The Unexceptional Racism of Andrew Sullivan

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Detail from the cover of William Petersen's Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success (1971).

Let’s start at the end.

In the final paragraph of his recently published commentary, “Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry for Hillary Clinton?,” Andrew Sullivan writes, “Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the ‘social-justice’ brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society?”

To some, it may be unclear how a piece criticizing Clinton supporters wound up discussing Asian Americans and the recent brutal attack on United Airlines passenger David Dao. But there is a logic to Sullivan’s screed.

According to Sullivan, Clinton should not have lost the recent election because she had a lot stacked in her favor. But lose she did, partly because of her own smugness and a poorly orchestrated campaign. This resulted in the election of Donald Trump, who is dangerously incompetent. The refusal of Clinton supporters to see her as culpable in her loss is related to an insistence on (her) victimhood, which is part of a bigger problem: What Sullivan sees as a perverse focus on victimhood by non-white people of all genders and white women feminists. This fixation on victimhood has dire consequences for society.

Here is where Dao comes in. As another example of victimhood discourse, Sullivan furnishes the claim that Dao was brutalized on behalf of United Airlines due to racism: “That no federal cops were involved and there is no actual evidence at all of police harassment of Asian-Americans is irrelevant — it’s all racism, all the time, everywhere in everything.” To Sullivan, Dao being associated with a victimhood narrative is concerning because Asian Americans usually do not see themselves as victims, but rather possess the qualities of a self-reliant racial minority group.

As many on social media have noted, Sullivan recycles tired tropes about Asian Americans as a model minority. Addressing his query about Asian American success to the “‘social justice’ brigade,” he asks, “It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?” While Sullivan does not explicitly name African Americans as a comparison group, the racist subtext was clear enough.

Some on social media expressed shock that Sullivan’s racist rant could appear in a reputable publication in 2017. Others lamented its unscholarly nature. As a sociologist who has researched, written about, and taught classes on Asian American experiences for almost two decades, I have become intrigued by these types of responses. While the racism of such writing should be challenged, some of the reactions suggest that the model minority myth is exceptional in its racism and seemingly divorced from scholarly or scientific work on racial inequality. More broadly, I have become curious as to how people historicize and conceptualize the model minority myth as an ideological device.

When criticizing the model minority myth, many point to the 1960s Civil Rights Era as the period of its emergence and emphasize two publications in particular: William Petersen’s New York Times Sunday Magazine article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” and U.S. News & World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S,” written by an anonymous author. It’s understandable why some connect Sullivan’s commentary to this time period, as he replicates the logic of these two articles, both published in 1966. Sullivan, Petersen, and U.S. News & World Report all assert that racial minority groups may overcome racism through personal responsibility and self-reliance, and castigate those they claim are too preoccupied with victimhood.

In critiques of the myth, Petersen’s article is often credited with coining the term “model minority.” But the phrase never appears there. Instead, Petersen discusses those he labels “problem minorities” — groups whose success is impeded by “social pathology.” According to Petersen, African Americans are the prototypical problem minority. Challenging the logic of straight-line assimilation models, which pose ethnic retention as a roadblock to social mobility, Japanese Americans are a success story because they have valuable culture and retain it. In short, according to the model minority myth, Black people have bad culture and Asian people have good culture.

Like those who challenge the anti-Black subtext of Sullivan’s commentary, people rightfully condemn Petersen and others who juxtapose African Americans and Asian Americans in this way. However, not mentioned by many critics is that Petersen was an established sociologist of migration who was commissioned by the NYT. Also frequently overlooked is the fact that Petersen went on to write the 1971 book Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success, for a series focused on ethnic groups. As a White man, he wrote a book about an ethnic group of which he was not a part, which was not the norm for the series. The reason why I think these points are significant is not because it makes the model minority myth more credible, but because it troubles the notion that pronouncements such as Sullivan’s are divorced from, or devoid of, mainstream and academically accepted discourse. It also requires us to look beyond “clickbait,” and mainstream media, which, as many model minority myth critics note, circulated Asian American success stories for decades following the 1960s. If we look more closely at how Petersen structured his argument regarding Japanese Americans as model minorities, we can better situate the problem represented by Sullivan’s commentary within the larger, overlapping spheres of academia, mass media, and punditry.

Wanting to sociologically identify what gave Japanese Americans “the strength to thrive on adversity,” Petersen eventually concludes that ethnic pride is the primary reason that “within a decade or two after the degrading and debilitating internment in camps,” Japanese Americans rose “above even prejudiced criticism.” Petersen’s emphasis on ethnic pride, and what we can also understand as “shame,” is a central feature of the model minority myth that is not addressed enough by critics. But it is key to identifying how “victimhood discourse” is sociologically constructed, and also helps reveal how Sullivan’s logic is pervasive and consistent with academic arguments.

