Model Minorities?

By August 25, 2008

I have recently been exploring Chiung Hwang Chen’s 2004 book Mormon and Asian American Model Minority Discourses in News and Popular Media which, along with her and her husband Ethan Yorgason’s 1999 Dialogue article, makes the case that the media has portrayed both Asian Americans and Mormons in the last fifty years utilizing what Asian American scholars have identified as a model minority discourse. [1] Although Chen is not a historian, the way that she tracks changes in representation over time feels quite historical and, in some ways, might be considered a continuation of what Terryl Givens was trying to do in The Viper on the Hearth. [2] Although I have some critiques of the book which I will get to later, I thought it might be relevant to also consider some of the advantages to her approach.

For example, Chen makes a powerful comparison between the historical path of Mormons and Asian Americans. Both groups represented the epitome of marginalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants came to represent the “Yellow Peril” that had the potential of overwhelming American communities on the West Coast both militarily and economically. Asian immigrants were considered inassimilable and even pathological which eventually led to laws created to bar their immigration to and restrict their economic participation in the United States. Asian Americans became the first group stigmatized as illegal aliens (a category that did not exist until the 1884 Chinese Exclusion Act) and were excluded from the American dream through measures such as Alien Land Laws (legislation which restricted all Asian immigrants from owning land). Mormons likewise suffered from overblown media portrayals. At the turn of the century, they still fought the perception that Mormons were evil, sex-starved polygamists at worst and foolish, backward bumpkins at best. Although Chen would benefit by incorporating some of Katherine Flake’s and Sally Gordon’s scholarship on this period, she presents a workable summary of the ways in which the media portrayed Mormons in the years before and following the Manifesto. [3]

Chen continues by showing how portrayals of both Mormons and Asian Americans had changed by the years following World War II. Her argument is much more nuanced, but, for the sake of time, I am trying to show the merits of her argument that Asian Americans and Mormons have suffered similar rhetorical treatment by the media over time. In the last fifty years, despite some notable exceptions, both Mormons and Asian Americans have been treated as model minorities by the media. News stories have gushed over their success in assimilating into mainstream American society. In documenting this transition, Chen builds on observations made by Alexander about the incredible transition that occurred in the church over the course of the twentieth century as well as a long historiography of Asian American scholars. [4] While the majority of other scholars have imperatively focused on the actions of Church leaders in affecting this change, Chen employs the comparative context of Asian Americans to argue how changing perceptions of both groups also reflected the discursive needs of society at large. The idea of the model minority allows American society to embrace those who are “safely” different because of their supposed assimilation into American society. These model minorities are portrayed in contrast to other minorities that represent foreignness, laziness, or inferiority. Although model minorities are accepted as conditional members of society, their position as minorities is never forgotten even as their role as “model” citizens feeds the American need for continued examples of the American progress.

I do find Chen’s easy grouping of Asians and Mormons as rhetorically equivalent groups a little troubling. Although many scholars have painted Mormons as an ethnic group-especially in the nineteenth century-I find myself a little skeptical. Chen, to her credit, acknowledges the differences and difficulties of the comparison she is making. She feels that the excavations uncovered by this comparison make the rhetorical slight of hand acceptable. Although I find the comparison even more problematic than she, I am inclined to agree about the fruitfulness of her project.

I found Chen’s argument fascinating in light of recent political events. The Mitt Romney presidential campaign would have presented Chen with ample evidence for the continued relevance of her conception of Mormons as model minorities. It seems that news organizations always focused on his success while at the same time mentioning the fact that he was Mormon. How many times did we hear that Romney was the most qualified candidate for president, but that he would have to find ways to win over Evangelical voters because he was Mormon? In the same moment, analysts acknowledged his place as a “model” politician while at the same time reiterating his minority status. Similar rhetorical maneuvering occurs regularly in portrayals of Asian Americans or Asians in general. Think about how the Chinese with the Olympics have been constantly portrayed as master organizers while at the time being authoritarian violators of human rights. I don’t want to downplay the reality and horror of China’s human rights violations, but it is interesting to see how the media want to have their cake and eat it too.

Finally, I just wanted to commend Chen’s work as one fruitful way for exploring Mormon history in the twentieth century without needing to use restricted sources to tell a relevant, fascinating story. Her work also represents a powerful example of finding imaginative ways to engage Mormon history while connecting it to a larger national story. Asian American scholars have argued that the model minority discourse was created in order to criticize minorities that were not “model” citizens. She argues that the Mormon model minority myth was created to regularize American conceptions of family and hard work. Chen posits that looking at national portrayals of Mormons and Asian Americans offers a way to better understand discourses of difference in American history. Has anyone else read her work? What do you think? What do you think about her comparison between Asian Americans and Mormons? Are there other reasons that you can think of why Mormons might have been portrayed as model minorities?

