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)

When Asian immigrants first came to America en masse in the mid-1800s, the popular media often portrayed them as scoundrels, degenerates, and job-stealers. But some time after World War II, public opinion shifted. Asian Americans were suddenly praised in newspapers and magazines as positive examples of family values and assimilation.

Not only that, but Asian Americans started to earn more money. They moved from the bottom to the upper rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

In November, the Post wrote about a new study from Brown University professor Nathaniel Hilger investigating the upward mobility of Asian Americans:

Hilger recently used old Census records to trace the fortunes of whites, blacks and Asians who were born in California during the early- to mid-20th century. He found that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites by the 1970s.

Instead, his research suggests that society simply became less racist toward Asians.

As Hilger said at the time: “Asians used to be paid like blacks. But between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.”

How did all of this happen, and who was responsible?

In her book, “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” historian Ellen Wu explained how the American mainstream finally changed its mind about Asian Americans. Even today, many don't fully understand how this turnabout happened. Some assume that Asian Americans simply had superior values and worked hard. Many Asian Americans did work hard, but they also benefited from a wildly successful public makeover. It's an unexpected story involving geopolitics, Cold War anxieties, and James Dean.

In this video, we trace the history of the Asian American model minority stereotype — and we ask Asian Americans to speak about what it means to them today.