Strangely enough, the notion of the “Exceptional Negro” and the “Model (Asian) Minority” can best be understood by examining how Italian immigrants went from the status of racially inferior, despised, and an outcast group in the 19th century to being accepted as white, thus becoming fully assimilated, enjoying the privileges of being white, which included adopting the racism and anti-black attitude of those whites who once looked down on them as an inferior group.

Italians from Northern Italy saw their darker skinned counterpart—particularly those from Sicily—as “an uncivilized and racially inferior people too obviously African to be part of Europe.” Arriving as newcomers to the American shores, they encountered waves of books, magazines, and newspapers filled with descriptions of Italians as “swarthy, kinky haired members of a criminal race and derided in the streets with epithets like dago, guinea (a term of derision applied to enslaved Africans and their descendants) and even with racist insults such as “white nigger” and “nigger wop.” 

A key role in the demonization of Italian immigrants was played by the Northern press. As Southern newspapers were justifying the lynching of African Americans by labeling them as brutes, fiends out to defile the purity and virtue of white women, the Northern newspapers began to call for and justify the lynching of Italians by linking Blacks and Italians together as being innately criminal, going further to call out the Italians in general and Sicilians in particular as descendants of bandits and assassins.

The recognition by many ethnic, formerly marginalized groups that white is not something that you are but something that you become, set the Italians on the path of becoming white. In large part, it would be the creation of a federal holiday honoring the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus that would provide the Italians an avenue of acceptance and ultimately help them become fully identified as white. In the process, they would rewrite the Columbus and Italian narrative into one that placed both as central figures in the origin of the United States.

To solve the question of who would or would not be permitted to be white, the powers allowed to set the rules for such things created the term “people of color (POC).” Historically, this has meant people who are non-white or not of European descent and generally has included African Americans and Latinos. Perhaps only with the COVID-19 backlash did Asian Americans begin to be classified in any substantive way as POC.  Until then, they were viewed externally and often internally as the “Model Minority”, not like and certainly better than, the other minorities. 

This sentiment explains why Edward Blum, the conservative, right wing influencer behind the push to end affirmative action, eventually reached out to a group of Asian Americans to aid him in his quest by convincing them to become the plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admission, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College case that ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court striking down college affirmative action programs.  He then strategized that the new face of affirmative action victim should be a non-white pawn. Asian Americans would suddenly be standing in as proxies for white students and pitting Asian Americans against Black and Latino communities.

But what else is new!  This is exactly what the concepts of Exceptional Negro and Model Minority were intended to do. For African Americans, the Exceptional Negro issue has been whether to accept white America’s view of a Michael Jordan or Frederick Douglass or Oprah Winfrey as “not like those other Blacks”, They are told how vastly different they are from the normal, under achieving Black, who more times than not fits the thug, deadbeat, welfare queen, poor, uneducated mold. 

When the middle class, educated and accomplished African Americans have been willing to embrace the exceptionality label, they then have been more prone to looking down on and ostracizing themselves from “the others”, that is those poor and uneducated Blacks who do not share their qualities, social status, or achievements.  In reality, this group has had to grapple with the demands of African American cultural norms requiring them to unite against a common, incisive racial oppression and degradation.

For Asian Americans, the danger arises when they buy into the Model Minority myth.  The strategy by the white power elite, which includes today’s conservative right wing, has long been to make Asian Americans forget the “chink” racial slur; the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps right here in the United States; the legalized racism that manifested itself in such Congressional Acts as the barred zone provision which declared that persons from parts of China, all of Burma, Afghanistan, etc. were banned from the United States.  Additionally, the Lum v. Rice Act of 1927 ruled that Chinese are colored and would be admitted to schools designated as “colored”.

The danger of the Model Minority myth is that as a myth it glosses over anti Asian American racism and the effect it has on people’s mental well-being; it depicts Asian Americans as a monolithic group and as high earning and well educated.  Thus, it makes it possible to ignore Asian poverty or economic disparity, or illiteracy, or any other way that people can be harmed by the world’s most affluent nation.

The Model Minority myth also lures Asian Americans into the divide and conquer trap of making a flawed comparison of Asian Americans and other minorities, particularly African Americans.

Most dangerously, in my estimation, it advances the argument that racism and inequity are not relevant, that centuries of racism, enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow, and discrimination can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.

How tragic it is that this very group of people of color, once legally classified as “colored” would provide cover for a white racist agenda. Yet the Model Minority myth has been weaponized to end affirmative action policies that have played an important role in securing minority access to higher education, including for Asian Americans.

Perhaps the students who allowed themselves to become pawns in filing the suit against Harvard should put affirmative action in a historical context and learn about the ways Asian Americans have helped build affirmative action rather than tear it down. As some scholars and historians point out, a number of Asian American initiatives have helped establish the affirmative action infrastructure.

Could it be that the time is now to scrap the divide and conquer playbook, to concede that the majority of students, whatever their race or color, will not be attending Ivy League schools like Harvard? Could it be time to make the discourse about making schools better, making education more accessible and affordable, paying teachers a living wage, investing in public institutions of higher learning, in HBCU’s, in universal Pre-K, in apprenticeships, and making the world just and livable?

Instead of race blind admissions, perhaps human beings need to open their eyes to the ways in which injustice, and climate change, and gun violence, and racial hate, and corruption harm all of humanity.

Stay tuned!

Dr. Joanne Martin
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