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Safe Asian Americans

On the carceral logic of the model minority myth

Fifty years ago, members of the Asian American Students Association at Yale University published the first issue of what would become the leading academic journal in Asian American Studies, Amerasia Journal

The second paragraph of the journal’s “Message to our readers” begins:

We realize that there have been numerous perceptions that others in this nation have had about Asian-Americans, as well as a myriad of self-perceptions that each Asian-American has embodied. At one time, we were perceived as a “heathen” race to be dealt with forcibly and with little concern for our basic human rights, while at other times, as a successful minority that should be emulated by others.

That the creators of Amerasia Journal addressed what would become more widely known as the model minority myth is unsurprising. By 1971, the image of Asian Americans “as a successful minority that should be emulated by others” had been a feature of sociological scholarship for decades and was gaining widespread attention thanks to stories and opinion pieces in mainstream media. As “Message to our readers” suggests, this seemingly positive image of Asian Americans differed from the negative one of us needing “to be dealt with forcibly” and requiring social control. 

In this political moment of increased attention to anti-Asian violence, there is more public discussion about the forms of social control to which Asian Americans are subjected. This commentary often condemns U.S. immigration and citizenship policies, particularly those enacted during what many label “the exclusion era.” These policies, we are rightfully told, are scaffolded by racism against Asian people, who are depicted as invading hordes, racial contaminants, immoral, and predatory. 

Yet less attention is given to Asian Americans who are targets of social control related to the criminal justice system, unless it is to discuss the violence of contemporary deportation policies or the policing of certain industries. The emphasis is often on Asian Americans being unfairly controlled by immigration enforcement or police at the level of migration or labor. Asian Americans who have been convicted of less sympathetic “crimes” receive relatively limited political attention or cultural commentary. We know, of course, that it is criminalization that ensnares people in the criminal justice system but in some cases, Asian Americans who have been criminalized did commit harm or violence against others. The downplaying of Asian Americans as people who can and do commit harm and violence, some of which will be prosecuted as crimes, is a feature of the model minority myth.

By now it is widely understood that the model minority myth is a racist framework comparing Asian Americans’ purported success and achievement to Black people’s presumed failures, all to maintain white supremacy. Even as the model minority myth is the most widely circulated discourse regarding Asian Americans in U.S. racial politics, its relationship to the sociology of crime and deviance is not widely discussed. As we will see, the carceral logic of the model minority myth can be found in conversations about anti-Asian violence today.

The model minority myth as a sociology of crime

The white sociologist William Petersen, whose book Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success was published the same year Amerasia Journal launched, is often credited with coining the term model minority. Yet the term never appears in the book or in his 1966 New York Times Sunday Magazine story “Success: Japanese-American Style.” What does appear in the latter is the label “problem minorities,” which are groups with negative socioeconomic patterns. African Americans are Petersen’s “problem minority.” Petersen wants to know why Japanese Americans do not end up being a “problem minority” like Black people given the emphasis some place on discrimination and racial segregation in shaping negative social outcomes, including crime. If “certain neighborhoods have a consistently high incidence of all types of delinquency, irrespective of the nationalities residing in such ‘delinquency areas,’” why, then, do Japanese Americans not have the same crime rates as other minority groups? 

For some, the obvious answer is Japanese Americans are not subject to as much racism as African Americans. Despite the common belief that the model minority myth denies racism, the myth relies on the assumption that Asian Americans are the victims of racism to the same degree as Black people, to posit that a major factor in social outcomes is how oppressed groups adapt to structural conditions. Indeed, along with discussing anti-Japanese immigration laws and WWII internment—and noting, “The cases of injustice are too numerous to count.”—Petersen states in his New York Times story that like African Americans, “the Japanese have been the object of color prejudice.” While not untrue, Petersen’s recognition of racism against Japanese Americans ultimately serves the purpose of identifying what he thinks is unique about the ethnic group—the “Japanese-American style” of his title—that sociologically explains their different crime rates compared to “problem minorities.”

