work focuses on dispelling the "model minority" myth, and she's been tasked repeatedly with publicly refuting arguments like Sullivan's, which, she said, are incessant. "The thing about the Sullivan piece is that it's such an old-fashioned rendering. It's very retro in the kinds of points he made."
Since the end of World War II, many white people have used Asian-Americans and their perceived collective success as a racial wedge. The effect? Minimizing the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups — especially black Americans.
On Twitter, people took Sullivan's "old-fashioned rendering" to task.
"During World War II, the media created the idea that the Japanese were rising up out of the ashes [after being held in incarceration camps] and proving that they had the right cultural stuff," said Claire Jean Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. "And it was immediately a reflection on black people: Now why weren't black people making it, but Asians were?"
These arguments falsely conflate anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, according to Kim. "Racism that Asian-Americans have experienced is not what black people have experienced," Kim said. "Sullivan is right that Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today." Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured.
Many scholars have argued that some Asians only started to "make it" when the discrimination against them lessened — and only when it was politically convenient. Amid worries that the Chinese exclusion laws from the late 1800s would hurt an allyship with China in the war against imperial Japan, the Magnuson Act was signed in 1943, allowing 105 Chinese immigrants into the U.S. each year. As Wu wrote in 2014 in the Los Angeles Times, the Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion "strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as 'law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us'" instead of the "'yellow peril' coolie hordes." In 1965, the National Immigration Act replaced the national-origins quota system with one that gave preference to immigrants with U.S. family relationships and certain skills.
In 1966, William Petersen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped popularize comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African-Americans. His New York Times story, headlined, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," is regarded as one of the most influential pieces written about Asian-Americans. It solidified a prevailing stereotype of Asians as industrious and rule-abiding that would stand in direct contrast to African-Americans, who were still struggling against bigotry, poverty and a history rooted in slavery. In the opening paragraphs, Petersen quickly puts African-Americans and Japanese-Americans at odds:
"Asked which of the country's ethnic minorities has been subjected to the most discrimination and the worst injustices, very few persons would even think of answering: 'The Japanese Americans,' ... Yet, if the question refers to persons alive today, that may well be the correct reply. Like the Negroes, the Japanese have been the object of color prejudice .... When new opportunities, even equal opportunities, are opened up, the minority's reaction to them is likely to be negative — either self-defeating apathy or a hatred so all-consuming as to be self-destructive. For the well-meaning programs and countless scholarly studies now focused on the Negro, we barely know how to repair the damage that the slave traders started. The history of Japanese Americans, however, challenges every such generalization about ethnic minorities."
But as history shows, Asian-Americans were afforded better jobs not simply because of educational attainment, but in part because they were treated better.
"More education will help close racial wage gaps somewhat, but it will not resolve problems of denied opportunity," reporter Jeff Guo wrote last fall in the Washington Post. "Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn't that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It's that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect."
At the heart of arguments of racial advancement is the concept of "racial resentment," which is different than "racism," Slate's Jamelle Bouie recently wrote in his analysis of the Sullivan article. "Racial resentment" refers to a "moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self reliance," as defined by political scientists Donald Kinder and David Sears.
And, Bouie points out, "racial resentment" is simply a tool that people use to absolve themselves from dealing with the complexities of racism:
"In fact, racial resentment reflects a tension between the egalitarian self-image of most white Americans and that anti-black affect. The 'racist,' after all, is a figure of stigma. Few people want to be one, even as they're inclined to believe the measurable disadvantages blacks face are caused by something other than structural racism. Framing blacks as deficient and pathological rather than inferior offers a path out for those caught in that mental maze."
Petersen's, and now Sullivan's, arguments have resurfaced regularly throughout the last century. And they'll likely keep resurfacing, as long as people keep seeking ways to forgo responsibility for racism — and to escape that "mental maze." As the writer Frank Chin said of Asian-Americans in 1974: "Whites love us because we're not black."
Sometimes it's instructive to look at past rebuttals to tired arguments — after all, they hold up much better in the light of history.