8 ASIAN AMERICANS MODEL MINORITIES?
I had flown from San Francisco . . . and was riding a taxi to my hotel to attend a conference on
multiculturalism. My driver and I chatted about the weather and the tourists. . . . The rearview mirror
reflected a white man in his forties. â€œHow long have you been in this country?â€ he asked. â€œAll my life,â€ I
replied, wincing. â€œI was born in the United States.â€ With a strong Southern drawl, he remarked: â€œI was
wondering because your English is excellent!â€ . . . I explained: â€œMy grandfather came here from Japan in
the 1880s. My family has been here for over a hundred years.â€ He glanced at me in the mirror. Somehow,
I did not look â€œAmericanâ€ to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign.
â€”Ronald Takaki (1993, p. 2), professor of Asian American studies
At the time of this brief conversation, Professor Takaki was a distinguished professor at a prestigious West Coast
university and an internationally renowned expert in his area. Itâ€™s possible that his family had been in the U. S.
longer than the taxi driverâ€™s family. So why did the driver assume Takaki wasnâ€™t â€œfrom hereâ€? And why was he
surprised at Takakiâ€™s â€œexcellentâ€ English? The taxi driver probably meant no harm, but heâ€™s clearly making
assumptions based on Takakiâ€™s appearance. Heâ€™s not alone. As youâ€™ll learn, those few seconds of conversation
reflect widely held beliefs that Asians arenâ€™t really â€œfrom hereâ€ [the United States] and arenâ€™t fully American. In other
words, theyâ€™re perceived as â€œoutsiders.â€
Professor Takakiâ€™s interaction with the driver is one instance of the â€œothering,â€ exclusion, or stigmatization that Asian
Americans, like other peoples of color, experience. The perception that Asians are outsiders has also led to
significant discrimination, such as the 19th-century anti-Chinese campaign in California and the 1922 Supreme Court
decision (Takao Ozawa v. U.S.) that declared Asians ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Stereotypes about Asian
Americans can be positive, such as the view that theyâ€™re â€œmodel minorities,â€ but othering is real, painful, and
consequential (Wu, 2015).
We begin this chapter with an overview of Asian American groups and then briefly examine the traditions and customs they
brought with them to America. Weâ€™ll primarily focus on the two oldest groups, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans.
(Weâ€™ll address smaller groups in Chapter 9.) Additionally, weâ€™ll examine whether peopleâ€™s perception that Asian Americans
in general and Chinese and Japanese Americans in particular are â€œmodel minoritiesâ€: successful, affluent, highly educated
people who donâ€™t suffer from the problems usually associated with minority group status. How accurate is this view?
Do the concepts and theories that have guided our discussion so far, particularly Blaunerâ€™s and Noelâ€™s hypotheses, apply to
Asian Americans? Have Asian Americans forged a pathway to upward mobility that other groups could follow? Does the
relative success of Asian Americans mean that the United States is an open, fair, and just society and that the challenges
facing other minority groups come solely from individual choices or abilities?
America is home to at least 30 different Asian American ethnic groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). They vary culturally
and physically and in their experiences in the United States. Some groups are relative newcomers, while others have roots
in this country stretching back more than 200 years. As with Native Americans and Hispanic Americans, Asian American is
a convenient label created by the larger society (and by government agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau) that,
unfortunately, de-emphasizes distinctions between the groups. Table 8.1 displays information about the size and growth
rates of the 10 largest Asian American groups between 1990 and 2017. Figure 8.1 provides a visual snapshot of each
Several features of Table 8.1 are worth noting. First, even when combined, Asian Americans are only 6.7% of the total U.S.
population. In contrast, African Americans and Hispanic Americans constitute 13% and 16% of the population, respectively
Second, most Asian American groups have grown dramatically since 1965 because of high rates of immigration stemming
from changes in immigration policies. Additionally, these groups grew faster than the total population between 1990 and
2017. Japanese Americans had the slowest growth rate (1.7 times), largely because Japanese immigration has been low in
recent decades. However, the number of Asian Indians more than quintupled, and the other groups doubled or tripled their
Table 8.1 Size and Growth of Asian Americans* and the 10 Largest Asian American Groups by Nation of Origin, 1990â€“2017
Group 1990 2000 2017 Growth (Number of
Percent of Total
6,908,638 11,070,913 21,646,070 3.1 6.7%
China 1,645,472 2,879,636 5,219,184 3.2 1.6%
India 815,447 1,899,599 4,402,362 5.4 1.4%
Philippines 1,406,770 2,364,815 4,037,564 2.9 1.2%
Vietnam 614,547 1,223,736 2,104,217 3.4 <1%
Korea 798,849 1,228,427 1,887,914 2.4 <1%
Japan 847,562 1,148,932 1,466,514 1.7 <1%
Pakistan N/A 204,309 500,433 — <1%
Cambodia 147,411 206,052 331,733 2.3 <1%
Hmong** 90,082 186,310 309,564 3.4 <1%
Laos 149,014 198,203 265,138 1.8 <1%
Percent of U.S.
2.8% 3.9% 6.7%
* Asian Americans, alone and in combination with other groups.
** The Hmong come from various Southeast Asian nations, including Laos and Vietnam.
Sources: For 1990: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990); for 2000: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000b); for 2017: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2018a).
Researchers expect this rapid growth to continue for decades, and the impact of the Asian American population on
everyday life and American culture will increase accordingly. As you saw in Figure 1.1, by 2060, 1 out of every 10
Americans will likely be of Asian descent. If projections hold, by 2065, no group will be a majority of the population: Non
Hispanic whites will be 45% of the population, Hispanics will be 28%, and African Americans will be 15% (U.S. Census
Today, more than half (58.1%) of the U.S. Asian population is foreign-born (LÃ³pez, Ruiz, & Patten, 2017) and, like Hispanic
American groups, most Asian American groups have a high percentage of foreign-born members (see Figure 8.2). Even
the group with the smallest percentage of foreign-born members, Japanese Americans, has almost double the national
norm for foreign-born members (24.2% compared with 13.2%, respectively).
