Asian Americans: The New White?

Asian Americans are held up as the great success story, on the fast track to assimilation. But this has put us at the center of the debate about fairness in this country, raising the question: Are we becoming white?

story by Eugene Yi
photo illustration by SUEJEAN AHN
photo by MIKE LEE

In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the U.S. for decades, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”

Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during the age of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the yellow peril and Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book which argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelations, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.

Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. A few months ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written prior on the topic. This one, from 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”

To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the Internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.

CS-Minority-0714-1harvardScreenshot of a website set up by the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks testimonials from people who think they were rejected by a school over race. 

So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.

Thanks to people like Volokh, the occasional overrepresentation of Asian Americans has been cast as a question about the basic fairness of this country. It’s rare for Asian Americans to be at the center of an issue of such import; we are still often invisible, after all. But whiteness has so many connotations that it’s difficult not to be disquieted by this type of talk. More than just a political question, at its root, it is a more personal matter, one that touches on the very nature of being Asian American itself.

* * *

We all knew what the acronyms meant. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s, I heard it plenty. UCLA: University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. Or U C Lots of Asians. UCI: University of Chinese Immigrants, or University of Civics and Integras (To the millennials, those were popular with the rice-rocket set back then). A ton of Asians went to UCs, and multiple acronyms existed, which speaks to both how obvious this phenomenon was, and to the endless creativity of procrastinating students.

When my high school class started hearing back from colleges, one of my Latino classmates received acceptances from a few schools that I had not gotten into. His application essay had been a gritty account of growing up in a tough part of town, errant bullets embedded in the drywall in his childhood bedroom. Mine was an existential deconstruction of Alphaville’s 1984 new wave hit “Forever Young,” a 500-word cri de coeur set to sighing synths. Though one might be tempted to pin his better fortunes on his race, I think the essays probably say it all.

I remember we all compared admissions letters, and shared in the realization that it would be a different letter—the financial aid package—that would determine where we’d end up. The aforementioned classmate mentioned how much money he’d received in financial aid, and boasted that he could lend us some. In a fit of adolescent pique, I blurted that he shouldn’t be proud of the fact that his parents hadn’t worked as hard as mine had.

A file photo from Oct. 23, 1996, when UCLA students, surrounded by Los Angeles Police officers, staged a sit-in in West Los Angeles, during a protest against then-ballot Proposition 209, which ended many aspects of affirmative action in California. 

It was a brutish outburst, a dumb thing for a kid to say. I didn’t know anything about his family or their story. I certainly didn’t know anything about affirmative action. And I cringe at the memory now, because I am dismayed that it sounded so much like a talking point for anti-affirmative action activists. They argue that success is being penalized, and Asian Americans are proof of the need to do away with the consideration of race. Some cite studies remarking on the difference in average SAT scores between the races, or talk about suspiciously consistent percentages of Asian Americans in Ivy League student bodies. One recent example is a set of websites seeking testimonials of people who believe they have been rejected from a school because of their race. Set up by the Project on Fair Representation (essentially a one-man operation helmed by Edward Blum, a former investment banker and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), the goal is to gather enough potential plaintiffs to challenge universities that use applicants’ race and ethnicity as admissions criteria. Many of the pictures used by the websites, despite denials from Blum, feature Asian or Asian-looking people. Smelling a rat, Julianne Hing, who wrote about the effort for the progressive news website Colorlines, pointedly asked, “How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s race war?”

All of this pits Asian Americans against underrepresented minorities, and is a continuation of the history of weaponizing the model minority myth. Sociologist William Petersen coined the expression “model minority” in a story he wrote in 1966 for the New York Times Magazine about the success of Japanese Americans. Indeed, it was called “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” But he didn’t evince an obvious agenda, and approached the topic with the mannered caution of a trained academic. He goes through the litany of crimes committed against Japanese Americans: discrimination, suspicion, internment, deprivation of basic rights. He allows himself to drop his objectivity only when marveling at their success, at how far they had come, “by their own almost totally unaided effort.” Petersen contrasted the Japanese American experience with that of other groups, including, interestingly, the Chinese, whom he did not see as being successful.

