The Color of Success
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The Color of Success

Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority

Ellen D. Wu

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The Color of Success

Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority

Ellen D. Wu

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The Color of Success tells of the astonishing transformation of Asians in the United States from the "yellow peril" to "model minorities"--peoples distinct from the white majority but lauded as well-assimilated, upwardly mobile, and exemplars of traditional family values--in the middle decades of the twentieth century. As Ellen Wu shows, liberals argued for the acceptance of these immigrant communities into the national fold, charging that the failure of America to live in accordance with its democratic ideals endangered the country's aspirations to world leadership.
Weaving together myriad perspectives, Wu provides an unprecedented view of racial reform and the contradictions of national belonging in the civil rights era. She highlights the contests for power and authority within Japanese and Chinese America alongside the designs of those external to these populations, including government officials, social scientists, journalists, and others. And she demonstrates that the invention of the model minority took place in multiple arenas, such as battles over zoot suiters leaving wartime internment camps, the juvenile delinquency panic of the 1950s, Hawaii statehood, and the African American freedom movement. Together, these illuminate the impact of foreign relations on the domestic racial order and how the nation accepted Asians as legitimate citizens while continuing to perceive them as indelible outsiders.
By charting the emergence of the model minority stereotype, The Color of Success reveals that this far-reaching, politically charged process continues to have profound implications for how Americans understand race, opportunity, and nationhood.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9781400848874
Part I
War and the Assimilating Other
The Second World War irrevocably altered the place of the United States in the global arena. American history, of course, had never been free of foreign entanglements despite the isolationist streak firmly embedded in the nation’s political culture. Continental expansion, the dispossession of Native peoples, the claim to the Western Hemisphere as its sphere of influence with the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, the annexation of Hawai‘i, and the conquest of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as spoils of the Spanish-American War in 1898 were all building blocks of US empire. Yet the United States had remained relegated to the second tier of the international pecking order dominated by the European powers before the 1940s. It was not until its anointment as one of “Big Three” Allies that the United States came to be considered—and accepted its responsibilities—as the preeminent world leader. And it was also at this moment that the Asia Pacific region vaulted into a vital geopolitical preoccupation for US officialdom.1
These momentous shifts in the United States’ international position and its foreign policy priorities undergirded an overhaul of the nation’s racial alignments. In the American West and Hawai‘i since the mid-nineteenth century, the various immigrant streams from Asia had been racialized together as the “yellow peril”—an alien menace courted for its labor yet despised for its purportedly unbridgeable cultural distance from white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. With the nation’s entry into World War II, however, the conflation of separate ethnic groups as Orientals lost its political purchase. Most saliently, the battles in the Pacific theater forced the disaggregation of Japanese and Chinese American racialization and social standing; the two could no longer be lumped together into one undifferentiated horde. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, middlebrow magazines famously published tutorials on “How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs.” According to Time, Japanese were “hesitant, nervous in conversation, laugh loudly at the wrong time,” whereas Chinese were “more relaxed” with an “easy gait.” Life explicated that “enemy Japs”—like Tojo—“show[ed] humorless intensity of ruthless mystics,” compared to “friendly Chinese” who wore the “rational calm of tolerant realists.”2 The wartime rivalry between the United States and Japan along with the concurrent US-China alliance thus obliged the state’s and society’s divergent treatment of Japanese and Chinese Americans.
In one direction, World War II saw the culmination of the Asiatic Exclusion regime with the removal and incarceration of 120,000 Pacific coast Nikkei (individuals of Japanese ancestry), two-thirds of who were US citizens, and half of who were children under age eighteen. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ostensibly race-neutral Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, authorized the secretary of war to “prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The mandate was selectively applied to Japanese Americans in Washington, Oregon, and California—a decision justified by federal authorities on the unsubstantiated grounds that all Japanese Americans were potential fifth columnists by virtue of blood alone. Beginning on March 31, Issei, Nisei, and Sansei (first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants, respectively) left their homes, farms, businesses, and communities for sixteen temporary “assembly centers.” By November 1, all had moved again, this time to ten long-term “relocation centers,” or concentration camps, in remote locations from Idaho to Arizona to Arkansas. The US Supreme Court upheld the legality of evacuation and detention for the sake of “military necessity” in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), Yasui v. United States (1943), and Korematsu v. United States (1944). In authorizing, executing, and defending the constitutionality of mass imprisonment, the state effectively classified each and every ethnic Japanese in the United States as “enemy aliens,” thereby meriting the utmost instantiation of political and social ostracization.3