Figure 8.1 Relative Sizes of Asian
American Groups, 2017 Source: U.S. Census
Bureau (2018a). American Community Survey, 2017.
Figure 8.2 Percentage Foreign-Born for All Asian Americans, Total Population, and the 10 Largest Asian
American Groups, 2017
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2018a). American Community Survey, 2017.
In Chapter 7, you learned that most Hispanic Americans identify themselves in terms of their familyâ€™s country of origin. The
same is true of Asian Americans. According to a recent survey, about 62% describe themselves in terms of their country of
origin (e.g., Chinese American), about 20% describe themselves as Asian American, and 14% describe themselves as
American. There are large differences in self-description across groups. On average, almost 70% of the foreign-born
population (vs. 43% of the native-born population) describe themselves in terms of their country of origin (Pew Research
Center, 2013, pp. 88â€“89).
ORIGINS AND CULTURES
Asian cultures predate the founding of America by thousands of years and each culture has its own history. Asians vary
politically, economically, and culturally. They speak many different languages and practice diverse religions, including
Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Asian American immigrants bring this diversity to the United
States. Although no two Asian cultures are the same, they share some similarities. These cultural traits have shaped Asian
Americans beliefs and actions as well as the perceptions of dominant group members. Thus, theyâ€™re foundational to Asian
American experiences in this country.
Asian cultures tend to stress group membership over individual self-interest. For example, Confucianism, the dominant
ethical and moral system in traditional China (around the 10th or 11th century), encouraged people to see themselves as
part of larger social systems (including status hierarchies). Kinship relations with family members organized daily life
(Lyman, 1974). The family or clan often owned the land on which they depended for survival, and kinship ties determined
inheritance patterns. The clan also performed other crucial social functions, including arranging marriages, settling
disputes, and organizing festivals and holidays.
The Chinese and Japanese both value group loyalty, conformity, respect for others (especially â€œsuperiorsâ€), sensitivity to
othersâ€™ opinions and judgments, avoidance of public embarrassment (â€œsaving faceâ€), and not offending others. This
Japanese proverb reflects these ideas: â€œThe nail that sticks up must be hammered downâ€ (Whiting, 1990, p. 70). These
cultural tendencies contrast sharply with Western values and norms. For example, Western cultures encourage individuals
to develop and follow their conscience. That is, oneâ€™s personal morality, such as ideas of guilt versus shame, should guide
personal behavior (Benedict, 1946).
A possible manifestation of this tendency to seek harmony and avoid confrontation was documented by Chou and Feagin
(2008) in interviews with Asian Americans from a variety of groups. Participants commonly used â€œcompliant conformityâ€ to
cope with white racism, discrimination, and rejection (p. 222). They expressed the belief that their conformity and hard work
would bring recognition and acceptance from the larger society. Respondentsâ€™ parents, even those who had personally
experienced substantial discrimination, commonly pressured their children to conform to Anglo values and norms in the
hope that their childrenâ€™s success (e.g., in school) would protect them from negative treatment and stereotyping. However,
complying with racism rather than challenging it ultimately sustains white prejudicial values and the American racial
hierarchy. Thus, this strategy has had limited success (at best).
Men dominated traditional Asian cultures. For example, in traditional China, a woman was expected to serve her father
first, then her husband, and, if widowed, her eldest son. Confucianism decreed that women should practice the Four
Virtues: chastity and obedience, shyness, a pleasing demeanor, and domestic skill (Amott & Matthaei, 1991, p. 200). High
status women symbolized their subordination and their social class through foot binding. The ideal foot, just 3â€“4 inches
long, was considered beautiful and erotic. To achieve this look, young girls, usually between 4 and 10 years old, underwent
a painful practice that involved breaking the arch bones so that the toes could be bent under the foot. The full process
usually took about two years to complete. During that time, girls would wrap and unwrap their feet every few weeks to
modify their shape and size and keep them artificially small. As with many beauty practices, the goal was (at least in part)
to attract the best mate possible. In this case, people believed that the smaller the foot, the better the husband (more
economically well-off) that a girl or woman could attract (Foreman, 2015). Because it was somewhat immobilizing, foot
binding made women more dependent on their husbands. Bound feet symbolically suggested that they didnâ€™t need to do
poor womenâ€™s work. Indeed, it tethered many women to home and family (Jackson, 2000; Takaki, 1993).
Until recently, it was widely believed that only elite girls and women practiced foot binding. However, recent research shows
that some poor girls also bound their feet. Bossen and Gates (2017) interviewed 1,800 elderly women across China and
learned that foot binding not only helped these girls achieve a beauty ideal (and, hopefully, a good husband), it also
facilitated their economic contributions to their families. The women reported that during this time, their mothers would have
them sit and weave, sew, or make products that could be sold.
Asian Americans in the U. S. modified these patriarchal values and traditional traits. For groups with longer histories in
America, such as Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, their effects may be slight. However, for more recently
arrived groups, the effects of these cultural traditions are typically more powerful.
The cultural and religious differences among Asian American groups also reflect the recent histories of each sending nation.
For example, Vietnam was a Chinese colony for 1,000 years, and between 1887 and 1945, it was a French colony.
Although China has heavily influenced Vietnamese culture, many Vietnamese are Catholic because of the French efforts to
convert them. Western nations also colonized the Philippines and Indiaâ€”the former by Spain and then the United States,
and the latter by Great Britain. Thus, many Filipinos are Catholic, and many Asian Indian immigrants speak English and are
familiar with Anglo culture.
These examples are the merest suggestion of the diversity between Asian American groups. Additionally, we see
tremendous diversity within each group when we take other social statuses into account (e.g., gender, class, sexual
orientation, age). In fact, Asian Americans, who share little more than a slight physical resemblance and some broad
cultural similarities, are much more diverse than Hispanic Americans, who are overwhelmingly Catholic and share a
common language and a historical connection with Spain (Min, 1995).
