In this March 7, 2017 photo, rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Chenyu Wang is an anthropologist of education and works as a research associate at the Center for Race and Public Education in the South at the University of Virginia.

What is wrong with the personality traits of Asian-Americans? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit between Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and Harvard University. SFFA claims that the Harvard admission office illegally uses “racial balancing” as part of its formula for admitting students, a practice that hurts Asian-American applicants. These applicants have consistently received lower scores on soft skills like “likability,” “helpfulness,” “integrity” and “courage.”

Over the past half century, Asian-Americans became known as the “model minority.” But this has been a political construction that has benefited the majority at the expense of minorities. Harvard’s ranking of Asian-American personalities as consistently lower compared to white students and students from other minority groups, is just the latest chapter in the tensions between a society professing a commitment to equality while maintaining a social system that benefits white and wealthy Americans.

The term “model minority” debuted in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article by sociologist William Petersen, who wrote a “success story” of Japanese-Americans. Later that year, U.S. News & World Report published a story arguing that Chinese-Americans could “offer us a lesson” about ways to prevent juvenile delinquency. Just two decades after Japanese-Americans had been sent to internment camps, Asian-Americans had, at least according to the media, made an amazing transformation from “yellow perils” to “model minorities.”

That transformation had two parts. First, it was a “becoming American” story that began with Chinese-Americans. After the U.S. aligned with the Republic of China in the Pacific War, the media highlighted the ways Chinese-American communities championed such American values as democracy, freedom and anti-Communism. In contrast, Japanese-Americans were demonized as “troublemakers.” The Japanese language was described as a “secret code … perfect for hiding facts or saying anything you don’t mean.” The media spotlighted “Tokyo Rose,” a highly sexualized and manipulative Japanese-American whose crime of treason was allegedly leaking intelligence to Japan. By aligning Chinese-Americans with prototypical American values and presenting Japanese-Americans as alien and treasonous, the “model minority” became American.

The second part of the transformation was a “becoming successful” story, one that also created a place for Japanese Americans in the narrative. As explained in journalistic and sociological accounts, Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, although they suffered from both de facto and de jure segregation as aliens and enemies, were still able to establish orderly and happy lives on American soil. Japanese-Americans, vilified in the 1940s, received vastly more favorable attention in later decades.

More important, these reports claimed, it was their distinct cultural values that enabled them to do so: Chinese-American parents passed down Confucian values, such as patience, discipline and obedience, and Japanese-Americans inherited from their ancestors Meiji values, including tolerance, fatalism and a willingness to accommodate to the larger society. To quote from the famous New York Times article in which the term “model minority” first appeared, the “national characters” of second-generation Japanese-Americans made their success in America inevitable.

So how might this origin story of “model minority” help us make sense of the politics of college admission policy today?

First, the “model minority” was largely an invention of wartime America, when images of Chinese- and Japanese-Americans were manipulated to signal the political stance of the United States. Chinese-Americans were “good” Americans, while Japanese-Americans were “bad” Americans. The “recovery story” is a story less about the Asian Americans themselves, but about American (read: white) society.

More important, the “model minority” label legitimized structural inequality in the U.S. In the context of the ongoing civil rights movement in the 1960s, when other minority groups were demanding equality and social justice, the success of some minority groups sent a romantic message: the American Dream is possible, despite a history of oppression and discrimination, as long as one had the right kind of character and culture. The American Dream didn’t demand a systematic overhauls or redistribution of resources; it simply demanded the right culture. It also justified poverty that existed in other minority communities. Other peoples of color — such as African-Americans — were blamed for lacking such strong cultural characteristics: being “lazy,” “violent,” sometimes even “primitive.”

Finally, the idea of “model minorities” marks Asian-Americans as outsiders: they are successful because they are perpetually foreign. The Harvard admission controversy builds on this idea by affirming and stigmatizing the “otherness” of Asian-Americans.

Fifty years ago, mainstream media singled out the cultural traits of Chinese- and Japanese-Americans for the purpose of appeasing the civil unrests and masking existing structural inequalities. In 2018, notwithstanding huge demographic changes within the Asian-American communities, the cultural traits of Asian-Americans are now singled out as less desirable for admission into Harvard.

Moreover, the image of those Asian-Americans who can make it to Harvard are idealized against those who do not have the resources to send their children to private schools or piano classes or debate clubs. The “success” story of Amy Chua’s children, who had to excel in violin lessons and receive all As, is a good example here. Once again, the “model minority” myth favors those for whom it was invented — the white and the wealthy.

That, ultimately, is the message of Harvard’s personality rating: Asian-American applicants can perform better on standardized tests, do well in school subjects and be well-rounded in extracurricular activities, but they are not quite American. The ratings for Asian-Americans are manipulated yet again to sustain the interests of white, privileged Americans.

In the end, the model minority story is a story about the United States’ refusal to engage the real problem of structural inequality, instead deflecting attention onto traits that are, ultimately, about the majority group’s needs. In that sense, the SFAA v. Harvard University case is not only about Asian Americans — it is about the fundamental values of American society.