For Petersen, ethnic pride is what helped Japanese Americans make “remarkable progress by their own almost unaided effort.” Not only did Japanese people possess ethnic pride, they were, according to the sociologist, ethnocentric: “One important reason that Japanese Americans overcame their extraordinary hardships is that they truly believe (as do Jews) that they are innately superior, that others are inferior.” Conversely, “problem minorities” failed to achieve because they lacked pride: “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.” According to Petersen, Japanese Americans’ ethnic pride was a quiet dignity distinct from the nationalism he disparagingly associated with the racial militancy of African Americans, which he saw as too preoccupied with racial victimhood. Nationalism was at odds with “elements of American democracy” that Petersen claims Japanese immigrants embraced: “universal education, the free labor market, citizenship for all native-born residents, color-blind justice.” Because of ethnic pride, Japanese Americans refused to make what Petersen saw as misplaced demands on the state or White people. By remaining committed to American values while retaining what he saw as positive ethnic characteristics, Japanese immigrants reportedly “were neither the hapless beneficiaries of social welfare nor the cause of militant placard-bearers.”

Similar to Petersen’s argument regarding ethnic pride, the 1966 U.S. News & World Report article, focused on Chinese Americans, champions Chinatowns as hubs of “self-respect.” This self-respect is juxtaposed to what is depicted as a perverse fixation on victimhood — and its cost to society — among African Americans. As the anonymous author writes: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else.”

While Petersen and U.S. News & World Report castigated Black protest and African American civil rights organizing during the 1960s as expressions of victimhood, Sullivan chastises those he labels the  “‘social-justice’ brigade.” More can be said about how this umbrella term flattens the racial and class inequality among the multiracial group he targets with coded, anti-Black rhetoric; and about how this relates to problems with Democratic Party strategy and policy. Whatever the case, despite their commentaries about the politics of the day, the model minority myth reproduced by Petersen, U.S. News & World Report, and Sullivan is not just about targeting the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, the model minority myth, as a sociological construction, does not require Black protest as a target.

Let me explain my last point, as it goes against a basic premise of one of the most widely circulated critiques of the model minority myth. If we think about the timeline of the model minority myth presented by many of its critics, the idea reportedly emerges in the 1960s so as to target Black protest. One problem with this timeline and its over-emphasis on the model minority myth’s relation to the Civil Rights Movement is that it is just too convenient. And by too convenient, I mean it ignores how the model minority myth has a much longer history as a sociological framework and ideological device. Understanding this is necessary to recognize how, unfortunately, claims like Sullivan’s are, to use a term gaining more traction, normalized.

Rethinking the timeline also helps us better see how the model minority myth functions. Returning to Petersen’s work on Japanese Americans, in his 1971 book he draws from sociological studies published before WWII. Some of these studies distanced themselves from that period’s overtly white supremacist calls for the sterilization or deportation of Japanese Americans, and instead, as Paul R. Spickard and Blackie Najima note, depict them “as a homogeneous group of well-behaved, quiet strivers.” The emphasis on good behavior is what bridges the model minority myth with criminology and deviance scholarship. Indeed, to develop his “problem minority” concept, Petersen drew from studies investigating racial segregation and its relationship to deviance and crime. As I’ve said before, the model minority myth is a discourse of policing, suggesting some groups can purportedly “self-police,” while others “require” state control.

Two articles by Norman S. Hayner, published in the American Journal of Sociology during the 1930s, are central to Petersen’s construction of Japanese Americans as model minorities. Like his fellow Chicago School sociologists, Hayner was interested in identifying the social (rather than what some saw as the strictly biological) factors associated with crime. As a major influence in Criminology, the Chicago School is preoccupied with deviance — behaviors or attitudes that are viewed as pathological or constituent of social problems but not necessarily illegal. In both articles cited by Petersen, Hayner focused on how embedded Asian Americans are in their ethnic communities and how this impacts their crime rates. Hayner concluded, “Embedded in immigrant life were kinship solidarity, primordial ties, and an ineluctable sense of loyalty and trust.” Here, Hayner focused on the presumed interplay between culture, social organization, and community enforcement of values and social outcomes. Sullivan makes a similar claim when he writes that Asian Americans have “social networks that looked after one another.”