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
1. What are some key differences between Asian and Anglo cultures? How have these differences shaped
relations between the groups?
2. Which group do you think is the most diverse and why: African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic
Americans, or Asian Americans? Given their levels of diversity and similarity, what are the pros and cons of
discussing each of these groups as individual entities?
CONTACT SITUATIONS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHINESE
AMERICAN AND JAPANESE AMERICAN COMMUNITIES
China and Japan were the earliest Asian groups to arrive in America in substantial numbers. Their contact situations
shaped their histories and affected the present situation of all Asian Americans in many ways. As youâ€™ll see, the contact
situations for Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans featured massive hostility and discrimination. Both groups
coped with racism from the larger society by forming enclaves, a strategy that, similar to Cuban Americans, produced
some major benefits for their descendants.
Early Immigration and the Anti-Chinese Campaign
Immigrants from China began arriving in the early 1800s. Generally, they were motivated by the same kinds of social and
economic forces that have inspired immigration everywhere. Rapid population growth and European colonization disrupted
traditional social relations and pushed Chinese immigrants to leave their homeland (Chan, 1990; Lyman, 1974; Tsai, 1986).
Simultaneously, they were pulled to Americaâ€™s West Coast by the 1849 gold rush and by other opportunities that arose as
the West developed. By 1852, more than 20,000 Chinese immigrants lived in California in relative harmony with whites,
though that changed as economic conditions deteriorated.
The Noel hypothesis (Chapter 3) offers a useful way to analyze the contact situation between Chinese and Anglo
Americans in the mid-19th century. Remember that Noel argues that racial or ethnic stratification occurs when a contact
situation has three conditions: ethnocentrism, competition, and a differential in power. Once all three conditions were met
on the West Coast, whites started a vigorous campaign against the Chinese and pushed them into a subordinate,
disadvantaged position. For example, in 1862, Congress passed what became known as the Anti-Coolie Act (or the
Chinese Police Act). The law required Chinese immigrants to pay a hefty monthly tax to work in California. By some
estimates, the tax was between 60% to 80% of their wages. Police impounded and auctioned the belongings of those who
couldnâ€™t pay and held employers liable after that (Odo, 2002; Soennichsen, 2011, p. 121).
Ethnocentrism based on racial and cultural differences existed at first contact. However, competition for jobs between
Chinese immigrants and native-born workers was muted by a robust, rapidly growing economy. At first, politicians,
newspaper editorial writers, and business leaders praised the Chinese for their industriousness and tirelessness (Tsai,
1986). Before long, however, the economic boom slowed, and the supply of jobs dwindled. The gold rush petered out, and
the transcontinental railroad, which thousands of Chinese workers helped build, was completed in 1869. Anglo Americans
continued migrating from the East, and competition for jobs and other resources increased. As the West Coast economy
changed, whites began to see the Chinese as a threat.
In 1870, the Chinese were a small group of only about 100,000. The law didnâ€™t allow them to become citizens. Hence, they
controlled few power resources with which to withstand these attacks. During the 1870s, whites limited their competition by
forcing Chinese workers out of most sectors of the mainstream economy. Yet, hostilities lingered and an anti-Chinese
campaign of harassment, discrimination, and violent attacks began. In Los Angeles, for example, a mob of â€œseveral hundred
whites shot, hanged, and stabbed 19 Chinese to deathâ€ in what is now called the 1871 Chinese Massacre (Tsai, 1986, p.
67). Other attacks against the Chinese occurred in Denver, Seattle, Tacoma, and Rock Springs, Wyoming (Lyman, 1974).
Denis Kearney, head of the Workingmanâ€™s Party (WP) labor organization, fanned resentments by speaking of Chinese men
as â€œcheap working slave[s]â€ who created unfair competition for jobs. The WP adopted the motto, â€œThe Chinese must go!â€
which Kearney would say at the end of every speech. He encouraged white workers to take matters into their own hands
because the government was run by â€œmoney menâ€ who didnâ€™t care about the â€œpoor [white, man] Laborerâ€ (Kearney & Knight,
In 1882, the anti-Chinese campaign experienced its ultimate triumph when the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese
Exclusion Act, banning virtually all Chinese immigration. The act was one of the first restrictive immigration laws aimed
solely at the Chinese. It established a rigid competitive relationship between the groups and, by excluding the Chinese from
American society, it eliminated the perceived threat of Chinese labor. The primary antagonists of Chinese immigrants were
native-born workers and organized labor. White owners of small businesses, feeling threatened by Chinese-owned
businesses, also supported passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (Boswell, 1986). Other social classes, such as the
capitalists who owned larger factories, benefited from the continued supply of cheaper labor created by Chinese
immigration. Conflicts such as the anti-Chinese campaign could be especially intense because they confounded racial and
ethnic antagonisms with disputes between different social classes.
The ban on Chinese immigration remained in effect until World War II, when China was awarded a yearly quota of 105
immigrants in recognition of its wartime alliance with the United States. Large-scale immigration from China didnâ€™t resume
until federal policy revision in the 1960s.
Population Trends and the â€œDelayedâ€ Second Generation
Following the Chinese Exclusion Act, the number of Chinese people in the U. S. declined (see Figure 8.3) as some
immigrants passed away or returned to China and werenâ€™t replaced by newcomers. The vast majority of Chinese
immigrants in the 19th century had been young adult men, sojourners who intended to work hard, save money, and return
home (Chan, 1990). After 1882, it was difficult for anyone from Chinaâ€”men or womenâ€”to enter the United States;
therefore, the Chinese community in the U. S. remained dominated by men for many decades. At the end of the 19th
century, for example, men outnumbered women by more than 25 to 1, and the gender ratio didnâ€™t approach parity for
decades (Wong, 1995, p. 64; see also Ling, 2000). The scarcity of Chinese women in the U. S. delayed the second
generation (the first generation born in the U. S.). It wasnâ€™t until the 1920s, 80 years after immigration began, that one third
of all Chinese in America were native-born (Wong, 1995, p. 64).
