Racism behind "You speak English so well!"

Posted on : 2021-05-30 09:38 KST Modified on : 2021-05-30 09:38 KST
The myth of "model minority" is used as a racial wedge between Asians and Blacks
A demonstrator holds a sign reading
A demonstrator holds a sign reading "#STOP ASIAN HATE" during a National Day of Action rally against Asian hate in Los Angeles' Koreatown on March 27. (Lee Cheol-ho)

In 1966, sociologist William Petersen used the term "model minority" in an article for New York Times Magazine that compared the success of Japanese Americans with the situation faced by African Americans. While the term might initially sound like a compliment, it has created the stereotype of Asians being successful immigrants in American society.

Though people of Asian descent have been regarded as a "model minority" in American society for more than half a century, hate crimes against Asians have spiked since former US President Donald Trump labeled COVID-19 the "China virus" last year.

Nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate reported that verbal violence against Asians increased by 68% and physical violence by 11% from March 2020 to February 2021.

AAPI is an acronym standing for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The situation has gotten so bad that the US House of Representatives passed a bill designed to address hate crimes against Asians by an overwhelming margin on May 18, following a similar passage by the Senate at the end of April.

Hostility between the US and African countries doesn't lead to attacks on African Americans in the US, but the conflict between the US and China instantly translated into blanket hatred of Asians in the US.

That was partly due to fear and anger about COVID-19's horrific impact on the US. According to figures tracked by Johns Hopkins University, there were over 33.02 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 587,000 fatalities in the US as of Thursday.

But that doesn't fully explain racism's deep roots in American society and the vulnerable position of Asians there, which are now receiving fresh attention.

"Asians are thorough otherized in American society, which makes discrimination against Asians different from discrimination against Blacks. Whereas Blacks are others inside American society, Asians are others who are kept outside of American society," said Park Jung-sun, a professor of Asian-Pacific Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills, during recent phone and email interviews with the Hankyoreh.

The "model minority" myth serves to distort racial discrimination

The family of Yun Eun-yeong, 54, who spoke on the phone with the Hankyoreh on May 10, would seem to exemplify the "modern minority" stereotype about Asians so widely held in American society.

Yun and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1992. Yun's husband sells clothing to a predominantly Latino clientele at a "swap meet," or flea market, in an area that used to be the heart of the "American dream" in the 1970s but is now down on its luck. Meanwhile, Yun works to protect workers' rights for a nonprofit organization called Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.

All three of the couple's children — Deborah Choi, 27, David Choi, 25, and Diana Choi, 20 — were admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, one of the top schools in the country. Since graduating from law school, Deborah has been providing legal assistance to Muslims for a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, while David took a job at Los Angeles City Hall with the hope of making the city a better place.

Diana, the youngest child of the family, is still in college, where she studies political science. She's very interested in racism, feminism, and problems with capitalism and wants to do something to help other people after graduation, though she's not yet sure what that will be.

While Asian Americans such as Yun and her family have led lives that could be praised as being "models," that doesn't mean they're accepted as full members of American society. Diana, an American citizen born and raised in the US, spent her middle and high school years "constantly pissed off" because of the double discrimination of racism and sexism.

While Diana was often taunted for looking different from the white majority, the most typical discrimination she suffered as an Asian was being told how good her English is. That was an otherizing insult disguised as a compliment, which framed her as a foreigner even though she's an American citizen.

When she was younger, Diana wondered why she wasn't treated like an American even though she was born in the US. In an attempt to act more white, she stopped speaking Korean.

"It broke my heart to learn what my daughter felt when she decided to only speak English," Yun said.

Stirring up conflict between minority groups to squash discontent about inequality

The idea of the model minority implies that Asians have succeeded through hard work and through their acceptance of playing second fiddle in a white-dominated social order. When an unsuccessful minority group complains about inequality, mainstream society can pressure them to work harder by pointing to successful minority groups, which also kindles conflict between those groups.

In a 2021 paper called "Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans" that analyzed data from 1992 to 2014, Yan Zhang and two other scholars found that hate crimes against Asian Americans are more likely to be perpetrated by members of other minority groups than by whites, in contrast with hate crimes against African Americans and Hispanics.

By way of explaining that pattern, the authors concluded that "the 'model minority' stereotype assuming Asian Americans' success in economics, education, and other opportunities generates potential competition or threats by members of other racial groups."

Conversely, minority members who internalize the "model minority" myth are more likely to equate themselves with whites and paradoxically become "racist" toward other minority groups.

Yun shared her frustration with that tendency. "It's quite common for Korean workers who come in for counseling about wage exploitation to openly make remarks that are disparaging or discriminatory against workers from other minority groups."

Mainstream white society attempts to evade its systemic responsibility by sowing divisions between minority groups. Perhaps the best-known example is the Los Angeles riots, which began on April 29, 1992.

The riots were provoked by the acquittal of white police officers who had beaten an African American. The police and the national guard were mostly deployed to white neighborhoods and did nothing to defend Koreatown, which was severely damaged in the riots.

But the narrative in the American press was that successful Korean Americans were the targets of looting because of their poor treatment of African Americans.

Recent signs in US society suggest that the reverse discrimination debate over Asians as a "model minority" exacerbates tensions between Asian Americans and Black Americans.

In a New York Times Magazine column titled "We Need to Put a Name to This Violence," Korean American writer Jay Caspian Kang raised the example of Lowell, San Francisco's premier public high school.