For Petersen, “Not all frustration leads to crime.” To build his argument, Petersen draws from a  study by sociologist Norman S. Hayner, published in the 1930s, which concludes “the strong family and community organization characteristic of this immigrant group” deters Japanese American youth delinquency. Decades later, Petersen echoes this sentiment by claiming Japanese youth adhere to the “most important” of the “maxims” they “memorized in Japanese- language schools”: “Honor your obligations to parents and avoid bringing shame on them.” 

Part of the carceral logic of the model minority myth is the claim that cultural or ethnic values explain crime rates and that some racial or ethnic groups have value systems allowing them to “self-police” while other groups purportedly need outside forms of social control. In Petersen’s account, shame is treated as a moral code, enforced by Japanese parents as well as the entire community, discouraging crime and deviance among younger generations. Japanese Americans are, according to Petersen, less likely to commit crimes because they have ethnic pride. Racial segregation, then, only serves to keep these “good” cultural values insulated and preserved from the negative influence of racial outsiders. Crime, then, is not Japanese American. 

Petersen distinguishes between the ethnic pride of Japanese Americans and what he diagnoses as misguided racial nationalism among African Americans. For Petersen, Black people as “problem minorities” lack ethnic pride as a self-disciplining force and are too preoccupied with victimhood. Here, victimhood is less a structural reality and more a group psychological affliction: “…that Negroes have made far less progress against no greater odds is that too many of them (like most other colored minorities in the United States) accept as valid the depreciation expressed in others’ prejudices.” For Petersen, Black people do not respond appropriately to “others’ prejudices”: “Not all frustration leads to crime: some whose ways are blocked exert still greater effort, and others become apathetic.” Unlike Japanese Americans, Petersen suggests, Black people simply do not have the shame or ethnic pride to self-police. 

Claims about ethnic pride as self-policing also circulate in commentary about Black power and the causes of Black rebellions in urban neighborhoods. In 1967, Time Magazine published “Black Power & Black Pride” in which the unknown author states, “The black to fear is the one who has not yet been exposed to the discipline of self-pride.” A similar sentiment is expressed in the 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, penned by sociologist and then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Noting Black people are “arraigned much more casually than are whites,” what became popularly known as The Moynihan Report nevertheless downplays the aggressive criminalization to which Black people are subjected and instead emphasizes a correlation between ethnic pride and crime. Examining juvenile delinquency, The Moynihan Report concludes that a “stable home” is a “crucial factor in countering the effects of racism upon Negro personality.” Underscoring class differences among African Americans by championing the Black middle-class for pride and self-sufficiency, Moynihan nevertheless concludes Black pride may not be a strong enough force against being “constantly exposed to the pathology” of “the remaining half.” In Moynihan’s account, racial segregation does not maintain a positive, disciplined, and self-policing culture among Black people in the same way Petersen claims it does for Japanese Americans.

Chinese Americans are also depicted as law abiding, self-policing model minorities. In 1966, the U.S. News & World Report published “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.” Authored by an anonymous writer, “Success Story” depicts Chinatowns as “Chinese districts” in “crime-ridden cities” and “islands of peace and stability.” The piece quotes a psychologist who studied New York City’s Chinatown who claims, “‘There’s a strong incentive for young people to behave.’” Reportedly, part of this incentive is the community’s tendency to self-police through shame and vigilance. The psychologist shares, “As one informant said, ‘When you walk around the streets of Chinatown, you have a hundred cousins watching you.’” 

At the time, some Asian Americans raised important points about how ethnic values and crime are sociologically correlated. In his 1969 book Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture, Harry L Kitano, a Japanese American social scientist and former WWII internee, cautions, “Who is caught…may not reflect the actual incidence of problem behavior” and “Intermediaries—policemen or psychiatrists—play a major role in the determination and processing of a potential ‘statistic.’” And some Asian Americans pushed back against sanitized images of Asian neighborhoods. Published in the inaugural issue of Amerasia Journal, Rocky Chin’s “New York Chinatown Today: Community in Crisis” details a community survey in which residents, including those living in public housing projects, report feeling unsafe and experiencing robberies and muggings. Chin, a city planner, also notes that when a police precinct had recently announced plans to leave Chinatown, residents protested, resulting in the police station remaining. If Chin’s findings are what he says they are, they empirically challenge the idea of Chinatowns as free of crime or filled with residents who simply rely on one another to “self-police.” Chin alludes to the benefits of Chinatown appearing as a safe neighborhood: “Fortunately for the tourist trade, most outsiders still consider Chinatown a safe neighborhood. Many residents do not.” 

