Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, have been labeled the “model minority” in the United States. They are presented as sterling examples of those who arrived from distant shores and ascended through the ranks to achieve the American dream. How did this common script develop? Do Chinese Americans indeed see themselves as the “model minority”? How has being the “model minority” impacted their faith and church life?
The Humble Beginnings
It is difficult to imagine that Chinese Americans would one day be perceived as the “model minority” based on their early treatment. They were regarded with suspicion, as were other immigrants both before and after them.1
In the nineteenth century, the majority of Chinese came as common laborers to escape the economic and political turmoil in southern Guangdong province. Even after the California gold rush fever died down, great numbers of Chinese continued to arrive and found employment at positions requiring menial labor. Whether they prospected for gold, were employed to build the transcontinental railroad, or worked on farms and plantations, they were subjected to discriminatory practices and laws.2
Anti-Chinese sentiment gained momentum as these “coolies” were blamed for the loss of jobs among whites. In the space of a few decades, they were deprived of livelihood and home and driven from towns. They were the victims of violence, including murder, at the hands of vigilantes. They were considered an inferior race, as were Native Americans and African Americans.
A series of laws were passed gradually restricting their rights. The culmination of these legal barriers was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese were specifically named, targeted, banned, and denied naturalization.3 It was not until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the floodgates opened for Asian immigration to America.
The “Model Minority”
The degrading perception of the Chinese in 1882 and how they are now viewed as the “model minority” presents a dramatic turnaround. The blueprint for their career success supposedly rests on their strong work ethic and an emphasis on family, study, and education. These values align well with evangelical virtues.4
The term “model minority” was first coined by William Petersen in 1966 as he described the success of Japanese Americans in the face of discrimination and other obstacles.5 Unlike other minorities, Petersen concluded that the Japanese succeeded due to their cultural values such as diligence, frugality, and achievement orientation. This mantra was repeated in subsequent journal articles lending credence to this myth regarding Asian Americans as a whole.6 Asian Americans were held up as an example to be emulated by other peoples of color. Hence, civil rights protests were unnecessary. Equality could be achieved by following the example set by the “model minority.”
Mainstream society came to accept this myth as truth, yet it crumbles under closer examination as full equality in society has yet to be attained. Asian Americans remain a minority people not woven into the fabric of the majority.
Nevertheless, studies have pointed out that a number of Asian Americans have internalized the “model minority” label assigned to them. As students do not learn about Asian American history in the classroom, they are largely unaware of their historical treatment. Growing up in the current context, they have come to accept the notion of meritocracy. They study hard believing that this will lead to a prosperous career in the years ahead and fulfillment of the American dream.7
The Perpetual Foreigner
While Chinese and other Asian Americans are able to live in affluent neighborhoods, send their children to enviable schools, and achieve artistic and financial success, they are still the perpetual foreigner unable to attain complete assimilation into a society that continues to privilege whiteness. Materialistic success as the “model minority” is not equivalent to equality.
Chinese Americans were cruelly reminded about their place in the general population by the recent racist attacks against them following President Donald Trump’s description of the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Flu,” the “Chinese Flu,” or “Kung Flu.” The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, and Chinese for Affirmative Action created a website on March 19 to report attacks launched against Asian Americans. More than 2,100 incidents were reported between March and June alone.8 [viii] Even if Chinese Americans are viewed as the “model minority,” the term itself assigns them to a lower rung of society.
The “Model Christian”
The aspiration to be the “model minority” has spilled over into religious life. If Chinese American (and Asian American) evangelicals aspire to be the “model minority” in secular life by imitating those in power, they similarly seek to imitate the leaders of the American church. They attend popular church growth and church leadership conferences such as the Global Leadership Summit founded by Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Church, Saddleback Church’s series of Purpose Driven seminars led by Rick Warren, and Passion under the direction of Louie Giglio. These majority culture churches are on display as models to be emulated.
The latter was embroiled in controversy earlier this year when he suggested that the phrase “white privilege” could be replaced by “white blessing.” “We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do… And we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.” In an attempt to defuse the firestorm created by his comments, Giglio later declared that he wanted other white believers to recognize that “white privilege is real.”9
White privilege is real, but Chinese American believers have not connected the dots in regard to their faith. If one were to attend a typical English worship service in a Chinese church on a Sunday morning, the worship songs, both contemporary and classic, would be written by Western composers; thus, the theology expressed in the lyrics comes from the dominant culture.
The preaching style would be suitable for Western culture congregations as pastors are trained in evangelical seminaries. The service format would likely follow what one would find in many majority culture evangelical churches.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City was founded by noted church leader Tim Keller. More Chinese Americans and Korean Americans attend Redeemer than any respective second-generation Chinese or Korean church in the city as forty-five percent of Redeemer’s congregants are second- or third-generation Chinese and Korean.10 Leaving the immigrant church as adults has been the general trend for decades. However, even though Redeemer and several other popular large churches are multiethnic, one can argue that they are not multicultural. The dominant expression in these churches is white evangelical, an often-overlooked factor.
