In defense of Trump's 'shithole countries' comment, his surrogates invoke the 'model minority' myth

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The label of “model minority” has been applied to Asian Americans for years. But the origins of the stereotype are often misconstrued. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

The majority of responses to President Trump’s comments that the United States is taking immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and African nations have followed a pattern: Offensive, demeaning, racist, degrading.

But as usual, the president has his defenders.

The Rev. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and one of Trump’s key evangelical advisers, told the Christian Broadcasting Network that the president was right in his assessment of these developing countries. He said:

“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment. As individual Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to place the needs of others above our own, but as commander in chief, President Trump has the constitutional responsibility To place the interest of our nation above the needs of other countries.

I’m grateful we have a president like Donald Trump who understands that distinction and has the courage to protect the well-being of our nation.”

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey reported that Trump suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt that they help the United States economically.

Breirbart’s John Nolte wrote that this perspective on race and diversity has been unfairly overlooked:

“No one who identifies as a journalist is showing any desire to report the fact that Trump wants to boost immigration from a fairly large nonwhite area known as Asia . . .

If Trump is a white supremacist, he is the worst one ever.”

His argument, in part, is that because Trump did not say negative things about Asian immigrants, he must not be racist. (Just reminder: Four of the eight countries in Trump’s travel ban are in Asia, because Asia is, well, massive.)

And conservative commentator Carrie Sheffield argued on CNN that Trump’s preference for Asian immigrants over black immigrants isn’t about race but skills and talent. She said:

The president “said he would welcome immigrants from Asia so he is open to accepting people from other countries. So this really has to do with the broader, if you dig deeper here, to the question of is our immigration policy based on skills? Is it based on merit? Or is it based on natural disaster or is it based on war?”

While they are not saying it plainly, the implication seems to be: Asian immigrants are skilled. Black and Latino immigrants are not.

Ilya Shapiro, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, defended Trump’s words tweeting that his preference is rooted in economics, not racism.

These perspectives bring up another set of stereotypes about Asian immigrants, who are often painted as hard-working family units who have achieved the American Dream. It’s known at the “model minority” myth.

Jeff Guo reported in The Post that as Asian began to come to the United States en masse in the mid-1800s, they were often portrayed as degenerates and job-stealers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law limiting immigration to the United States. But some time after World War II, public opinion shifted, Asian Americans were seen as examples of family values and assimilation.

“By the 1960s, anxieties about the civil right movement caused white Americans to further invest in positive portrayals of Asian Americans. The image of the hard-working Asian became an extremely convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans. As Ellen Wu describes in her book, both liberal and conservative politicians pumped up the image of Asian Americans as a way to shift the blame for black poverty. If Asians could find success within the system, politicians asked, why couldn’t African Americans?”

This view also once shaped U.S. immigration policy. After decades of discrimination against Asian Americans  — specifically Japanese Americans during World War II — the American government and news media began treating Asian Americans better, creating a wedge between them and African Americans.

Wu, author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” wrote:

“In the midst of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, numerous politicians and academics and the mainstream media contrasted Chinese with African Americans. They found it expedient to invoke Chinese “culture” to counter the demands of civil rights and black power activists for substantive change.

In 1966, then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan defended his controversial claim that the too-strong emphasis on matriarchy in black “culture” was to blame for the “deterioration” of African American communities by pointing to the “enlightened family life” of the relatively well-to-do Chinese. The magazine U.S. News & World Report unequivocally made the same charged comparison: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negros and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own — with no help from anyone else.”

This view was solidified in the decades following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act as preference was given to immigrants from with more education.

Eliza Noh, associate professor at California State University at Fullerton, told Voice of America that the immigration system favors Asians from highly-educated families in Asia.

“Since 1965, some Asian American immigrants have come to the U.S. under certain immigration preference categories that favor professional skills and training,” she said. “Those groups tend to already have educational training and economic resources, which they invest in their children’s education. Their access to social and economic capital is what fuels academic achievement.”

The nation’s makeup of immigrants began to change as a result. Since 1965, the population of South Asians, including Indians and Bangladeshis, and Southeast Asians has increased dramatically. And South Asians and Southeast Asians now account for the majority of Asian Americans in the United States.

Asian Americans have long been used as proof that upward mobility exist for people of color, but history shows that opportunities and attitudes have not been evenly distributed, even among Asian immigrants.

When it comes to the success narrative for Asian Americans, Guo wrote:

“Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn’t that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It’s that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect.”

So for many people, hearing Trump’s comments about Asian immigrants don’t prove that he is not prejudiced. They just suggest that he views Asian immigrants as superior in someway.

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