Today it is fashionable to claim the model minority myth only applies to East Asian Americans and those with money. Yet the carceral logic of the model minority myth is found in contemporary sociological research on Southeast Asian Americans. For instance, as part of the scholarship on what is termed segmented assimilation, Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III argue that Vietnamese American youth insulate themselves from a downward spiral in their poor, “biracial” New Orleans neighborhoods because “[s]trong normative integration of families is accompanied by a high degree of consensus over values and behavioral standards, which supports goal attainment in the community.” Shame is also a purported cultural trait among Vietnamese Americans, who, like the residents of Chinatown living under the watchful eyes of a hundred cousins, are studied under a “‘Vietnamese microscope’”: “If a child flunks out or drops out of school, or if a boy falls into a gang or a girl becomes pregnant without getting married, he or she brings shame not only to himself or herself but also to the family.” 

While the Asian ethnic group might differ, what remains constant in these accounts is the carceral logic of the model minority myth, with crime and deviance constructed as either existing outside of the Asian ethnic group or having been expelled or kept under control by what are depicted as positive “Asian” social norms and community self-policing. Asian Americans committing what are known as crimes often disappear from the narrative. When accounted for, Asian American “criminals” are sociologically explained as lacking ethnic pride. For example, Hayner, as a source informing Petersen’s line of inquiry, describes Japanese youth sent to a reformatory school as having “in no instance” experienced “vital contact with the racial colony” and thus “lacked the restraining influence of the Japanese ghetto.” Petersen details a Sansei—third generation Japanese American—being “charged with assault with intent to kill” and emphasizes that the Sansei was a “member of the Black Muslims” and thus “sought an identity among extremist black nationalists.” According to the carceral logic of the model minority myth, even when individual Asian Americans are perceived as criminal or harmful, they are explained as having deviated from Asianness, which is still depicted as self-disciplined and law-abiding. 

The model minority myth and safe Asian Americans

A year after Amerasia Journal launched and Petersen’s book on Japanese Americans was published, KPFK radio in Los Angeles hosted a conversation with Yuri Kochiyama celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday. During the show Miya Iwataki shared with Kochiyama the significant impact Malcolm X had on “Asian street people.” Referring to “ex-felons, ex-addicts that were not accepted in our community during the 1960s,” Iwataki recalls, “…the teachings of Malcolm…gave us inspiration to start drug abuse programs like Asian American Hard Core where ex-addicts and ex-felons worked with addicts and felons and helped work out, things around identity, why were they turning to drugs in the first place. Why did they have to steal, rip off their own people. A lot of these brothers and sisters did not like to read, but when we had readings like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or even the sets of albums that have all his speeches, that really had a tremendous impact in winning them over into the movement and they’re still here today.”

Asian American Hardcore was part of a constellation of organizations working to give Asian Americans who had violated others or harmed themselves a soft place to land in terms of social services and forging a relationship with the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, two Sansei organizations, Yellow Brotherhood and Asian Sisters, worked to combat drug addiction and overdoses among Japanese American high school students and in doing so connected the pain and suffering of Japanese Americans to a larger critique of racism. The history of such Asian American organizations are not widely circulated today, including among social justice-oriented folks who want us to remember the “hidden history” of the Asian American Movement.