Like Sullivan, Petersen was preoccupied with how groups respond to their environment, including the racism they experienced. “Not all frustration leads to crime,” he concludes. Despite whatever frustration Japanese Americans may have in response to racism, they have, according to Petersen, a moral code that gets them through: “Honor your obligations to parents and avoid bringing shame on them.” This purported moral code, however, extends beyond Japanese families and is enforced by the entire community: “The final success of such community efforts is to instill a sense of shame for wrongdoing in the minds of the young people themselves.” For Petersen, then, the “problem minority” did not have the same moral code or positive community enforcement as the “model minority.”

In response to the focus on how minority groups respond to racism, some have rightly noted that one cannot compare African Americans and Asian Americans because of the differences between enslavement and other forms of racial subjugation. Some — but certainly not all — who discuss enslavement and ongoing racism (as opposed to emphasizing historical racism, as many model minority proponents do) nevertheless conclude that it is the lack of ethnic ties, moral code, positive identity, and social organization (often judged through a heteronormative lens) that explains the status of African Americans versus other non-white groups. They will claim that slavery or subjugation so badly damaged African Americans psychologically or culturally to obliterate positive ethnic identities, social organization, or community values. In doing so, these explanations do not always challenge the ethnicized pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps logic of the model minority myth.1

While used against African Americans’ demand for Civil Rights, the model minority myth does not require Black protest as a target. Rather, the model minority myth is about claiming that groups’ culture, values, and social organization are the key explanations for racial and economic disparities. Many critics of the model minority myth know this and say as much. What is less noted is how this type of logic is related to an underhanded championing of cultural retention and ethnic pride — however culture and ethnicity are constructed — when ethnicity is presumed to not be too troublesome. Conversely, relatively low “achievement” and “success” are presumed to indicate a failure of ethnicity or culture or retention. In some cases, it is assumed that those groups who are relatively less successful in terms of social mobility have lost or deny their cultures or ethnic identities to the point of adopting a negative identity rooted in victimhood. What model minority myth proponents often do is claim they care about history, diversity, cultural identity, and ethnic pride so as to demonize the awareness of racism and a lack of faith in the American dream — which may or may not lead to social protest. Alertness to racism is then associated with a lack of ethnic pride and thus treated as a cultural defect or aversion from “healthy” perception, identity, or psychology. Again, consider Petersen’s conclusion that African Americans lack ethnic pride: “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.”

By underplaying the ways that ethnic pride and victimhood are articulated in relation to each other, we can miss how mainstream and normative Sullivan’s commentary is, or the social scientific underpinnings of his claims. While he does not cite data or conduct original research, Sullivan makes arguments that are academically mainstream, appear in scholarly, peer-reviewed publications, and are commonly taught in college classes. The logic of the model minority myth as expressed by Hayner, Petersen, U.S. News & World Report, and Sullivan, can be found in range of scholarship and social policies that do not tend to elicit the multiracial outrage that met Sullivan’s article. For example, the anti-Black claims about ethnic pride, embeddedness, moral codes, and social organization that are part of the model minority myth inform segmented assimilation theory, the “acting white” thesis and its juxtaposition of “involuntary minorities” versus “voluntary minorities,” the debate between William Julius Wilson and Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton over what is the “real” source of a presumed “Black culture of poverty,” and stereotype threat theory. These theories and studies widely circulate and are published, without enough resistance, among the fields of Sociology, Psychology, Urban Studies, Criminology, Education, Family Studies, and Poverty Studies. They also shape social policy and public debate.  

In short, the anti-Black logic of the model minority myth is not simply about targeting African Americans who publicly denounce racism, protest, or organize. It is about claiming to care about racism, the social mobility of non-white groups, and ethnic pride while depicting African Americans as uncultured, immoral, having no pride or shame, and un-evolved and thus personally responsible for their suffering as a racial group. The model minority myth is the claim that we can explain the racial gaps in poverty, wealth, criminalization, incarceration, and social mobility by referring solely to culture and family values, regardless of whose status is being examined. The problem is not just the assumption that some groups have good culture and others don’t, it is the suggestion that culture and pride are the key explanations for vast differences in power and resources among racial groups.

Andrew Sullivan’s writing is a problem, on so many levels. It must be opposed. And yet it is unexceptional in its racism as its logic is pervasive, has scholarly underpinnings, and often treated as legitimate when it appears elsewhere.

Notes:

1. I have addressed elsewhere the range of structural factors shaping economic and racial inequality among Asian Americans and African Americans.  

Tamara K. Nopper is a sociologist whose research examines economic and racial inequality. Her publications have focused on Black-Korean conflict, Korean immigrant entrepreneurship, ethnic banking and globalization, and U.S. government policies towards minority business development. She is currently writing a book on the model minority myth. Her website is tamaranopper.com.