This post is by Daisy Ball and Nicholas Hartlep.
Several weeks ago, 22 year old Elliot Rodger committed what has become one in a string of mass shootings in the U.S., this time in Isla Vista, CA. Although not technically a traditional school shooting, the case takes on that air, given that he proclaimed he was targeting a University sorority, and since all of his victims were killed in the vicinity of UC Santa Barbara (and, were college students).
Almost immediately following news of the shooting, a video made by Rodger was released—an eight-minute mantra explaining what he had planned (the massacre), who his targets were, and why. He lamented being a “22 year old virgin” and blamed women for rejecting him, all the while falling for “obnoxious brutes.” His video message seemed to blame the world for the fact that he had not yet found romance or sex, as though these are things the world “owed” to him.
As Hadley Freeman, writing for The Guardian, wisely notes, the race of the perpetrator often determines the way the media frames a story. In the Rodger case, the news media and scholars have both focused on Rodger’s mental health status at the time of the shooting. This is a common trend, especially when a young, white male commits a horrific crime: think Adam Lanza (Newtown shooting), James Holmes (Aurora movie theatre massacre), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting).
Conversely, when a young, African American male commits a horrific crime, it’s chalked up to “poverty” and “thug culture,” and to be expected (if we even hear of it—unless, of course, the victim is white): think Kahton Anderson (A 14-year old Brooklyn teen who fatally shot a father while aiming for a rival gang member on a crowded city bus) and the super-predator myth of the 1990s, which originated in Chicago when Derrick Hardaway and his brother Cragg Hardaway murdered 11-year old gang member Robert Sandifer. And when a young, Middle-Eastern male commits a horrific crime, it’s immediately linked to terrorism (case in point the Tsarnaev brothers—now known as the Boston Bombers—who were immediately pegged as terrorists, rather than mental health patients).
While Rodger did have a significant mental health record—and therefore, we expect this paired with other factors contributed to the events of May 23—a fact few are reporting are that he was part-Asian American. And, it is largely his mixed race—white mixed with Asian—that he attributes to keeping him from being lucky with the ladies. We are interested in this case for its model minority implications: in damming his Asian heritage, Rodger is lending support for the model minority stereotype, which pegs Asian Americans as smart, nerdy, and decidedly not suave. Asian American males are effeminized and deemed to be nerdy or eunuchs. The fact is that Rodger appears to be white—and, the news media coverage approaches the case in the standard way it does when the perpetrator is a young, white male—with a focus on mental health.
But what about when a young, Asian American male commits a horrific crime? While we don’t have very many data points to draw from, we do know that in the cases of Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech massacre), Haiyan Zhu (Virginia Tech beheading), One Goh (Oikos University shooting), and Wayne Lo (Simon’s Rock College shooting), to name just a few, the news media approached the case similarly to how they’ve approached young white males who are behind various modern atrocities: mental health is to blame.
It is important for us to place the Rodger case within a larger societal contex—within the context of the white racial frame and white-imposed racism. Chou and Feagin (2008) contend that the myth of the “model minority” is in fact a form of white-imposed racism. Further, it is particularly insidious because of its “positive” nature, which has allowed the “model minority” myth to escape much criticism. While Asian Americans may stand out academically and economically when compared to other minority groups, studies find that Asian Americans, in particular women and male immigrants earn less than whites with similar educations and are underrepresented in managerial positions in corporations (Min & Kim 2000).
A central reason that the “model minority” idea is readily accepted by the mainstream is that whites tend to view the success of Asian Americans (compared to the gains of other minority groups) as proof that the U.S. really is a land of opportunity. The stereotype helps feed the dominant American ideology of individualism. The “model minority” stereotype, however, places undue pressure on Asian Americans to succeed, both economically and educationally; when they diverge, societal reactions tend to be harsher than reactions stemming from other minority group divergence. This pressure to do well in school can be seen in the case of Eldo Kim, a Harvard student who faked a bomb threat in an attempt to evade taking a final examination. What’s more, the label brings with it negative ideas about Asian Americans as shy and socially awkward, with “funny” accents and specific phenotypical traits. Thus, although initially this might seem to be a positive stereotype, the “model minority” stereotype is as dangerous as any other more negative stereotypes (Sue 1998).
So, while the Rodger case may have been handled by the media in ways similar to white mass killers, underlying his unhappiness may have been his racialization as a model-minority. Roger’s rebellion may come from differential treatment he encountered from girls and society.
An oft-forgotten fact is that the very concept of the model minority was created and originally imposed by whites. While earlier stereotypes concerning Asian Americans cast them as “others,” as “outsiders”—consider historian Ronald Takaki’s (1998) characterization of early Asian immigrants to the United States as “strangers from a different shore,” stereotyped as “heathen exotic, and unassimilable.” Stereotypes emerging in the U.S. in the 1960s cast a noticeably more positive light on this group. As Helen Zia (2000) notes in Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People , when turmoil amongst other immigrant groups began to brew, Asian Americans were suddenly recast as the “American Success Story”:
As urban ghettos from Newark, NJ to Watts in Los Angeles erupted into riots and civil unrest, Asian Americans suddenly became the object of ‘flattering’ media stories. After more than a century of invisibility alternating with virulent headlines and radio broadcasts that advocated eliminating or imprisoning America’s Asians, a rash of stories began to extol [their] virtues (p. 46).
This shift in the stereotyping of Asian Americans is most commonly attributed to the publication of two influential articles: sociologist William Petersen’s 1966 essay “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” published in The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report’s 1966 feature article “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Petersen’s essay argued that Japanese Americans were better off, economically and educationally, than all other groups, including Caucasians, while the article from U.S. News stated that through “hard work,” Asians had become “economically successful” in the U.S.
So, taken together, we have on the one hand the “white” status of Asian American perpetrators, and on the other, Elliot Rodger, who fuels the highly complex and hugely problematic stereotype of the model minority. While at its outset, the model minority stereotype appears to be positive, we know it has detrimental consequences for both those to whom it is applied, and those who embrace it. Having a highly visible person—at least, highly visible in the moment—offer support for this stereotype concerns us, as does the suggestion that being Asian, or part Asian, is so awful it drives one to commit mass murder. Sadly, the first two of Rodger’s six victims were Asian American—his roommates, whom he had described as “…the two biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices”—and definitely not the pretty young blondes he so resented for rejecting him.
Daisy Ball is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University, where she teaches a range of courses, including Criminological Theory, White-Collar Crime, and Juvenile Delinquency. She is coordinator of the Criminology Program at FSU, and recently established an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in collaboration with MCI-Framingham, the local women’s prison. Her research focuses on crime/deviance, race, culture, and Asian American studies.
Nicholas D. Hartlep is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University, where he teaches a range of courses, including the Social Foundations of Education, and the Cultural Foundations of Education. He is the author of The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success (2013) and editor of The Model Minority Stereotype Reader: Critical and Challenging Readings for the 21st Century (2014).