The delayed second generation (immigrantsâ€™ children) may have reinforced the exclusion of the Chinese American
community, which began as a reaction to the overt discrimination by the dominant group (Chan, 1990). Children of
immigrants are usually much more acculturated, and their language skills and greater familiarity with the larger society
allowed them to speak for the group more effectively.
Second-generation Chinese Americans (and other Asian groups) were born U.S. citizens with legal and political rights not
available to their parents, who were forbidden to become citizens. Thus, the decades-long absence of a more
Americanized, English-speaking generation increased Chinese Americansâ€™ isolation.
The Ethnic Enclave
The Chinese became increasingly urbanized as the anti-Chinese campaign and rising racism took their toll. Forced out of
towns and smaller cities, they settled in larger urban areas, especially San Francisco (which offered the safety of urban
anonymity), and ethnic neighborhoods where they could practice â€œold waysâ€ and minimize contact with Anglo society.
Chinatowns had existed since the start of immigration, but they now took on added significance as safe havens from the
storm of anti-Chinese venom. By withdrawing to these neighborhoods, the Chinese became an â€œinvisible minorityâ€ (Tsai,
1986, p. 67).
Figure 8.3 Population Growth for Chinese and Japanese Americans, 1850â€“2017
Sources: Hoeffel, Rastogi, Kim, and Shahid (2012, p. 4); Kitano (1980, p. 562); Lee (1998, p. 15), U.S. Bureau of the Census
(2018a). American Community Survey, 2017.
These early Chinatowns were ethnic enclaves similar to those founded by Jews on the East Coast and Miamiâ€™s Cuban
community, and a similar process formed them. The earliest urban Chinese included merchants and skilled artisans who,
similar to the early wave of Cuban immigrants, were experienced in commerce (Chan, 1990). They established businesses
and retail stores, typically small in scope and modest in profits. As their population increased, the market for these
enterprises became larger and more spatially concentrated. As people needed new services, the size of the cheap labor
pool available to Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs increased, and Chinatowns became the economic, cultural, and
social centers of the community.
Within the Chinatowns, elaborate social structures developed that mirrored traditional China in many ways. Residential
segregation by whites helped preserve much of the traditional Chinese food, dress, language, values, norms, and religions
of their homeland. The social structure was based on many types of organizations, including family and clan groups and
huiguan, or associations based on the region or district in China from which the immigrants had come. These
organizations performed variousâ€”often overlappingâ€”social and welfare services, including settling disputes, aiding new
arrivals from their regions, and facilitating the development of mutual aid networks (Lai, 1980; Lyman, 1974).
Life wasnâ€™t always peaceful in Chinatown; there were numerous disputes over control of resources and the organizational
infrastructure. In particular, secret societies called tongs contested the control and leadership of the merchant-led huiguan
and the clan associations. The American press sensationalized these sometimes-bloody conflicts as â€œTong Wars,â€ which
contributed to the stereotypes of Asians as dangerous, exotic, and mysterious (Lai, 1980; Lyman, 1974).
Despite internal conflicts, American Chinatowns evolved into highly organized, largely self-contained communities,
complete with their own leadership and decision-making structures. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
(CCBA) functioned as the internal city government of Chinatown. Dominated by the larger huiguan and clans, the CCBA
coordinated and supplemented the activities of the various organizations and represented community interests outside the
The local CCBAs, along with other organizations, fought the anti-Chinese campaign, speaking out against racial
discrimination and filing numerous lawsuits to contest racist legislation (Lai, 1980). The lack of resources in the Chinese
community and the fact that Chinese immigrants couldnâ€™t become citizens limited the effectiveness of protest efforts. China
tried to mobilize international pressure against the treatment of the Chinese in America. However, China was colonized and
dominated by other nations (including the United States). Additionally, internal turmoil further weakened China; therefore, it
couldnâ€™t effectively help its citizens in the United States (Chan, 1990).
Survival and Development
The Chinese American community survived despite widespread poverty, discrimination, and the lack of women. Group
members sought opportunities in other regions, resulting in Chinatowns developing in New York, Boston, Chicago,
Philadelphia, and many other cities.
The patterns of exclusion and discrimination that began during the 19th-century anti-Chinese campaign were common
throughout the nation and continued well into the 20th century. Chinese Americans responded by finding economic
opportunity in areas where dominant group competition for jobs was weak, allowing them to remain an â€œinvisibleâ€ minority.
Very often, they started small businesses that either served other members of their own group (e.g., restaurants) or relied
on the patronage of the public (e.g., laundries). The jobs these small businesses provided were the economic lifeblood of
the community but were limited in the amount of income and wealth they could generate. Until recent decades, for
example, most restaurants served primarily other Chinese, especially single men. Because their primary clientele was
poor, the profit potential of these businesses was sharply limited. Laundries served the more affluent dominant group, but
the returns from this enterprise declined as washers and dryers became increasingly common in homes throughout the
nation. The population of Chinatown was generally too small to sustain more than these two primary commercial
enterprises (Zhou, 1992).
As the decades passed, the enclave economy and the complex sub-society of Chinatown evolved. However, discrimination,
combined with defensive self-segregation, ensured the continuation of poverty, limited job opportunities, and substandard
housing. Relatively hidden from general view, Chinatown became the world where the second generation grew into
The Second Generation
The immigrant generation generally retained its native language and customs. However, the second generation was much
more influenced by the larger culture. The institutional and organizational structures of Chinatown were created to serve
the older (mostly men) immigrant generation. But younger Chinese Americans looked beyond the enclave to fill their
needs. They came in contact with the larger society through schools, churches, and voluntary organizations such as the
This second generation of Chinese Americans abandoned many traditional customs and were less interested in the clan
and regional associations that the immigrant generation had constructed. They founded organizations more compatible
with their Americanized lifestyles (Lai, 1980).