[1] Chiung Hwang Chen, Mormon and Asian American Model Minority Discourses in News and Popular Magazines (Lewistin, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2004); Chiung Hwang Chen and Ethan Yorgason, “‘Those Amazing Mormons’: The Media’s Construction of Latter-day Saints as a Model Minority,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 32, no. 2 (1999): 107-128.

[2] Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[3] Sally Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hills: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hills: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

[4] Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Thomas K. Nakayama, “‘Model Minority’ and the Media: Discourse on Asian America, Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1988): 65-73; Keith Osajima, “Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s, in Reflections on Shattered Windows: Promises and Prospects for Asian American Studies, ed. Gary Y. Okihiro et. al. (Pullman: Washington University Press, 1988), 165-174 .


Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Joel. I hadn’t heard of this work prior to now, but I find your gloss on it to be fascinating. I agree that the grouping of Mormons and Asian Americans sounds a bit strained. I wonder, does she provide evidence that journalists explicitly draw upon Asian American images to construct Mormons or is she just postulating that the images are the same?

    Comment by David G. — August 25, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  2. Fascinating! I agree that the comparison is not perfect, but still usefully thought-provoking.

    The motivation question that you touch on in the last paragraph is interesting. It seems clear to me that the model minority status for Asian-Americans was created as a bludgeon for other minority groups–either to try to coerce better behavior, or simply as an excuse to continue hating while shifting the blame for that hate to the victim. I’m not sure I see as clear a motivation for the Mormon model minority status.

    I don’t see any other religious groups that we are supposed to create an unfavorable contrast with. “Hey Scientologists, why don’t you blend in better like those Mormons!” just doesn’t seem to make sense. I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on this.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — August 25, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  3. I happened to be watching one of Quintard Taylor’s lectures on the UW channel last night, which covered African American history in the west in the early 20th century. He didn’t spend too much time on it, but he compared how asians (and specifically the Japanese) responded to discrimination compared to African Americans in Seattle. He quoted the JACL distinguishing themselves from the NAACP by stating that bringing up examples of discrimination isn’t particularly fruitful. He apparently didn’t have time to discuss why, but he did mention that such a strategy wouldn’t have worked for the African American community.

    I imagine that various coping strategies would be even more disparately successful in the case of Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 25, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  4. David,

    I think that Chen would say that the Mormon and Asian American model minority discourses were created coevally; journalists and producers of popular culture might not have equated Asians with Mormons, but they utilized similar narrative patterns to describe both groups. Her central moment of comparison occurs in 1966 when the U.S. News and World Report did articles on both groups. She demonstrates how each of the articles acknowledged changing social conditions then reports on low occurrence of crime in both communities, the positive power of tradition values in both cultures, the internal welfare systems both groups employ, and the historical importance of work among both groups. Thus, her central point is to interrogate the reasons why such narrative similarities exist.

    I must say that one of the most convincing images in the whole book appears on the cover in the form of a political cartoon from 1883 depicting DeWitt Talmage’s crusades against Mormonism. In this cartoon an armored Christian knight wields a lance that represented a sermon against Mormonism . In his other arm he carefully embraces a stereotypical Chinaman with a traditional queue and native dress. In the background are pictures of the tabernacle and the temple. The caption on the bottom states “The Chinese may stay, but the Mormons must go.–DeWitt Talmage.”

    Sister Blah 2,

    I think that Chen’s argument is that Mormons were used rhetorically to contrast with other non-conforming religions as well as the general social milieau of the 1960s.

    J.

    I’m not sure the JACL’s strategy really worked either before World War II, and the African American community had tried similar tactics in the Booker T. Washington Era. But I do think that both Mormons and Asian Americans, to some degree, embraced their model minority status in the 60s through the present. Both groups realized the benefits involved with finding such acceptance. Limited societal acceptance became fruits of complying with paternalism. I think Chen’s largest point is that the perceived benefits also came with a continued societal commitment to religious and racial marginalization on a more hidden basis.

    Comment by Joel — August 25, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  5. She had an excellent article in a recent issue of Dialogue and if a certain Dialogue staff member–cough, Stapley, cough–would get on the ball, it would be available at the Dialogue website and I could link to it, for folks without access to the book.

