In the extensive discussion of crime and race in the U.S., Asian/American experiences are rarely considered. Asian/Americans—a diverse group—are neglected in studies, analyses, and media representations. A new book, Asian/Americans, Education, and Crime: The Model Minority as Victim and Perpetrator, edited by Daisy Ball and Nicholas Hartlep, aims to address this gap. A chief issue is the distortion generated by the “model minority” stereotype.
As Professor Ball discussed in our short interview, growing up under the shadow of a stereotype—those seemingly positive as well as negative—shapes the experiences of Asian/Americans. The pressure to live up to a stereotype can lead to strain on families. Indeed, individual Asian/Americans get more coverage when they fit the stereotype, and this deters a full understanding of the diverse and divergent realities of Asian/Americans. My conversation with Daisy Ball, a professor of sociology and coordinator of criminology at Framingham State University, brought this all into focus.
TC: Your book focuses on Asian/Americans’ criminal involvement as well as how they are treated by the police. Why did you decide to investigate this topic?
DB: The idea for this book comes from two main sources: The first source was current conversations regarding race and crime, including police use of force and the responding #BlackLivesMatter movement. My co-editor, Nicholas Hartlep, and I follow these conversations closely. As the discussions increased and the voices of activists became louder (which we were thrilled to hear), we noticed conversations regarding Asian/Americans’ criminal justice involvement were absent.
As Stacey Lee (2009) notes, Asian/Americans are typically cast as the “model minority”: good students, conformist, and law-abiding. Unlike African Americans and Latinx, Asian/Americans are a racial minority group in the U.S. that are decidedly not associated with crime. Instead, they are associated with educational and economic success. Through our book, we seek to add to the current conversation regarding race and crime by focusing specifically on Asian/Americans and criminal justice involvement. In reality, Asian/Americans are the victims and perpetrators of crime as well as victims of unjust criminal justice practices.
Second, the idea for this book stems out of my greater body of research, specifically my examination of the aftermath for Asian/American undergraduates at Virginia Tech following two horrific crimes: the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre (the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history), and a beheading that took place on campus eighteen months after the massacre. In both cases, the perpetrator was of Asian descent. Following these crimes, the community spoke out—via emails, letters to the editor, and blog posts—against people of Asian descent studying at Virginia Tech. The conversation became so hostile that then-president of the university, Charles Steger, published an open letter to the campus community in which he asked for tolerance towards Asian/Americans and Asian nationals studying at Virginia Tech.
In my examination of the aftermath of these sensational crimes, I am interested in how members of a group typically stereotyped as the “model minority” respond when faced with a much more negative stereotype, that of “criminal threat.” So you can see how my book on Asian/American criminal justice involvement from various vantage points is linked to exceptional ways of looking at Asian/American experiences in these other sensational contexts.
TC: As mentioned in your book, there are a lack of studies, media representation, and analyses surrounding Asian/Americans which ultimately leaves them being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Do you believe this leaves a daily impact on Asian/American families?
DB: Certainly. As I mentioned, although our society devotes considerable attention to criminal justice issues, Asian/Americans are largely absent from such conversations. This is problematic: although Asian/Americans are the victims of crime, they are often not consulted about their victimization by the media, or by the police. Oftentimes, when police arrive at the scene of a crime, they assume the Asian/Americans present do not speak English, and therefore turn to whites for information about what has occurred. At the same time, we know that Asian/Americans, in addition to being victims of crime, are the perpetrators of crime. Yet their histories, perspectives, and accounts from their family members rarely make the news to the same degree that members of mainstream culture do.
As several of the chapters in our book demonstrate, the more foreign an Asian/American or Asian national victim is perceived to be—by the community, by the media, by the police—the less coverage, care, and/or attention they receive. For example, in his chapter “Newspaper Portrayals and Emotional Connection Strategies: Commemorating Model Minority Murder Victims,” Alexander Lu illustrates that the more Asian national murder victims conform to the model minority stereotype, the more positive attention their cases receive, and the more they are memorialized by the community in which the crime occurs. In terms of the family, one way family members of victims are impacted by crime is the degree to which they are given a voice after the crime has occurred. Lu compares the murders of Won-Joon Yoon and Deepak Sharma, two young Asian national male graduate students studying in the U.S. Based on his analysis of the two cases, Lu concludes that because Yoon closely fit the construction of the model minority stereotype, he received considerably more media coverage, and was memorialized at several community-wide commemorations. Through media coverage and commemoration of his murder, his family was given repeated opportunities to speak out about Yoon. Conversely, because Sharma did not conform to the stereotype of the model minority, his murder received scant attention, and his family’s voice was essentially silenced when it came to speaking out about Sharma. The only exception was when his father was quoted in a Hindustan Times article about the logistics of transporting Sharma’s body back to India for last rites.
In her chapter, “Anonymous Victims and Invisible Communities: U.S. Media Portrayals of Chinese International Students Involved in Homicide,” Ke Li illustrates that when it comes to news media coverage of crimes involving Chinese international students, the crime is rarely considered from the vantage point of the international student. The Chinese students themselves are not asked, nor are their family members, friends, classmates, and professors, for input about what happened. Instead, more mainstream members of the community, such as police officers and their affiliates, are asked to interpret the crime. What results is an imbalanced portrait of the crime, for the story is only being told from the mainstream (most often white) perspective. This phenomenon is naturally a frustrating experience for grieving family members.
TC: One common stereotype of those who are of Asian descent is “being intelligent.” Your book brings to light how this is part of the way in which Asian/Americans are seen as the “model minority” and how the stereotyping “ignores both the history of discrimination and the contemporary problems faced by Asian/Americans.” Knowing that, how do you think this affects Asian/American families today?
DB: I think that growing up under the shadow of this stereotype, and/or raising children in the shadow of this stereotype, is challenging for Asian/American families today. Although at the outset, the model minority stereotype appears to be positive, much of the literature in Asian/American studies illustrates that this stereotype is detrimental to those to whom it is applied. The “double-edged sword” nature of this stereotype has been widely demonstrated in the literature (for example, see Lee 2009; Zakeri 2015; Feagin and Chou 2016). The assumption that Asian/Americans are a monolithic group, a group whose members are all succeeding, has caused members of this group to be overlooked when it comes to a variety of social services, which has undoubtedly put strain on modern Asian/American families.
Based on several research projects I’ve conducted with Asian/American undergraduates, there is intense pressure on Asian/American students to succeed—from early-on in their academic careers, through graduate school and beyond. Interestingly, many of my respondents deny the fact that parental/family pressure is problematic for them; they first acknowledge that it exists, and then brush it off as an aside, or couch it in humor (“that’s just what parents do, no big deal”). One of the puzzles I’m currently exploring is why my respondents tell the stories they do—acknowledging that the pressure exists, but then contrary to the literature in the field, denying the pressure is anything serious or anything to worry about, or causes challenges of any kind for them. Some possibilities to explore include interviewer effects (i.e. that I am a white woman interviewing Asian/American students); the possibility that the Asian/American studies literature has overblown the detrimental nature of the model minority stereotype; and/or the possibility that the students in my sample are just unique in some way, and that is why their responses do not align with the literature.
Note: Professor Ball joins Roanoke College’s Department of Public Affairs faculty in Fall 2017.
Tasia Clemons is a Senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.