Like other minority groups, World War II was an important watershed for Chinese Americans. During the war, opportunities
outside the enclave increased; after the war, many of the 8,000 Chinese Americans who had served in the armed forces
took advantage of the GI Bill to further their education (Lai, 1980). Thus, in the 1940s and 1950s, many moved out of the
enclave to pursue opportunities. This group was mobile and Americanized, and with educational credentials comparable to
the general population, they were prepared to seek success outside Chinatown.
In another departure from tradition, second-generation Chinese women pursued education. As early as 1960, the median
years of schooling for Chinese American women was slightly higher than for Chinese American men (Kitano & Daniels,
1995) and as the century progressed, Chinese American women became more occupationally diverse. In 1900, three
fourths of all employed Chinese American women were doing domestic work or working in manufacturing (usually in the
garment industry or in canning factories). By 1960, less than 2% did domestic work, 32% were in clerical occupations, and
18% held professional jobs, often as teachers (Amott & Matthaei, 1991, pp. 209â€“211).
Men and women of the second generation achieved considerable educational and occupational success and helped
establish the idea that Chinese Americans were a â€œmodel minority.â€ A closer examination reveals, however, that anti
Chinese prejudice and discrimination continued to limit their life chances. Second-generation Chinese Americans earned
less, on average, and had less-favorable occupational profiles than comparably educated white Americans, a gap between
qualifications and rewards that reflects persistent discrimination. Kitano and Daniels (1995) conclude that although well
educated Chinese Americans could find good jobs in the mainstream economy, the highest, most lucrative positionsâ€”and
those that required direct supervision of whitesâ€”were still unattainable (see Hirschman & Wong, 1984).
Furthermore, many Chinese Americans, including many who stayed in the Chinatowns to run the enclave economy as well
as the immigrants who began arriving after 1965, didnâ€™t fit the image of success at all. A large percentage of them faced
many of the same problems as members of colonized, excluded, exploited minority groups of color. For survival, they relied
on low-wage jobs in the garment industry, the service sector, and the small businesses of the enclave economy, and they
were beset by poverty and powerlessness, much like the urban underclass segments of other groups.
Thus, Chinese Americans were represented at both ends of the occupational structure spectrum (see Barringer, Takeuchi,
& Levin, 1995; Min, 2006; Takaki, 1993; Wong, 1995; Zhou & Logan, 1989). A large percentage work in more desirable
occupations, which offered some level of affluence, and this sustained the popular idea of Asian success. Others, less
visible, were concentrated at the lowest levels. Because they were present at both poles or ends of the spectrum,
researchers often describe Chinese Americans (as a group) as â€œbipolar.â€
Immigration from Japan increased shortly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 took effect, in part to fill the gap in the
labor supply created by the restrictive legislation (Kitano, 1980). The 1880 census counted only a few hundred Japanese in
the U. S., but the group increased rapidly. By 1910, the Japanese in America outnumbered the Chinese, and they remained
the larger of the two groups until large-scale immigration resumed in the 1960s (see Figure 8.3).
The Anti-Japanese Campaign
The contact situation for Japanese immigrants resembled that of the Chinese. They immigrated to the same West Coast
regions as the Chinese, entered the labor force in a similar position, and were also a small group with few power
resources. Predictably, the feelings and emotions generated by the anti-Chinese campaign transferred to them. By the
early 1900s, an anti-Japanese campaign to limit competition was in full swing. Efforts were being made to establish a rigid
competitive system of group relations and to exclude Japanese immigrants in the same way the Chinese were barred
(Kitano, 1980; Kitano & Daniels, 1995; Petersen, 1971).
Japanese immigration was partly curtailed in 1907 when a â€œgentlemenâ€™s agreementâ€ was signed between Japan and the U.
S. limiting the number of laborers Japan would allow to emigrate (Kitano & Daniels, 1995, p. 59). This policy remained in
effect until the United States changed its immigration policy in the 1920s and barred Japanese immigration completely. The
end of Japanese immigration is largely responsible for the slow growth of the Japanese American population throughout
most of the 20th century (see Figure 8.3).
Most Japanese immigrants, similar to the Chinese, were young men laborers who planned to return to their homeland or, if
married, to bring their wives to America once they were established (Duleep, 1988). The agreement of 1907 curtailed menâ€™s
immigration, but because of a loophole, women could continue immigrating until the 1920s. Thus, the group of Japanese
Americans had relatively equal numbers of women and men who would marry and begin families, and a second generation
of Japanese Americans began appearing without much delay. By 1930, about half of all Japanese Americans were
native-born; by the eve of World War II, a majority (63%) were U.S.â€“born (Kitano & Daniels, 1995, p. 59).
The anti-Japanese movement also attempted to dislodge the Japanese from agriculture. Many Japanese immigrants were
skilled agriculturists, and farming was their most promising avenue for advancement (Kitano, 1980). In 1910, between 30%
and 40% of all Japanese in California were engaged in agriculture; from 1900 to 1909, the number of independent Japanese
farmers increased from fewer than 50 to about 6,000 (Jibou, 1988, p. 358).
Most of these immigrant farmers owned small plots of land, and they made up only a minuscule percentage of West Coast
farmers. Nonetheless, their presence and relative success didnâ€™t go unnoticed and eventually stimulated discriminatory
legislation, most notably the Alien Land Act, passed by the California legislature in 1913. This bill made foreign-born
people ineligible for citizenship and, therefore, ineligible to own land. Given the West Coast population at the time, this law
essentially applied to Asian immigrants. Somewhat surprisingly, the legislation didnâ€™t achieve its goal of dislodging the
Japanese from the rural economy, who dodged the discriminatory legislation through various methods, mostly by putting
land titles in the names of their American-born children, who were citizens by law (Jibou, 1988; Kitano, 1980).