    Comment by Kristine — August 25, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  6. Thanks for the review, Joel. Regarding your reference to DeWitt Talmage’s political cartoon … some travel writers making their way west during the 19th century linked the Chinese and Mormons (as well as Native Americans) together as three separate (but related) problems that needed to be taken care of by the U.S. government. Stan and I have talked about expanding our previous research on travel writers in Utah into an article that would tackle these comparisons made by those travelers.

    Comment by Christopher — August 25, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  7. People want others to fit into neatly defined boxes. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Model Minority is just one such box. The fact that the Chinese and MOrmons have been placed into the same box tells more about those setting up the boxes than about those getting put into them. I have heard the comparison between Mormons and Chinese in other contexts too. Perhaps those comparisons are part of the phenomenon that CHen is describing.

    What I enjoyed about you review was this thought. We perceive the current status of Mormoan acceptance in society as a product of our leaders’ efforts. And to some degree I those efforrt have been misguided. I never liked the idea that we changed just so our neighbors would like us. But perhaps we have been trying all along. We didn’t suddenly decide to become the Model Minority. Our efforts gained traction when the media found a box to put us in.

    btw, I know we did make some real changes: polygamy and the priesthood ban are the first ones that come to mind. These are changes for which I am grateful.

    Comment by BruceC — August 26, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  8. Jan Shipps did the early research which showed the media shift from presenting Mormons as a hated minority in the 19th century to a model minority in the mid-20th in “From Satyr to Saint: American Perceptions of the Mormons, 1860-1960,” republished in Sojourner in the Promised Land.

    Back in the 1950s and 60s, the media regularly published articles with titles like “Those Amazing Mormons,” emphasizing the LDS welfare program, “taking care of their own,” sobriety, work ethic, and other similar themes. That image was possible back when Mormons still almost were an ethnicity and mostly lived in a particular region of the country. Also, the model was positive when the media’s view of rapid cultural change as chaos was negative.

    The era of Mormon ethnicity is essentially over and we’re also well past the 60s counter-culture and its reactions. As a result of these changes, I think we have also moved past the time when the media will regularly present Mormons as a model minority. I don’t know that the media has developed a new lense through which to view Mormons, but I think coverage of Mitt Romney’s campaign shows that the road ahead is going to be bumpier again.

    Comment by John Hamer — August 28, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  9. Contemporary with the changes John notes was the resurgence of evangelical Protestantism and its rise to cultural influence, with its aggressive stance toward “cults” in general and Mormonism in particular.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 28, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  10. Chris,

    I hope you and Stan have time to expand your research. You might want to check Chen’s book out to see what else she has already done.

    Bruce,

    I think that you’re right that this line of examination teaches us more about society in general than specifically about Mormondom. I do think that the changes in perception are dialogical. The media, church leadership, and everyday members all play a role in the creation of both identity and perception.

    John,

    Chen seems to make a fairly compelling case that the perception of Mormons as a model minority persists well past the 1960s. The analytical power of the model minority model is that it demonstrates how perceived positive portrayals often serve to marginalize at the same time. I think this becomes a great way to understand the portrayal of Romney who was always presented as qualified, BUT Mormon (with all of the implications that brings for evangelical Protestant America). Although I didn’t mention Shipp’s work in my synopsis, Chen does cite the essay that you mention. I think she probably considers her work to be an expansion of Shipp’s ideas that benefits from the comparative perspective with Asian-Americans. Also I’m not sure I really buy the whole Mormons as an ethnicity argument–both in the past and present. Maybe I should write another post on that. I think imposing this sociological category on a group of people tied together by religious beliefs might be a little simplistic and dismissive of the importance of theology in the creation of identity.

    SC,

    I think you are exactly right about the growth of evangelical Protestantism and the subsequent national reenvisioning of Mormonism as a cult. I think the argument could be made that this proves the point that much of the Mormon model-minority rhetoric never really signified acceptance and probably never will.

    Comment by Joel — August 29, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  11. Also I’m not sure I really buy the whole Mormons as an ethnicity argument–both in the past and present. Maybe I should write another post on that.

    Yes, yes, yes. Please, please, please. I’d love to see your analysis of the arguments both in favor and against Mormon ethnicity.

    Comment by David G. — August 29, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  12. Joel, I completely agree that this media frame persisted long past the 60s and I’m sure it will continue to pop up with an occasional story. However, I don’t think it’s the primary way the media frames Mormons now in the 21st century.

    I agree with David G. — a post on the idea of Mormons as ethnicity sounds very interesting.

    Comment by John Hamer — September 1, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  13. Great post. Sounds like the book goes a long ways towards moving beyond the black white binary and opening up additional fields of ethnic research in Mormonism.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 1, 2008 @ 11:23 am


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