The Model Minority in the Age of Trump

David Dao after being dragged from his United Airlines flight. Photo: Kaylyn Davis/Twitter

All week, the internet has been aflame with the news that on Sunday night the Chicago Police Department, at the request of United Airlines, brutalized David Dao, an Asian man who refused to leave an overbooked United flight to Louisville, Kentucky — his reason being that he was a doctor who had patients to see the next day. There are viral videos of a policeman slamming the man’s head against an armrest, then dragging his immobile body off the plane, and of the man — somehow let back on board later, but forced to stand at the back of the plane — repeating the phrase “Just kill me” while blood streamed all over his chin. Dao suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and the loss of two teeth.

The incident is hardly isolated — airports and air travel have been magnets for outrage for some time now. Part of the reason is economic; following decades of deregulation, air travel has consolidated into a business dominated by a few colossal airlines which compete by cutting down on service quality while raising ticket prices. But there’s also a different, more recent dimension to consider: President Trump’s January 27 imposition of Executive Order 13769, known generally as the “Muslim ban,” which resulted in huge protests at airports across the nation, and seemingly emboldened some customs and immigration agents to inflict petty tyranny on helpless people whose skin is not white.

The draconian spirit that gave rise to the ban wasn’t restricted to the tarmac. There’s also been a marked increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids targeting Hispanic and other immigrant populations since Trump’s inauguration. This, in turn, has led to an increased focus on such incidents among the citizenry, and a series of widely shared social-media reports documenting them. While Dao was not abused Sunday by Customs and Border Protection or ICE agents, the incident fits a general pattern that has emerged since the presidential election, of increased hostility from law enforcement toward people of color.

The initial response was, once again and appropriately, pure shock and outrage. The unspoken prohibition against state violence directed at the professional class had been breached. Even a physician, a man professionally committed to doing no harm, could himself be physically harmed; even a member of the “model minority,” renowned for its real and imagined adherence to established authority, was not exempt from the savagery to which other minority populations and the poor have been subjected by men in uniform.

News on Tuesday complicated the issue further: Louisville’s Courier-Journal released the name of the victim. David Dao is, in fact, a doctor who practices in Elizabethtown, a city to the southeast of Louisville. But Dr. Dao has a checkered history: convicted of drug-related offenses in 2004, he surrendered his medical license in 2005; only in 2015 was he permitted to resume his practice. The parallels with prior events are clear: The leaked criminal records of recent black victims of police violence (or even mere suggestion, by police, of their criminality) have become something of a mainstay. By shifting the guilt onto the victim, authority is exonerated in the public eye; meanwhile, the press congratulates itself on being evenhanded.

Regardless of the Courier-Journal’s intentions in publicizing his criminal history, David Dao is being forced out of one narrative, that of the dutiful, nonblack professional, into another narrative: that of the recalcitrant, nonwhite criminal. But these are not entirely different stories. They are two outcomes of the same question — namely, the question of compliance — and they serve the same purpose, that of maintaining white innocence. The “model minority” is a model only insofar as it is obedient to white norms; should obedience cease, it immediately regresses to its natural state of lawbreaking.

The model-minority stereotype itself is only of recent provenance. Coined in 1966 by white sociologist William Petersen, from its inception it has been deployed as a rhetorical cudgel against “problem minorities” (also Petersen’s phrase) who fail to conform to the dictates of white, middle-class culture and society. The “overperformance” by some sectors of the Asian-American population on standardized tests, as well as their “overrepresentation” in the skilled professions, was taken as an argument that the higher-education system instituted in the wake of World War II lived up to its promise of meritocracy. Following this line of argument, the new system was truly color-blind; if certain minorities (and poor whites) failed to rise, they had only themselves to blame. (Most often applied to Asians, the myth can be extended to anyone who fits the profile; the similar success of recent African immigrants and their children is also sometimes cited in similar hopes of exonerating American society and institutions from charges of anti-black racism.)

The myth about Asians that preceded the model-minority one was less flattering and more viscerally hostile. Since Asians first immigrated to the United States in significant numbers during the mid-19th century, their intractable criminal nature was taken as a given by the white majority. Asians were fundamentally alien, incapable of assimilation; they indulged in gang wars, illegal drugs, and prostitution, even going so far as to pimp out white women. Perhaps worst of all, they engaged in unfair competition with American workers for jobs. The birth of the notion of the model minority did not displace this earlier conception so much as it overlaid it. Though they had gained entry to the skilled professions, suspicions of unfair competition persisted; if Asians could now be seen as law-abiding, they still remained a threat and essentially other.

From the perspective that has prevailed in America for most of its history, Dao is stealing resources that belong to someone more deserving; any measure to eject him, no matter how violent, is justified. The logic most often applied to black American citizens, Hispanic immigrants, and Muslim refugees can be easily be applied to him as well. None of this implies that all nonwhite minorities are treated equally poorly by the state; it is to simply say that the social power that permits one to safely refuse the commands of the state will never be extended to anyone who is not clearly middle-class as well as white. Had a white physician on flight 3411 refused to leave his seat and offered the same justification as Dr. Dao, he would never have been met with violence.

The United incident is part of a growing pattern. Things will not get easier for Asian-Americans, as anyone who’s been paying attention to candidate and, now, President Trump’s campaign rhetoric will attest. The language of the Yellow Peril has returned, with a vengeance: Asians, the Chinese especially, are “raping our economy” and “stealing our jobs.” Sneaky and rapacious, they are violating America’s global preeminence, according to the president, just as Hispanics are penetrating American borders and Muslims are assaulting American freedoms. Globalization comes for everything, even American racism. Anti-black hatred, though still foundational, is being complemented by increasingly vocal hatreds of the nonwhite and nonblack populations who make up a majority of the world.

As Trump’s election has proven, so long as mainland China continues to ascend and the United States continues to decline, there is political gain to be had from American politicians stoking anti-Asian sentiment. If America is no longer great and America is never to blame, then some nefarious other must be responsible. The relatively prosperous Asian-American population could become an inviting target for nativists, whether rich, middle-class, or poor. Asians in America remain a small and vulnerable population, and make for promising scapegoats. Incendiary rhetoric leads to verbal nastiness and “non-life-threatening” (to borrow the phrase of the Chicago police regarding the incident on the flight) assaults; further down the road— if the long history of anti-Asian laws and pogroms in America is any example — could be murder, confiscation, and expulsion.

So, the doctor’s case makes for a dire warning. What was done to one can be done to many — in fact, it is already being done. A wound, once opened, can be widened indefinitely. This is the country we live in, for now.

Dr. Dao and the Model Minority in the Age of Trump