The Alien Land Act was one part of a sustained campaign against the Japanese in the United States. In the early decades
of this century, the Japanese were politically disenfranchised and segregated from dominant group institutions, such as
schools and residential areas. They were discriminated against in movie theaters, swimming pools, and other public
facilities. The Japanese were excluded from the mainstream economy and confined to a limited range of poorly paid
occupations (Kitano & Daniels, 1988; see Yamato, 1994). In short, they experienced strong elements of systematic
discrimination, exclusion, and colonization in their overall relationship with the dominant white society.
The Ethnic Enclave
Spurned and disparaged by the larger society, the Japanese, similar to the Chinese, constructed a separate sub-society.
The immigrant generation, called Issei (from the Japanese word ichi, meaning â€œoneâ€), established an enclave in agriculture
and related enterprises, a rural counterpart of the urban enclaves constructed by other groups weâ€™ve examined.
By World War II, the Issei had come to dominate a narrow but important segment of agriculture on the West Coast,
especially in California. Although the Issei were never more than 2% of the total population of California, Japanese
Americanâ€“owned farms produced as much as 30% to 40% of various fruits and vegetables grown in that state. As late as
1940, more than 40% of the Japanese American population was involved directly in farming, and many more were
dependent on the economic activity stimulated by agriculture, including the marketing of their produce. Other Issei lived in
urban areas, where they were concentrated in a narrow range of businesses and services, such as domestic work and
gardening, some of which catered to other Issei and some of which served the dominant group (Jibou, 1988, p. 362).
Japanese Americans in the rural and urban sectors maximized their economic clout by doing business with other
Japanese-owned firms as often as possible. Gardeners and farmers purchased supplies at Japanese-owned firms, farmers
used other group members to haul their produce to market, and businesspeople relied on one another and mutual credit
associations (rather than dominant-group banks) for financial services. These networks helped the enclave economy to
grow and also permitted the Japanese to avoid the hostility and racism of the larger society. However, these very same
patterns helped sustain the stereotypes that depicted the Japanese as clannish and unassimilable. In the years before
World War II, the Japanese American community was largely dependent for survival on networks of cooperation and mutual
assistance, not on Americanization and integration.
The Second Generation (Nisei)
In the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Asian feelings continued to run high, and Japanese Americans continued to be excluded and
discriminated against despite (or perhaps because of) their relative success. Unable to find acceptance in Anglo society,
the second generation, called Nisei, established clubs, athletic leagues, churches, and a multitude of other social and
recreational organizations within their own communities (Kitano & Daniels, 1995). These organizations reflected the high
levels of Americanization of the Nisei and expressed values and interests quite compatible with those of the dominant
culture. For example, the most influential Nisei organization was the Japanese American Citizens League, whose creed
expressed an ardent patriotism that was to be sorely tested: â€œI am proud that I am an American citizen. . . . I believe in
[American] institutions, ideas, and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history, I trust in her futureâ€ (Kitano &
Daniels, 1995, p. 64).
Although the Nisei enjoyed high levels of success in school, the intense discrimination and racism of the 1930s prevented
most of them from translating their educational achievements into better jobs and higher salaries. Many occupations in the
mainstream economy were closed to even the best-educated Japanese Americans, and anti-Asian prejudice and
discrimination didnâ€™t diminish during the hard times and high unemployment of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many
Nisei were forced to remain within the enclave, and in many cases, jobs in the produce stands and retail shops of their
parents were all they could find. Their demoralization and anger over their exclusion were eventually swamped by the
larger events of World War II.
The Detention Centers
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, killing almost 2,500 Americans. The next day, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war. The preparations for war stirred up a wide range of fears and anxieties
among the American public, including concerns about the loyalty of Japanese Americans. Decades of exclusion and anti
Japanese prejudice conditioned members of the dominant society to see Japanese Americans as sinister, clannish, cruel,
unalterably foreign, and racially inferior. Fueled by the ferocity of the war itself and fears about a Japanese invasion of the
mainland, the tradition of anti-Japanese racism laid the groundwork for a massive violation of civil rights.
Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced
detention of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. By the late summer of 1942, about 115,000 Japanese
Americans, young and old, men and womenâ€”virtually the entire Japanese population from the West Coastâ€”were forcibly
transported to detention centers, where the government imprisoned them behind barbed-wire fences patrolled by armed
guards. Most of these people were American citizens, yet the U.S. government made no attempt to distinguish between
citizens and non-citizens. No trials were held, and no one was given the opportunity to refute the implicit charge of
disloyalty. (The government forcibly detained approximately 11,500 German Americans and 3,000 Italian Americans, and
others, including those abroad, but it wasnâ€™t a wide-sweeping roundup [Mak, 2017].)
The U.S. government gave families little time to prepare for removal and secure their homes, businesses, and belongings.
Because the government only allowed them to bring what they could carry, most Japanese Americans had to abandon the
majority of their possessions. Businesspeople sold their establishments (and everything in them) and farmers sold their
land at panic-sale prices. Others locked up their stores and houses and walked away, hoping that the removal would be
short-lived and their possessions undisturbed.
Their detention lasted for most of the war. At first, the government didnâ€™t permit Japanese Americans to serve in the armed
forces, but eventually, more than 25,000 escaped the detention centers by volunteering for military service. Nearly all of
them served in segregated units or in intelligence work with combat units in the Pacific Ocean. Two all-Japanese combat
units served in Europe and became the most decorated units for their size in American military history (Asahina, 2007).
Other Japanese Americans were able to get out of the detention centers by different means. Some, for example, agreed to
move to militarily nonsensitive areas far away from the West Coast (and their former homes). Still, about half of the original
internees remained when the detention centers closed at the end of the war (Kitano & Daniels, 1988).