Kurashige, the ethnic studies scholar, wrote about the ways that the African American and Japanese American communities interacted in Los Angeles following World War II in his book, The Shifting Grounds of Race (2008). Japanese Americans returned to L.A. after the internment, and initially struggled to get back on their feet. Alliances formed between the Japanese American and African American communities to fight for common goals. But as Japanese Americans’ lot improved, tension between the two communities emerged, he argued.

“The ideological characterization of Japanese Americans as a ‘model minority’ to be integrated served to stigmatize the others as ‘problem minorities’ to be contained,” he wrote.

Criticisms of the model minority myth generally mention the widely divergent outcomes for different groups of Asians. While some groups are doing well, others lag behind, with educational outcomes and household incomes at the bottom end of the spectrum. Much academic work has been done adding needed nuance, yet the impression still exists. Sociologist Nadia Kim took her stab at trying to complicate the picture in her drily titled 2007 paper “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature.” The paper reads like the academic equivalent of a diss track. Asian Americans, she wrote, “do not desire a white identity.” A sense of mission is readily apparent, and her language is often accusatory, full of italics and verve.

CS-Minority-0714-3saynosca5AP Photo/FRANK WIESE
Asian Americans protest a Senate Constitutional Amendment in California that would have asked voters to consider eliminating California Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban.

Regarding the 1965 law that opened up the country to immigration from Asia, and its policy of favoritism for educated professionals, she wrote it had been enacted “as if to engineer a model minority.”

Regarding intermarrying: “[C]ontrary to popular wisdom, the second largest proportion of marriages is not Asian-white couplings but interethnic marriages, that is, marriages between different Asian ethnic groups.”

Regarding financial success: Asian American poverty is at “a rate considerably higher than for white Americans.” And individual income lags behind comparable whites.

And regarding the idea “that European immigrants were once not white but later became white. Such a claim has not been conclusively supported by historians themselves.” Their whiteness was never questioned, she argues, citing a study showing that Italian Americans, unlike Takao Ozawa, were never denied citizenship. Additionally, Kim brought up the history of European ethnic groups shoring up their whiteness by literally attacking African Americans. More recent history provides troubling parallels. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans in the leadup to the L.A. riots in 1992 may not have been about shoring up whiteness, but it certainly created tension between Korean Americans and African Americans, adding another example to an established pattern. Proximity to whiteness is often affirmed by distance from blackness.

* * *

Affirmative action again stirred controversy in California earlier this year. I watched with great interest. Usually, it’s the white conservatives using Asian Americans to make an argument against the policy. This time, it was Asian Americans making the argument themselves.

A bill, known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, would have put the issue of race in college admissions back in front of the voters. The use of race has been illegal since 1998. After the ban of the use of race went into effect, admissions rates for black, Latino and Native American students dropped precipitously across the University of California system. White and Asian American rates remained largely unchanged. Student enrollment for fall 2013 in the UC system showed Asian Americans made up 40 percent of the undergraduate population, a massive overrepresentation for a group that makes up about 14 percent of the state’s population. Depending on one’ s political persuasion, one could see this as either cause to unite to increase diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, or, just rewards for hard work, something to defend. It was a classic wedge issue.

An ad hoc group of mostly first-generation Chinese and South Asian Americans waged a fierce online campaign against SCA 5, full of hyperbolic language and rumors about the bill. One op-ed on the website Siliconindia called it “The Most Racist Bill in the History of California.” SCA 5 became “Skin Color Amendment 5” in other tellings. Crude pics repurposed the “I Have a Dream” speech and the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have him make the case against affirmative action from beyond the grave.

Polling data generally shows that Asian Americans strongly favor affirmative action. This had put Asian Americans in alliance with other communities of color. But in this case, these new activists’ voices were louder, and it was enough to compel several Asian American state lawmakers to back away from what they initially thought was an uncontroversial bill. Asian American Republicans sought to capitalize on the split, announcing their opposition to affirmative action.

Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley staged this “protest” of affirmative action on Feb. 26, 2003, holding a bake sale with treats priced according to the buyer’s ethnicity, gender and social status. 

I’d always wondered if or when this particular shoe would drop. Amy Chua recently made herself a celebrity as the Tiger Mom, raising model minority cubs. But she’s not stumping for education reform, or denying pee breaks in public schools to keep kids on task, or whatever. But with the protesters in California, a new reality seems to have emerged: There are Asian Americans who are willing to take the model minority myth, and march in the metaphorical streets. And if that means scuttling political orthodoxy and solidarity with other communities of color, so be it.