Anthony Alumkal’s study, “The Scandal of the “Model Minority” Evangelical Mind: The Bible and Second-Generation Asian American Evangelicals,” analyzes the wholesale manner by which second-generation Asian believers swallow popular Anglo-American evangelical modes of thought and discourse. Critical thinking is absent even from those who are college educated.11 The sermons and books popular in the white evangelical world are also consumed by Asian American Christians.
These behavioral patterns are consistent with the findings of scholars who have critically analyzed the “model minority” in matters of faith. They leave behind an immigrant church heavily influenced by an Asian flavored Christianity to establish a new home in evangelical churches that will help them develop their spiritual, not ethnic, identity. “Decidedly opposed to culture, especially Asian culture above the church, the second-generation promote a culture-free and color-blind church, a position on race shared with white evangelicalism.”12 Asian American campus groups seek to serve their ethnic constituency, yet at the same time propagate an evangelical identity that is non-race-specific.13
What they fail to understand is that American churches themselves are a product of Western culture including the phenomenon of evangelicalism. These Western churches are far from being culture neutral. When Asians join these churches, “what emerges is the self-reinforcement of the Christian model minority: the maintenance of white privilege, affirmation of middle-class standing, preservation of ethnic hierarchy in American evangelicalism, and compliance in the racialized formation of Asian Americans.”14 They remain the perpetual foreigner even in the spiritual domain.
This is evident in the arena of social justice where for many years, the sin of racism was perceived as an individual’s struggle. Overlooked was the specter of societal and systemic racism which the evangelical church has been slow to speak out against.15 Within the current climate in America, protests were mounted in all fifty states against the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. However, the Chinese church has been reluctant to join in these protests, emulating the evangelical church at large.
When a march for black dignity and pride was organized in Chicago’s Chinatown, many members of the historic local church were slow to action. There was indifference, even opposition, from leaders and members. Moreover, participation in civic protests is not behavior associated with those who are deemed a “model minority.” Such demonstrations are directed toward those entrenched in the capitals of power, against those who stand above them in society’s hierarchy.
Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans) continue to live in the liminal space of the margins. This is not to say that much has not been gained by Chinese Americans in both secular and religious life. However, as the “model minority” they remain on the outside looking to the majority for guidance and direction in matters of church and faith.
- Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
- “History of Chinese Americans,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, August 22, 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Chinese_Americans.
- Lee, pp. 81–93, gives details about the Coolie Trade Act of 1862 and the 1875 Page Act which preceded the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
- Rebecca Y. Kim, God’s New Whiz Kids?: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
- William Petersen, “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” The New York Times Magazine, January 1966, p. 20ff.
- Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): pp. 105–138, https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329299027001005.
- Candace J. Chow, “Raced Curriculum: Asian American College Students’ Lives,” in Bic Ngo and Kevin K. Kumashiro, “Raced Curriculum: Asian American College Students’ Lives,” in Six Lenses for Anti-Oppressive Education: Partial Stories, Improbable Conversations (New York: Peter Lang, 2014). Even academically under achieving students have internalized the “model minority” myth and respond to this script.
- Erin Donaghue, “2,120 Hate Incidents against Asian Americans Reported during Coronavirus Pandemic,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, July 2, 2020), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/anti-asian-american-hate-incidents-up-racism/.
- Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Atlanta Megachurch Pastor Louie Giglio Sets off Firestorm by Calling Slavery a ‘Blessing’ to Whites,” The Washington Post (WP Company, June 16, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/06/16/atlanta-megachurch-pastor-louie-giglio-sets-off-firestorm-after-calling-slavery-white-blessing/.
- Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra et al., “The Life and Times of Redeemer Presbyterian Church,” May 22, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/life-and-times-of-redeemer-presbyterian-church/.
- Anthony Alumkal, “The Scandal of the ‘Model Minority’ Evangelical Mind: The Bible and Second-Generation Asian American Evangelicals,” Semeia 90/91 (March 2002): pp. 237-250.
- K. Kale Yu, “Christian Model Minority: Racial and Ethnic Formation in Asian American Evangelicalism,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion 7, no. 4 (November 2016): pp. 1-24, http://www.raceandreligion.com/JRER/Volume_7_%282016%29.html.
- Rudy V. Busto, “The Gospel According to the Model Minority?: Hazarding an Interpretation of Asian American Evangelical College Students,” Amerasia Journal 22, no. 1 (1996): pp. 133-148, https://doi.org/10.17953/amer.22.1.nw6177p521l33334.
- Yu, p.4.
- Ibid., p.11
Andrew Lee is the Associate Director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has served at the largest Chinese churches in New York City and Chicago. He has also been a seminary professor at several institutions and has written for both the academic and ministry …View Full Bio