The strain of living in the detention centers affected Japanese Americans in a variety of ways. Overcrowding, lack of privacy,
and boredom were common complaints. For example, Manzanar, one of the biggest facilities, housed more than 11,000
people. Eight people lived in a 20-by-25-foot room with few furnishings, usually cots or blankets with straw. On each of its 36
blocks, â€œ200 to 400 people . . . shared menâ€™s and womenâ€™s toilets and showers [with no partitions and showers with no
stalls]â€ (National Park Service, 2015a). Detention disrupted the traditional forms of family life, as people adapted to living in
crowded barracks and dining in mess halls. Conflicts flared between people who counseled caution and temperate reactions
to the incarceration and those who wanted to protest in more vigorous ways. Many of those who advised moderation were
Nisei, intent on proving their loyalty by cooperating with the administration.
Despite the injustice and dislocations of the incarceration, the detention centers reduced the extent to which women were
relegated to subordinate roles. Similar to Chinese women, Japanese women were expected to devote themselves to family
care. In Japan, for example, the goal of womenâ€™s education was to make them better wives and mothers, not expand their
minds or skills. Living in small quarters and eating in mess halls freed women from some housework. Many took classes to
learn more English and other skills. Additionally, almost all adults worked full-time running the detention centers, and U.S.
citizens were eligible for a few paying jobs. The pay was low but about equal for men and women. (Japanese Americans
and whites had unequal pay. For example, Japanese American teachers at Heart Mountain Relocation Center were paid
about nine times less than white counterparts [Digital Public Library of America, n.d.].) Employment gave women a sense of
self independent from their family. The younger women were able to meet young men on their own, weakening the tradition
of family-controlled, arranged marriages (Amott & Matthaei, 1991).
Some Japanese Americans protested the incarceration from the start and brought lawsuits to end their forced relocation.
Finally, in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that detention was unconstitutional. As the detention centers closed, some
Japanese American individuals and organizations sought compensation and redress for the economic losses the group
had suffered. In 1948, Congress passed legislation to compensate Japanese Americans for lost wages and lost property.
About 26,500 people filed claims and eventually settled for a total of about $38 million or about $1,434 per person (or
about $15,041 in 2019 dollars)â€”much less than the actual economic losses for lost wages and property (Pippert, 1983).
Demand for meaningful redress and compensation continued. In 1980, Congress began studying the impact of the detention
centers, and a 1982 report estimated total economic losses between $2.5 billion to $6.2 billion after adjusting for inflation.
Further, it acknowledged that â€œthe magnitude of the losses and injuries that come under the heading of â€˜pain and sufferingâ€™
cannot be estimated objectively in an economic sense and we made no attempt to study themâ€ (Pippert, 1983). In 1988,
Congress passed a bill granting reparations of about $20,000 to each of the 60,000 survivors and acknowledged that the
detention had resulted from â€œracial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership.â€ The law also acknowledged
that the relocation program had been a grave injustice to Japanese Americans (Biskupic, 1989, p. 2879; Qureshi, 2013).
In 2004, the House of Representatives approved a National Day of Remembrance on February 19, the date Executive
Order 9066 was signed. The Congressional record notes that though national security should be the highest priority,
[we must] not again have a failure among our political leadership. We must not give in to war hysteria. We must
not fall back to racial prejudice, discrimination and unlawful profiling. It is critical and important, more than ever,
to speak up against possible unjust policies that may come before this body. (Congressional Record, 2007)
The detention devastated the Japanese American community and left it with few material resources. The emotional and
psychological damage inflicted by this experience is incalculable. The fact that today, only seven decades later, the
performance of Japanese Americans is equal or superior to national averages on measures of educational achievement,
occupational prestige, and income is one of the more dramatic transformations in minority group history.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
3. What practical, emotional, and other consequences would living in detention centers have on you, your family,
and the community?
4. Some people have called for detention centers for American Muslims as a preventative measure. Is this a
reasonable, effective solution that could increase national security? If so, should we detain members of other
groups that also have the potential to become radicalized or to harm the nation (e.g., white nationalists)?
Explain. If you think this is a problematic plan, explain why.
5. Compare the forcible removal of Japanese Americans with that of Native Americans, with the legal
segregation of black Africans under apartheid and African Americans under Jim Crow, and with the persecution
of Jews, the Roma, and gays under the Third Reich in Germany.
Japanese Americans after World War II
In 1945, after their detention, Japanese Americans faced a very different world. About half the original internees remained
when the detention centers closed. They stayed to avoid anti-Japanese prejudice that they feared on returning home.
(After all, those feelings didnâ€™t end when the war did. See Table 1.2.) Many also stayed because theyâ€™d lost their
businesses and property, which put them at risk for poverty (Robinson, 2012). The rest of the group scattered throughout
the country and lived everywhere but the West Coast. The Japanese Americans who moved back to their former homes
found their fields untended, their stores vandalized, their possessions lost or stolen. In some cases, there was no
Japanese neighborhood to return to; for example, the Little Tokyo area of San Francisco had become inhabited by African
Americans who had moved to the West Coast to take jobs in the defense industry (Amott & Matthaei, 1991).
Japanese Americans had changed, also. In the detention centers, the Issei had lost power to the Nisei. The English
speaking second generation had dealt with the camp administrators and held the leadership positions. Many Nisei had left
the detention centers to serve in the armed forces or to find work in other areas of the country. For virtually every American
minority group, the war brought new experiences and a broader sense of themselves, the nation, and the world. A similar
transformation occurred for the Nisei. When the war ended, they were unwilling to rebuild the Japanese community as it
Similar to second-generation Chinese Americans, the Nisei had a strong record of success in school, and they also took
advantage of the GI Bill to further their education. When anti-Asian prejudice began to decline in the 1950s and the job
market began opening, the Nisei were educationally prepared to take advantage of the resultant opportunities (Kitano,
The Issei-dominated enclave economy didnâ€™t reappear after the war. One indicator of the shift from an enclave economy
was that the percentage of Japanese American women in California who worked as unpaid family laborers (i.e., worked in
family-run businesses for no salary) declined from 21% in 1940 to 7% in 1950 (Amott & Matthaei, 1991, p. 231). Also,
between 1940 and 1990, the percentage of Japanese Americans employed in agriculture declined from about 50% to 3%,
and the percentage employed in personal services fell from 25% to 5% (Nishi, 1995, p. 116).