Instructive parallels exist in other communities. Historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, of Washington University, wrote about the activist history of New York’s Puerto Rican community in her book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and Puerto Ricans activists often fought alongside each other until the ’70s, when the coalition started to fray. Several factors contributed to an eventual split, including the growing political influence of Puerto Ricans who had entered the middle class. Fissures started to form along class lines, according to Lee.
“The middle class was able to dominate the conversation by the ’70s. A lot of these middle-class Puerto Ricans started to prioritize job security, and started to choose narrow political goals, versus broader visions of rebuilding a new society,” she said. Some middle-class Puerto Ricans even trotted out a familiar argument: that they shared a common path with earlier waves of European immigrants, overcoming prejudice to reach an attainable American dream through bootstrapping alone. But at that point, entry into the middle class had proven elusive for the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans.
There are echoes of this line of thinking when Asian Americans take up the argument for merit in education. For some, status in the middle class is a birthright rather than an aspiration. Much of the SCA 5 activity was focused in the ethnic suburbs around Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, well-off parts of town with more recent immigrants from China and India who might be less interested in broader messages of solidarity. This, despite the fact that the majority of Asian Americans still support affirmative action, and that, importantly, some Asian American groups are lagging far behind others.

“I think for better or worse what we were seeing in the SCA 5 battle is … Asian Americans expressing a greater sense of agency for their own purposes, which are moving in contradictory political directions,” said Kurashige. “Therefore, we ought to expect not a simple shift in any specific direction, but some heated debates and struggles to define Asian American politics in the 21st century.”Outside of education and the tech industry, though, the issue is not as contentious, according to Vincent Pan, of the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Nearly all Asian Americans agree with affirmative action in employment hiring and promotion, public contracting, judicial, media and political representation—and so we can appreciate the need and benefit for affirmative action,” Pan said. “It is highly inconsistent and detrimental to abandon it with respect to higher education admissions.”

* * *

One hundred years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Asian Americans having this place in the racial hierarchy to even prompt such conversations. For most of the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., violence and xenophobia ruled. The biggest mass lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871, where anywhere from 15 to 21 Chinese people were killed, depending on the account. Anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II led to the internment of more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered during another rising tide of anti-Japanese hysteria. More recently, South Asians have been targeted and murdered following the 9/11 attacks.

“History tells us that anti-Asian discrimination won’t go away so quickly. Just because right now, we find ourselves in a semi-white position, it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever,” said Lee, the historian. “We still hold a fairly precarious position.”

It seems anytime an Asian country becomes the enemy, Asian Americans become the target. Being an “other” in America is never far from having violent consequences. How many of us second-generation Asian Americans have held our breaths and waited for potential fall-out with every ominous “China Rising” headline or when it’s revealed that the perpetrator in some heinous crime in the U.S. is Asian? Or, for that matter, recent mass shootings that seem to be partially inspired by some very twisted neuroses rooted in being Asian?

Amy Lee places flowers at the gravestone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, at a 20th anniversary memorial at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit on June 23, 2002. Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. 

This push-and-pull at the core of Asian American life—white/not-white, and foreigner/native—seems to have cycled over the course of American history. No matter how close to white Asian Americans might become, this perpetual foreigner status remained. For most Asians in America, after all, the experience of other-ness is seared into us. When you walk into a room, you look around and count the Asian people. It’s a defining experience for people of color in this country. And it helps explain some of the curious political behavior of Asian Americans.

Generally, one of the best indicators for political allegiance is income. By that metric, Asian Americans should be pretty Republican. But instead, Asian Americans have shown the greatest shift to the Democratic Party of any group in the last 20 years. More than three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for Obama in the last election.

“Asian American political behavior is counter to what traditional political science research would predict,” said political science professor Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, in an email interview. “Further, wealthier Asian Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian Americans.” She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments where two groups of Asian Americans were asked about their political allegiances. One group, though, was primed with what they called “racial microaggressions,” where a white lab assistant would say something all too familiar to any Asian American: “You speak good English.” “Where were you born?”

