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THROUGH THE FIRE: Happy 51st Birthday, Model Minority

On Jan. 9, 1966, Japanese Americans were baptized as the U.S. model minority. William Peterson, UC Berkeley sociology professor, published his seminal article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The impact of his thesis continues to be felt 51 years later, not just by Japanese Americans, but by a broader cross-section of Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

To his credit, Peterson does use the term “concentration camp” and discusses such complexities as the renunciants and draft resisters during our World War II experience. But unintentional or not, this model minority status poised us against the rise of the Black Liberation struggle in the 1960s.

What is critical to understand is the particular historical intersection in which this “success story” makes its appearance. The previous year was a tumultuous one for the African American community. Malcolm X was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965. As the leader of the new wave of Black Liberation activists who were no longer willing to turn the other cheek in the face of violence and brutality, Malcolm X provided the vision for a future worth fighting for.

And in the middle of this ferment, Japanese Americans are thrown at this growing rage. Peterson extolling the virtues of how Japanese Americans, specifically the Nisei, quietly accepted being thrown into concentration camps, then volunteered to be cannon fodder in the U.S. military to prove their worthiness to become citizens. And then don’t complain, take what you can get, work hard — and yes, we get head-nods from mainstream white America.

But our prize was not equal treatment — instead we got held up as an example for demonstrating African Americans to follow. It could be construed that the white power structure was telling black people: “Why don’t you shut-up and be like the Japanese Americans?”

I’d like to paraphrase some revealing historical notes from Nancy Montgomery’s article titled “When the civil rights movement became a casualty of war”: Martin Luther King, Jr., along with a host of civil rights leaders, made an agreement with President Lyndon Johnson to secure safe passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — they either supported or kept silent on the escalating war in Vietnam.

Signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was supposed to end “segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” But it was unable to pre-empt the outrage in black communities nationwide — giving us witness to riots in major U.S. cities from 1964 to 1969.

King received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oct. 14, 1964. The Defense Department acknowledged that in 1965 African Americans accounted for 31 percent of combat infantry troops in Vietnam. It wasn’t until April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, that King declared: “A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

The U.S., he said, was “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world,” and he insisted it was morally imperative to halt the war. (King was killed on the one-year anniversary of this speech.)

Three weeks after King’s speech, Muhammad Ali famously refused induction into the Army, which led to the immediate loss of his heavyweight title. An American Muslim of high moral values, Ali said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.” *

These were some of the surrounding conditions that gave rise to the Asian American Movement in the late 1960s. The fledgling beginnings of this movement among Japanese Americans was started by Ray Okamura and his contemporaries with the campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the “Emergency Detention Act,” a product of the McCarthy era. It called for the use of concentration camps for those suspected of espionage without need for a trial — sound familiar?

In the context of the rising militancy in black communities, as well as the anti-war protest movement becoming noticeable, Title II gave pause that the next group of internees could be black militants and/or anti-war protesters. There was also fear in the Chinese communities that they might be next since most people had ties with relatives in the People’s Republic of China (not yet recognized by the U.S. government).

In July 1967, Okamura telephoned the national headquarters of the JACL to ask them what they were doing to Repeal Title II. He was told he could become a member and follow the procedures within JACL if he wanted to try and persuade the locals and national organization of the merits of his request.

In May 1968, Berkeley sees the birth of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). Okamura credits them with starting the Asian American Movement. One of AAPA’s first activities was educating people on Title II, including speaking at Black Panther Party rallies. AAPA gets credit for starting the petition drive calling on Congress to repeal Title II.

Okamura recounts the many hoops that had to be jumped through not only in the U.S. Congress, but before that within the JACL, for a final victory in July 16, 1971, in his article titled “Campaign to Repeal the Emergency Detention Act.”**

Okamura and veteran JACL member Mary Anna Takagi called the first meeting of an ad hoc committee in June 1968 to get JACL involved. He describes their motivation for embarking on this campaign: “This small East Bay group…felt it was imperative for Japanese Americans to assume leadership in order to promote Third World unity. Japanese Americans had been the passive beneficiaries of the Black civil rights movement, and this campaign was the perfect issue by which Japanese Americans could make a contribution to the overall struggle for justice in the United States.”

Asians supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Japanese Americans standing together with Muslim Americans against a national registry are important ways that we use our “model minority status” for the benefit of uniting with people of color instead of being used to pit us against each other. (Happy New Year, Donald Trump!)

I’d like to end with the words of Edison Uno, who was a leader in the Title II campaign:***

“What is more important is the fact that we have had physical and psychological concentration camps in America long before 1942. Native Americans for generations have been victims of the original American concentration camps, which exist to this very day…. It is wrong to say, ‘It can’t happen again.’

“Our Japanese American experience is only a small sample of the human experiences which must be included in history. The campaign to repeal Title II is a chapter which should remind others that many more campaigns must be initiated to eliminate those forces which contribute towards the conditions we find in our midst which must be changed. The thrill of victory must be used to energize the next struggle.”


*Nancy Montgomery, “When the civil rights movement became a casualty of war” (

**Ray Okamura, “Campaign to Repeal the Emergency Detention Act: Background and History of the Repeal Campaign,” Amerasia Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1974

***Edison Uno, “Therapeutic and Educational Benefits (a Commentary),” Amerasia 2:2 (1974).

Mary Uyematsu Kao has been the publications coordinator for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press since 1987. She can be reached for comments/feedback at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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