Column: Larry Elder and the danger of the 'model minority' candidate

CASTAIC, CA - SEPTEMBER 06, 2021: Gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder addresses the crowd during a rally at Freedom's Way Baptist Church in Castaic. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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The term “model minority” has a specific history in the Asian American community, but I can’t think of a better embodiment of its concepts than Larry Elder, the Black Republican gubernatorial candidate who has made a career of saying the things white people love to hear about Black people.

Elder’s deeply held beliefs about race just happen to comfort the most racist, far-right wings of the Republican Party. He does not believe systemic racism exists, says that Black Lives Matter caused rising crime rates and that all people of color in America need to combat racism is a pair of bootstraps by which to pull themselves up.

And I don’t think Elder’s sudden prominence is an accident. Fielding a "model minority" candidate will probably become a common electoral strategy for the largely white Republican Party as it attempts to maintain control of a rapidly diversifying nation. Model minority candidates can help affirm far-right perspectives on racism while offering a defense against the charge that the Republican Party is too white.

This strategy "allows the GOP to recognize race and racism, but it lets them off the hook with respect to changing any policy about it," said Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland. "It allows them to address race but also minimize it."

Which means that going forward, we’re going to hear a lot of racial fearmongering and talk of these mythical “bootstraps” that open a magical door to the American dream.

As preparation for this coming onslaught of cultural propaganda, I thought it would be instructive for us all to learn how to recognize a model minority candidate and learn what the term really means.

According to Ellen Wu, an Asian American studies professor at Indiana University who wrote a book on the model minority effect, "model minority" is also an idea, as well as a reference to a specific history.

“Playing the good minority is a strategy that many different people have used, either by minorities themselves or as a label that people have projected onto various individuals or groups to further an agenda,” Wu said.

Journalists and academics began applying the term to Asian Americans in the 1960s to explain why Japanese and Chinese Americans were attaining financial success. Besieged by increasingly specific demands for racial justice by Black civil rights activists, white leaders eagerly seized upon the model minority narrative as a strategy for tamping down those demands. To white observers, Asian American success meant that American racism against Black people wasn’t actually all that bad.

At the same time, the United States began to selectively admit rich and educated immigrants from Asia. Visa categories favoring academics, students, doctors and engineers would become the prime demographic determinants of the modern-day Asian American community.

What it meant to be a model minority shifted dramatically, Wu said. In the decades leading to the ’60s, being a “good” minority meant ostentatious displays of patriotism, like flying American flags, speaking fluent English, volunteering for the military and celebrating the Fourth of July. After decades of selective Asian immigration, the term “model minority” came to be associated with things like education, economic productivity, science and medicine — in part because so many recent Asian immigrants were in those fields.

But throughout history, the term is always premised on the idea that there is an "unmodel" minority — that some races are "bad" and others are "good." The kind of behavior seen as "model" changes according to who America's current "unmodel" minority is. But to me, being a model minority is always a strategy for avoiding the negative effects of racism and xenophobia by ingratiating yourself to the powerful.

Which brings us back to Larry Elder and the first characteristic of the model minority candidate.

First and foremost, you must declare that systemic racism and white supremacy do not exist, or at least aren't nearly as bad as everyone is saying. This message will turn you into a political darling almost overnight. If you will publicly comfort the Republican base's anxieties about racism, conservative stardom awaits.

Elder checks that box, as he's been one of the nation's most vociferous racism denialists since before it was cool, a longtime mentor of former Trump advisor and white nationalist sympathizer Stephen Miller.

“Someone who comes from a background like Larry’s and is willing to say all these things about racism — that’s a really affirming message for white Republican voters,” said Rudy Alamillo, an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University who has studied the efficacy of Republican appeals to the Latino community.

Second, the model minority candidate takes their own personal success or wealth as proof that America is a meritocracy. They often wield their biography as if it single-handedly disproves all racism and hardship. They take deep pride in the fact that they are a special, talented member of their race who overcame discrimination.

And their belief in their own merit is premised on accepting their community's inferiority. Think of it as first stepping on the people around you so that you can appear to be pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

Immigrant communities are especially susceptible to these appeals because they're a major part of the narrative that brought people to America. And that's why Elder has had more resonance than I expected in Asian American and Latino communities, as recently chronicled by my colleagues Gustavo Arellano and Anh Do.

But just because hard work can overcome racism doesn't mean racism doesn't exist. And more people are starting to reject this kind of appeal. A 2019 AAPI Data survey found that 55% of Asian Americans and a majority of Californians overall reject the "bootstraps narrative."

Third, the model minority candidate will play up their ties to their minority community when it benefits them, but they probably won't have too many real connections with their community. People rarely want to hang out with the person who's throwing them under the bus, as my colleague Donovan X. Ramsey found last week.

We all probably know a Larry Elder. It's not all that surprising that an intellectual, bookish kid who grew up facing pernicious stereotypes in a poor neighborhood became a vociferous racial contrarian who takes fierce pride in bucking trends and stereotypes. I can attest to that: When you're a person of color, you find yourself living your life in rejection of the stereotypes applied to you. But in rejecting them so strongly, we often end up allowing those stereotypes to define us.

Democrat or Republican, and no matter what race you are, I guarantee that you don’t want to elect a model minority candidate. If they’ve decided to sell out their own people, why would they treat the rest of us any better?

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.