By 1960, Japanese Americans had an occupational profile very similar to whites except that they were actually
overrepresented among professionals. Many were employed in the primary economy, not in the ethnic enclave. Many
chose to work in stable careers (e.g., engineering, optometry, pharmacy, accounting) that didnâ€™t require extensive public
contact or supervision by whites (Kitano & Daniels, 1988).
Within these limitations, the Nisei, their children (Sansei), and their grandchildren (Yonsei) enjoyed relatively high status,
and their upward mobility and prosperity have contributed to the perception that Asian Americans are a model minority. An
additional factor contributing to Japanese Americansâ€™ high status (and to the disappearance of Little Tokyos) is that, unlike
the Chinese American community, the Japanese American community received few new immigrants. Therefore, the
community hasnâ€™t needed to devote many resources to newcomers. Furthermore, recent Japanese immigrants tend to be
highly educated professionals whose socioeconomic characteristics add to the perception of the groupâ€™s success and
Japanâ€™s â€œInvisibleâ€ Minority
In Chapter 1, you learned two of the most important characteristics of minority groups. They are (1) objects of a
pattern of disadvantage and (2) easily identifiable, either culturally or physically. These traits work in tandem:
Members of the dominant group must be able to determine a personâ€™s group membership quickly and easily so the
discrimination that is the hallmark of minority group status can be practiced.
Visibility is such an obvious precondition for discrimination that it almost seems unnecessary to state it. However,
every generalization has an exception, and the members of at least one minority group, the Japanese Barakumin,
have been victimized by discrimination and prejudice for hundreds of years but are virtually indistinguishable from
the general population. How could this â€œinvisibleâ€ minority come into being? How could the disadvantaged status be
maintained through time?
The Barakumin were created centuries ago, when Japan was organized into a caste system based on occupation.
The ancestors of todayâ€™s Barakumin did work that brought them into contact with death (e.g., gravediggers) or
required them to handle meat products (e.g., butchers). People regarded these occupations as very low in status,
unclean, or polluted.
The dominant group forced the Barakumin to live in separate villages and to wear leather patches that raised their
visibility. They were forbidden to marry outside their caste, and any member of the general population who touched
a Barakumin person had to be ritually purified (Lamont-Brown, 1993).
The caste system was officially abolished in the 19th century, around the time Japan began to industrialize. Today,
most observers agree that the Barakuminâ€™s situation has improved. However, the Barakumin maintain their minority
status, and prejudice and discrimination against them continues, for example, in housing, employment, and
education (Ball, 2009; Hanskins, 2014; Neary, 2003).
The Barakumin are a small group of about 1.2 million people, about 2% or 3% of Japanâ€™s population. The dominant
group continues to see them as â€œfilthy,â€ â€œnot very bright,â€ and â€œuntrustworthyâ€â€”stereotypical traits associated with
other minority groups (Hanskins, 2014; Main, 2012).
The Barakumin situation might seem puzzling. If the group isnâ€™t distinguishable from the general population, why
donâ€™t the Barakumin blend in? What keeps them attached to their group?
Some Barakumin are proud of their heritage and refuse to surrender to the dominant culture. They have no intention
of trading their ethnic identity for acceptance or opportunity. For others, the ancient system of residential segregation
makes it difficult to pass as anything other than Barakumin. Specifically, the Japanese have recorded family histories
(including addresses) for centuries. Traditional Barakumin areas of residence are well known, and this
informationâ€”not race or cultureâ€”creates group boundaries and forms the ultimate barrier to assimilation.
Historically, anyone could review that information. Employers used it to screen out potential employees. Additionally,
that telltale information would emerge when they apply to rent apartments or get home loans. Like other minority
groups, some landlords refuse to rent to them, and banks have been reluctant to provide loans to them. Similarly,
Japanese parents typically research information about their childâ€™s fiancÃ© to know who is joining the family. Thus, if
any Barakumin attempted to marry outside their group, they would be discovered. In each of these cases, the
Barakumin who could pass and blend in would be outed (see Main, 2012; Reber, 1998).
Historically, standard practice was to investigate someone going back five generations. Legislation in 1968 made it
illegal for the public to access these records. Thus, in 1975, when an anonymous source revealed that more than
200 businesses had purchased lists of Barakumin information (e.g., family names, addresses, community names)
for 5,300 Buraku districts, it became known as the â€œBuraku Lists Scandal.â€ Nevertheless, such practices continue in
new forms, such as hiring private detectives or using Google Earth records. As recently as 2014, more than one
fourth (27%) of people surveyed said they wouldnâ€™t support their children marrying a Barakumin member (Buraku
Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute, 2005; Hanskins, 2014; Okaki, 2016; Sunda, 2015).
Awareness of traditional Barakumin residential areas means that this group isnâ€™t really invisible: Thereâ€™s a way to
determine group membership, a mark of who belongs and who doesnâ€™t. Consistent with our definition, this
â€œbirthmarkâ€ is the basis for a socially constructed boundary that differentiates us from them and for the
discrimination and prejudice associated with minority group status.
Legislation in 2015 officially recognized discrimination against the Barakumin and mandated the government to help
improve the groupâ€™s situation; for example, by investigating discrimination complaints. However, the law leaves
plenty of room for local communities to avoid implementing it. Similar to American minority groups, the Barakumin
have created protest organizations dedicated to improving their lives. Theyâ€™ve faced significant resistance but made
some progress and will continue to fight for equality (Hanskins, 2014; Osaki, 2016; Sunda, 2015).
8 ASIAN AMERICANS MODEL MINORITIES?