My arrival in the US for my summer holiday, coincided with acquittal of George Zimmerman for the racially inflected murder of Trayvon Martin. The shooting happened in Sandford, Florida but even 2000km away in Boston it was inescapable. It dominated every bulletin on every telly we saw, there were numerous small about it and the omnipresent newspaper of the Nation of Islam – think Socialist Worker – was emblazoned with lurid headlines about the murder. If I’d needed a reminder that race is still a big issue in America, here it was. And of course I didn’t: the British media’s coverage of the US is as focused on race as the American TV shows I devour, and I am a product of a school system that teaches its pupils about Martin Luther King but not Martin Luther. However, the dialogue about race both within the US and about it, focuses on a handful of themes: the battle for black civil rights, the continuing cocktail of social problems African Americans face and the impact of mass immigration from Latin America. But traveling in the US made it abundantly clear that these narratives ignores a large group of Americans.
A spot of people watching in a big American city makes it clear that ethnic composition of the US is not just black and white (and hispanic). In particular, I was surprised at how many people of East Asian ancestry I came across. So I did what I usually do when something surprises me: I went and researched it on Wikipedia. From doing this I discovered that Asian-Americans* make up 5.8% of the population of the US. That means there is about 1 Asian-American for every 2.6 African Americans and every 3.4 Hispanics or Latinos. That I found this surprising is probably explained by the fact that despite being about an eighth of the US’s minority population, Asian-Americans receive much less than this proportion of the discussion about race.
They are of course not completely neglected – see for example the Tiger Mother controversy – but they are significantly underrepresented by virtually every part of the media.
This absence of Asian-Americans is particularly striking in one issue above all others: immigration. The discussion of this is topic seems to assume that migration to the US is primarily from Latin America. However, for several years now Asians have been the largest group of migrants to the US.
My suspicion is that the invisibility of Asian-Americans comes about because they are the ‘model minority.’ According to a survey conducted by Pew:
Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.
Because to the majority population they do not appear to the majority to a terrorist threat, particularly likely to commit crime or to be a burden on the tax payer, they don’t seem worth discussing. We should also not think this is just an American phenomenon: the British media doesn’t stop to dwell on the success of say the East African Asian, Chinese or Sikh communities.
This is a pernicious part of how race is talked about that is rarely considered. Ralph Ellison’s novel the Invisible Man centered on a black man rendered invisible by his low social status. By contrast, it seems Asian-Americans and other ‘model minorities’ successful status makes them politically invisible. This creates a pernicious situation whereby: minorities communities are either stereotyped negatively based on the behaviour of some of their members, and if this isn’t possible they are just ignored. These factors combine to produce an unbalanced and unrealistic debate.
*a term that encompasses people of Far Eastern, Southeast Asian, or Indian heritage.