The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans

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tags: racism, Asian Americans



Between 1940 and 1970, something remarkable happened to Asian Americans. Not only did they surpass African Americans in average household earnings, but they also closed the wage gap with whites.

Many people credit this upward mobility to investments in education. But according to a recent study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger, schooling rates among Asian Americans didn’t change all that significantly during those three decades. Instead, Hilger’s research suggests that Asian Americans started to earn more because their fellow Americans became less racist toward them.

How did that happen? About the same time that Asian Americans were climbing the socioeconomic ladder, they also experienced a major shift in their public image. At the outset of the 20th century, Asian Americans had often been portrayed as threatening, exotic and degenerate. But by the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of the model minority had begun to take root. Newspapers often glorified Asian Americans as industrious, law-abiding citizens who kept their heads down and never complained.

Some people think that racism toward Asians diminished because Asians “proved themselves” through their actions. But that is only a sliver of the truth. Then, as now, the stories of successful Asians were elevated, while the stories of less successful Asians were diminished. As historian Ellen Wu explains in her book, “The Color of Success,” the model minority stereotype has a fascinating origin story, one that’s tangled up in geopolitics, the Cold War and the civil rights movement. ...

The model minority narrative may have started with Asian Americans, but it was quickly co-opted by white politicians who saw it as a tool to win allies in the Cold War. Discrimination was not a good look on the international stage. ...




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