Irrefutably, Japanese American internment entailed a spectacular denial of civil liberties. Yet to its liberal administrators in the Department of the Interior’s War Relocation Authority (WRA), it also presented unparalleled promise for refashioning ethnic Japanese into model Americans. Internee life was designed with this goal in mind. Camp school curricula, for instance, prioritized English language instruction and the inculcation of American values, while camp “community councils” trained inmates in the art of democratic governance.4 The WRA also laid out two pipelines to reentry into American life and fortifying Japanese Americans’ station in the national polity. The first of these was postinternment migration throughout the United States, or “resettlement.” The WRA envisioned resettlement as an ethnic dispersal, whereby Nikkei would scatter throughout the country in order to prevent the camps from devolving into “something akin to Indian reservations.” A geographic fanning out would also inhibit the reconstitution of prewar Japanese enclaves. Just as important, it would push former internees to identify and associate with the white middle class. In theory, resettlement seemed the perfect test case for racial liberalism’s incipient solution to America’s race problems: state-engineered cultural and structural assimilation.5
The resettlement program commenced in October 1942, granting indefinite leaves to qualified applicants (that is, those deemed sufficiently loyal and assimilable by camp administrators) who had secured job offers in areas where their presence would not likely inflame local ire. To expedite resettlement, the WRA established dozens of field offices in intermountain, midwestern, and eastern states; Chicago’s was the first to open in January 1943.6 The authority conducted vigorous public relations efforts within the camps to persuade prisoners to leave, with the hope that all those eligible would be resettled by June 1944. Concurrent policies such as reducing the number of jobs available within the relocation centers and lowering the subsistence allowances were interpreted by inmates as coercive measures designed to force them out. Ironically, the effect was to cool Nikkei receptivity to the idea of resettlement. Other disincentives included economic difficulties, the lack of attractive employment options, fear of racial hostility, the desire to keep families intact, and the yearning to go back to their former homes.7
In all, only thirty-six thousand internees—less than one-third of the total—took part in the resettlement program by the end of 1944, starting anew in Denver, Saint Louis, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Seabrook Farms, New Jersey, among other places.8 Resettlers did not comprise a representative sample of detainees; they tended to be college-educated Nisei who were the most familiar with “American” culture. In January 1945, the federal government lifted the exclusion order, and by 1946, 57,251 Nikkei had returned to the Pacific coast, including 5,541 who had first gone eastward. Put another way, just over 60 percent resisted permanent resettlement.9 If the resettlement program fell short of its objectives in the quantitative sense, the same was true of its qualitative dimensions. Using Chicago as the example, chapter 1 examines the ways in which resettlers defied the WRA’s insistence that they forgo ethnic congregation in favor of assimilation.
The second means to restored citizenship promoted by the WRA was military service: surely a foolproof way for internees to authenticate their unswerving loyalty to the United States. After Japanese Americans’ tours of duty, federal authorities believed, the public would no longer question their credentials for national belonging. This time, in contrast to resettlement, the prognosis came true. The rehabilitation did not happen without contention and forfeiture, however. Chapter 3 details the benefits and costs to Japanese Americans that accompanied the investiture of the Nisei soldier as the public face of the community.
As with Nikkei, the Pacific War decisively altered Chinese Americans’ societal stature. But while the federal decision to intern Japanese Americans characterized the triumph of yellow peril agitation, the 1943 congressional repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws—in effect since 1882—sounded its death knell. This initial step in reversing the marginalization of Chinese in American life was a diplomatic maneuver designed to sinew the Sino-US entente against Japan. For the first time, persons from China were permitted to naturalize their US citizenship, while the legal entry of Chinese resumed—a symbolic elevation to equality with European immigrants.