The local board of education recently voted to stop basing Lowell's admissions decisions on grades. Kang raised issues with the move, which was ostensibly aimed at promoting equity and diversity without bias in favor of any particular ethnicities — but ultimately has the effect of hurting Asian Americans, who tend to have the strongest grades.

According to Kang, the decision raises questions such as "Why would we [Asian Americans] give up our spots at selective schools to benefit the same [Black] people who attack us in the streets?" and "Is the pursuit of a more equitable America a zero-sum game?"

Risk of obscuring differences among Asians and "bamboo ceiling" phenomenon

According to 2019 census figures announced in June 2020 by the US Census Bureau, the US population of 328,230,000 is 60.1% white, 18.5% Hispanic, 13.4% Black and 5.9% Asian.

The bureau also released 2019 data showing a median income of US$93,759 for Asian American households — higher than the US$71,664 median for white Americans (due to the large number of household members working) and nearly double the medians for Black and Latinx Americans.

The proportion of Asian Americans with a bachelor's degree or higher stood at 56%, larger than the rates not only for Black (23%) and Latinx (18%) Americans but also for white Americans (37%).

But while the numbers superficially seem to bear out the idea of Asian Americans as a model minority, they are closer to mythology — succumbing to the "average trap," they fail to reflect severe imbalances among different Asian populations and a greater level of demographic diversity than is found among other ethnicities.

As a Census Bureau category, "Asian" lumps together East Asians of Korean, Chinese and Japanese background with South Asians of Indian, Pakistani, and other origins, as well as Southeast Asians with origins in the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

Different countries of origin are associated with different languages and cultures, along with wide socioeconomic variation in income, education level and other areas. According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, the top-earning 10% among all Americans in 1970 made 6.9 times what the bottom-earning 10% made; by 2016, that ratio had increased to 8.7 times. In contrast, the income disparity between the top-earning and bottom-earning 10% of Asian Americans rose from 6.1 to 10.7 times over the same period.

Serious educational disparities also exist among Asians from different country backgrounds. While over 50% of Chinese Americans have a university degree, the rate for Southeast Asian Americans is under 15%.

The "model minority" perception also obscures the reality of the bamboo ceiling that confronts most of the highest-earning Asian Americans in white society: the invisible barrier that blocks Asian nationals and Americans of Asian descent from reaching senior positions.

According to the US Congressional Research Service, a total of 21 members of the 117th Congress are Asian Americans, making up 3.9% of the 100 Senators and 435 Representatives. In the Senate, the number amounts to just three if Vice President Kamala Harris — whose mother is Indian — is counted as a member.

Out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, just 19 are Asian American, including four who are Korean American. In addition to being lower than the percentages of Senate and House members who are Black (11%) or Hispanic (10%), the percentage is also smaller than the proportion of the total population identified as Asian (6%).

The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum last year after a Black man named George Floyd was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

US society was shocked at the vicious treatment of an unarmed Black man by authorities, and the incident has been seen as leading to the biggest "awakening" since the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Similarly, videos of hate crimes against Asians have been surfacing repeatedly since the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. A series of shootings at Asian massage businesses earlier this year further shook up US society.

This has led to a growing "Stop Asian Hate" campaign, and a bill for the prevention of hate crimes against Asians has passed both the Senate and House and is expected to be signed into law by US President Joe Biden.

But many within the Asian community have noted the limitations of both the campaign and the legislation.

"Unlike 'Black Lives Matter,' the 'Stop Asian Hate' movement doesn't share any specific orientation or solutions," said Deborah Choi, Yun's daughter.

"If we look at the Atlanta shootings, we can see that there are issues with the perceptions of Asian women in US society," she observed. "Increasing policy authority and punishment is not the answer."

Sungkwan Jang, deputy executive director of the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC), told the Hankyoreh, "Because of the 'model minority' myth — the misunderstanding of the 'model citizen' — Asian Americans are perceived as people employed in professional positions who earn a high income, work hard, don't complain, and do as we are told."

"Because of that, there's a perception institutionally, in workplaces and other organizations and in daily life, that Asian Americans won't retaliate if you attack them, which I think accounts for a large part of the reason for the recent rapid rise in hate crimes against Asians," he said.

According to Jang's analysis, this fundamental problem of attitudes cannot be resolved through superficial solutions such as sterner punishments for hate crimes.

As anti-Asian hate crimes have increased sharply in the wake of the pandemic, discrimination against Asians in US society is receiving unprecedented attention. While it remains difficult to predict a major trend of transformation along the same lines as the Black civil rights movement, it does at least appear certain that a shared awareness has been raised among Asian Americans, who had previously not been a particularly cohesive force in the US.

In his column, Jay Caspian Kang noted a burgeoning trend of key questions being shared on messaging apps such as WeChat and KakaoTalk, where members of the Asian diaspora come together. "Why does nobody care when our people get attacked and killed in the streets?" they are asking.

In an interview with the Hankyoreh, John Yang, the Taiwanese American president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), said, "There is enormous diversity within Asian American society, but there's also a shared battle in terms of being an 'invisible' presence in power, the media and government, and the shared challenge of being eternal outsiders."

"If we really want to be seen as a political force, we need to come together," he said.

Park said, "Second- and third-generation Asians, in particular, tend to show fewer linguistic and cultural differences than the first generation and are strongly oriented toward the pursuit of social justice and equity, and their high degree of solidarity with other ethnicities is a positive sign."

By Lee Cheol-ho, Los Angeles correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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