Asian Americans committing what is known as crime existed in the 1960s and 1970s and do so today. They are members of our communities, relationships, and neighborhoods but are often disappeared at the level of Asian American discourse and cultural activism. Indeed, Asian Americans who violate others, including those who end up getting charged and trapped in the criminal justice system, often don’t even make the list of Asian Americans who defy the stereotype of Asian American success. When people challenge the model minority myth, they often do so by emphasizing that not all Asian Americans are successful, often following up the statement with, look at our poverty rates, our unemployment rates, the jobs we work in, those of us who struggle in school, and the anti-Asian violence against us. Rarely do we hear Asian Americans say, we’re not all “successful,” look at Asian Americans who rape, kill, mug, rob, assault, sell drugs, menace, kidnap, and are part of gangs. Discourse amplifying Asian Americans as targets of social control often focuses on policing and enforcement policies as unfairly controlling labor and migration but not so much the use of the criminal justice system to punish Asian Americans as offenders. Some of these people who are being punished for crimes have committed harm. If Asian Americans who commit harm against others are publicly talked about by Asian Americans it is mainly to draw attention to domestic and intimate partner violence. While this violence too is social, it is often disconnected from an image of Asian Americans as a racial threat to society. While what is labeled violent crime will often occur between people who share similar demographics or geography, the specter of violent crime as a social problem is often depicted as interracial, and the perpetrator as Black. 

The association of both violence and crime with Black people is not a new revelation. Numerous sources detail how this operates in the public imagination and is used to marshal support for policing and prisons. In reality any individual of any race can commit harm and herein lies my point: The disappearance of this truth, and the image of Asian Americans as only victims of violence or crime but not perpetrators, is part of the carceral logic of the model minority myth. And this logic is uncomfortably present in the current conversation about anti-Asian violence. 

Some might assume I am referring to how Black perpetrators of violence against Asian Americans have gotten so much visibility, which, some note, is only fueling anti-Black racism and demands for more policing. But how might the carceral logic of the model minority myth inform calls for Black-Asian solidarity as a purported antidote to anti-Asian violence? How might calls for abolition still be informed by anti-Blackness? 

Consider the claim that Black-Asian solidarity will keep Asian Americans safe, sometimes posed as “keeping each other safe.” Black-Asian solidarity, when linked to conversations about keeping Asian Americans “safe,” seems more a request (or demand?) for reassurance, to be given and received from unequal structural locations in which only one group is positioned as the country’s “problem minority.” It seems Black people are expected to reassure Asian Americans that they don’t “hate” us and will work to stop people in their communities from “hating” us (and implicitly reassure they won’t violate us or won’t let us be violated), while Asian Americans will reassure Black people we won’t call for more policing or criminalization of them. While abolition is a good horizon to have, how are images of Blackness as violent or criminal perpetuated in such claims of Black-Asian solidarity as safety? How are, even in rightful challenges to more policing, Black people depicted as perpetrators of violence and racial threats to society and Asian Americans as only victims who need protection from violence or crime but never perpetrators? 

Currently there are several Asian American legal, political, and community organizations trying to get Asian Americans released from incarceration or saved from deportation. While not all of these groups are abolitionist, they are doing the hard work of trying to get more Asian Americans to vocalize support of “criminal” Asian Americans. Some of these Asian Americans have committed harm and violence, and erasing them from Asian American political and cultural projects does not make the work of abolition easier. 

My point is not to argue for the visibility of “bad Asians” to disrupt the image of Asian American success nor is it to say we all commit crime. Rather, I am underscoring that three functions of the model minority myth are to 1) discount criminalization as a structural process, 2) sociologically explain crime patterns as a result of family or cultural values, and 3) racialize both violence and crime as Black—when the reality is all of us can commit harm and violence while only some will be prosecuted for crime. 

Upholding the model minority myth works against abolition, which should involve stopping Black people from being criminalized as well as challenging the structure of criminalization itself and how anti-Blackness animates its organization and institutional resiliency. Challenging the structure of criminalization requires interrogating the narratives—including appeals to solidarity—we as Asian Americans employ to garner sympathy, political support, or mobilize resources. As we rightfully seek to protect ourselves from anti-Asian violence, how might our efforts avoid reproducing the carceral logic of the model minority myth? 

Artwork above by kasi Chakravartula is made from woven strips of the letters from the first zine published by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. Used with permission of artist and APSC.