Just as crucially, the mobilization for total war opened previously restricted avenues for socioeconomic advancement in industry and the armed forces. Until Pearl Harbor, employment options for Chinese Americans had been severely limited. The 1940 US Census found that 62.55 percent of the nation’s 77,504 Chinese (including 59 percent of the English-speaking, American-born individuals over age fourteen) were manual laborers, concentrated mostly in restaurants, laundries, and sewing factories. The 20.58 percent who earned their livelihoods as proprietors, managers, and officials were mainly confined to Chinatown’s ethnic economy. Another 11.44 percent occupied the semiprofessional, clerical, and sales ranks, while only 2.82 percent held professional or technical positions. This demographic snapshot, though, changed considerably within a few years’ time as the wartime labor shortage and booming defense industry drew large numbers from their traditional, segregated niches. Of the 17,782 ethnic Chinese residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, 1,600 (almost 9 percent) landed war-related work such as shipbuilding by 1942. The war economy provided a lasting foothold for Chinese Americans in the primary labor market, foretelling occupational advances in the postwar period. By 1950, Chinese American men and women had substantially raised their presence in the white-collar world. Chinese in professional and technical fields more than doubled from 1940 to 7.08 percent in 1950, while the percentage working in clerical and sales positions went up to 15.96 percent. Conversely, the proportion of Chinese manual laborers dropped to 51.61 percent. Historians have celebrated World War II as nothing less than a defining instance for ethnic Chinese in the United States, the point at which they “[fell] instep … with fellow Americans,” and “received a newfound acceptance and stature.”10 Yet while the war undeniably improved their lot, Chinese Americans did not feel fully secure in a society where they still faced racial discrimination. Chapter 2 considers the social and cultural work devoted to realizing the uptick in their social standing as well as second-generation Chinese Americans’ continuing uncertainty about national belonging in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Despite traversing discrete historical paths after 1941, both Japanese and Chinese Americans found themselves recast from aliens ineligible to citizenship to assimilating Others in the crucible of World War II. But the stuff and implications of their assimilation processes continued to play out in unlike ways with the geopolitical reshuffling at the Cold War’s genesis. As Japan became America’s junior partner against Communism in Asia, and China split into friend (the “free” government exiled to Taiwan) and foe (the People’s Republic on the mainland), the absorption of Japanese and Chinese Americans into the body politic encountered new catalysts as well as new blockades unique to each group, as shown in chapters 3 and 4. The excavation of the historically contingent and often-contradictory ideas and practices of incorporation in part I uncovers dissimilarities alongside commonalities that the two communities encountered as they struggled to redefine both their place in the nation and the nation itself.
Chapter 1
Leave Your Zoot Suits Behind
Some 275 young people converged at Chicago’s Ashland Auditorium on Saturday evening, November 20, 1943, to attend the Reminiscent Dance of Relocation Days. The soiree was billed as the area’s first large-scale public event exclusively catering to second-generation Japanese Americans. All were recent arrivals to the Midwest, having left the WRA’s internment camps as participants in the federal government’s resettlement program, and eager to reunite with old friends and forge new acquaintanceships. A palpable tension marred the highly anticipated affair, however, as Nisei zoot-suiters, commonly referred to as “pachuke” and “yogore,” appeared in droves. Noticing the “sneers on the faces of the stags,” one young man worried, “I kept thinking all the time that I was dancing that I would get beaten up because I refused to let them cut in on my partner. Those fellows got very ugly about this and it was an experience that I never want to go through again.” Many of the female partygoers likewise disapproved. “I didn’t like the crowd at all because it seemed cheap,” said one. “The people I saw were mostly the rowdy type. I didn’t see any fellow there that looked like he had any ambition. The dance didn’t look nice at all.” Another confirmed, “A lot of yogores had been drinking and you could smell it all around the room…. The cops were there because everybody was anticipating trouble.”1
The threat of impending conflict shot through subsequent resettler gatherings. “Some of the Los Angeles guys carry knives and they are always waiting to gang up on somebody,” surmised a zoot-suiter who frequented the city’s Nisei party circuit. “One of these days somebody is going to get hurt.” One woman articulated her discomfort at having a stranger “cut in” during her turn on the floor. “I didn’t know him and didn’t want to dance with him and when my partner tried to continue dancing, the other boy threatened him,” she recounted. “I didn’t want to create a scene so I consented to dance with the stranger. I’m never going to another dance like that again.” In response, event organizers took steps to keep “rowdy elements” at bay. The sponsors of a fete held at the Loop YWCA in November 1944 recruited the Chicago WRA office staff to chaperone and sold tickets in advance to deter spontaneous party crashers.2
To resettlement coordinators and many resettlers themselves, the unsavory habits of these rowdy elements jeopardized much more than the attendance and ambiance on social occasions. Yogore hazarded liberals’ plans for repairing the damage to Japanese American citizenship wrought by the internment, especially the redistribution of internees throughout the United States so that they might fade into the white middle class. From the perspective of federal authorities, resettlement presented the chance for Nikkei to abandon their injurious typecasting as enemy Japs if they conformed to the default settings of legitimate American citizenship. By embracing orthodox social conventions, normative masculinity and femininity, and reputable heterosexuality alongside explicit avowals of patriotism, Japane...

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