Asian Americans who had been primed with a microaggression allied themselves significantly more strongly with the Democratic Party, 87 percent to 76 percent. The results seem to indicate that not only are Asian Americans aware they are still considered to outsiders, but that one of the two political parties is perceived not to welcome outsiders. Which, incidentally, is the party most associated with xenophobia, exclusivity and a certain strain of American whiteness.

* * *

I recently attended a panel where one of the panelists, an Asian American businessman who’d worked for some of the largest firms in the country, said that if one believed in a bamboo ceiling—a limit to how far an Asian American could rise—then one must believe in the existence of a “short” ceiling, an “ugly” ceiling, a “fat” ceiling. Being Asian is, according to this telling, an overcomeable condition—nothing that a diet or some platform shoes couldn’t help with.

Many would respond by pointing to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of corporate America. But the businessman’s words make it seem as if it’s just a matter of time. As Asians, as perpetual foreigners, as “others,” we might still do our little headcounts when we walk into a room. But the rooms, for some, are getting fancier.

The criticisms of the model minority myth are myriad, and valid. But what truth there is to it must be reckoned with. If whiteness can be defined, at least partly, as the lack of impediments to success, then it might be hard not to find this aspect of whiteness readily present in the Asian American community.

Two different Time covers that are essentially making the model minority argument—(left) the infamous 1987 “whiz kids” cover, and (right) the 2011 “tiger mom” cover. 

There is another aspect to this lack of impediment, though, one that has nothing to do with whiteness. The non-European wave of immigration that started in 1965 scrambled America’s racial logic, forcing new lines to be drawn beyond the old black/white and foreigner/native. We live in a country that’s, really, just starting to contend with the second generation of this wave of immigrants. Even though Asian Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, there are times when I marvel at how accustomed I’ve become to seeing faces that look like mine. Any reader of this publication is familiar with the ways Korean Americans are contributing to popular culture and mainstream society. There are moments when I just scratch my head in amazement, wondering, “What aren’t we doing?” There are still things to fight for, of course. Asian American men are still emasculated, as evidenced by any of the seemingly annual studies on how poorly they do in online dating. In popular media, there’ s still more Mr. Chow from the Hangover movies, than Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead. Asian women continue to be exoticized. The consequences of “otherness” will linger, publicly through discrimination, hate crime, violence and privately, in undiagnosed ways.

There is a real phenomenon at work: the normalizing of people of color. But far from making the country post-racial, it seems to have grown hyper-racial. Two conversations are happening simultaneously: both whether, and how, race matters. The success of a person of color means either the proclamation that race doesn’t matter in American life, or the argument that one is ignoring the myriad ways it still does.

There is a reading of this phenomenon that could see this period as birth pangs of some society that is closer to some inclusive ideal. But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being “merely” American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

But different facets of whiteness don’t just fall like dominoes. Whiteness is an ill-defined complex of traits and tendencies. And it’s an actual field of study, with many universities offering classes in whiteness studies. Oft-quoted is W.E.B DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D., from Harvard, and one of the foremost minds on race relations in the era just after slavery. He wrote, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” The author James Baldwin, another masterful commenter on race in America, wrote in his essay “On Being White … And Other Lies,” “No one was white before he/she came to America.”

Evelyn Yoshimura, the community organizing director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit in L.A., told me a story once about Harry Kitano, an old lion of Asian American studies at UCLA. He used to rail that Japanese Americans were not going to be around for long. Because of their economic success, because of their assimilation, because of their rate of intermarriage, they would just be gone, integrated into the white mainstream.

At first, she said, that seemed to be the case. Japanese Americans intermarried at high rates, assimilated quickly and left Little Tokyos and Japantowns for the suburbs. Community organizations limped along, hosting their events for a dwindling number of people.

Then, some hapa kids started showing up at the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Then more. Enough so that the tournament started to grow. Soon, other programs grew as well. And now, the community’s leadership programs, training sessions and their basketball leagues are bigger than ever.

No one was Asian American before they came here. Someday, Asian Americans may exist in a space independent from notions of whiteness or non-whiteness. But for now, Asian America is something being invented, every day, bit by bit, 18 million people engaging in a collective act of creation. There is yet, it seems, further to go.

Correction added: The previous version left ambiguous the degree of middle class attainment among Puerto Ricans. The wording has been changed to clarify that only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans entered the middle class and helped divide African American-Puerto Rican political alliances.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).