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Unpacking Systemic Racism: Using Racial Wedging as a Tool

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

July 8, 2020

By Eryn L. Pollard

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When unpacking systemic racism and oppression, you will not only realize that it is embedded in American institutions on a global scale, in microaggressions and prejudice on an individual scale, but it is also a tool that is used to pit different races and ethnicities against each other to once again prioritize the majority, in America’s case “Whiteness” over others. In efforts to downplay systemic racism and prejudice, Black people are often compared to their Asian or Asian-American counterparts through the use of the mythical tope of the “Model Minority” and are told that the American Dream is possible for all people if you assimilate and pick yourself up by your “bootstraps”.[1] Firstly, Asians and Asian Americans are people of color.

Secondly, when told to “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” not only is this concept ignoring how systemic racism works but also when Black Americans did try to generate wealth for themselves (i.e. Black Wallstreet in the 1920s) it was burned to the ground.[2] Black Wallstreet was one of the first times Black Americans created a Black economy that could have prospered into generational wealth for their families.[3] But rather than celebrating Black people’s pursuit of the “American Dream”, their labor and the fruits of it were burned to the ground and Black citizens were run out of town by white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.[4]

“In efforts to downplay systemic racism and prejudice, Black people are often compared to their Asian or Asian0American counterparts through the use of the mythical tope of the 'Model Minority'...”

Lastly, by comparing two ethnicities and highlighting one specific ethnicity as a “model” or “ideal”, not only serves as an erasure of each distinct ethnic experience but also ignores the racially charged experience Asian Americans have had confronted in America as well.

For example, the Transcontinental Railroad was officially completed on May 10, 1869, but many forget that the railroad was built due to the exploitation of Chinese immigrant labor.[5] From the influx of Chinese immigrants, then began a rising false, but the persuasive sentiment that Chinese immigrants were taking “American” employment opportunities which then led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the fear of the “Yellow Peril”.[6] Harsh depictions of Chinese immigrants were released during this time as propaganda to ensure the justification of the Chinese Exclusion Act.[7] (It seems that fear has historically been a great motivator to undermine people’s humanity and to divide people into “us” versus “the other”).

From there, in the 1940s during World War II and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Chinese propaganda and sentiment were replaced by anti-Japanese propaganda.[8] With this, “The Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion recognized that it would have to neutralize deep-seated fear of “yellow peril”. So, it strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us.”[9] Congress ultimately repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. [10] However, the damage of stereotyping Asian Americans could not be erased and misrepresentation of their culture had (and continue to) proliferate the media. Take, for example, stereotypical representations of an Asian character, ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ in 1961’s American favorite, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or 2012’s commercial image of Ashton Kutcher as a Bollywood producer.[11]

By 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and in 1965 the Immigration and Naturalization Act was passed, giving legal protection to immigrants and attracting a highly selective group of Asian professionals and skilled workers.[12] Thus, the death of “Yellow Peril” and the rise of the “Model Minority” with media at the forefront of portraying Asian Americans and Asian immigrants as a perfect example of how to make it in America. This served as a way to downplay the 200-year history of demonization and enslavement of Black Americans.

“...fear has historically been a great motivator to undermine people's humanity and to divide people into 'us' versus 'the other''...”

Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park notes that the “Model Minority” myth not only ignores, “the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success”, but this myth is perpetuated by making “a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.”[13]

Furthermore, Claire Jean Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine notes that the “racism that Asian Americans have experienced is not what Black people have experienced.”[14] Moreover, “Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that Black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today.”[15]

Thus, when analyzing systemic racism and confronting thoughts of “if I can do it, so can you”, it is important to not compare one ethnic group to another. It is about recognizing the different experiences. Some may be shared, both good and bad, but unfortunately, there are distinct and unique problematic histories of minority groups trying to attain the “American Dream”. Recognize those differences, appreciate them, and use them to inform your own perspective.

Use them to challenge the “norm” and understand socio-economic inequalities and racism in America.

[1] Nicholas Kristof, Pull Yourself Up by Bootstraps? Go Ahead, Try It, New York Times (Feb. 19, 2020),

[2] Antoine Gara, The Bezos of Black Wall Street, Forbes, (last visited July 2, 2020).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Kate Chesley, First Transcontinental Railroad, and Stanford forever linked Stanford News (May 8, 2020),

[6] Adrian De Leon, The long history of U.S. racism against Asian Americans, from ‘yellow peril’ to ‘model minority’ to the ‘Chinese virus’, USC Dornsife (Apr. 8, 2020),

[7] Steven Heller, The Artistic History of American Anti-Asian Racism, The Atlantic (Feb. 20, 2020),

[8] Kat Chow, ‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks, National Public Radio (Apr. 19, 2017),

[9] Ellen D. Wu, Asian Americans, and the ‘model minority’ myth, Los Angeles Times (Jan. 23, 2014),

[10] Id.

[11] Thessaly La Force, Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen In Film and Television?, The New York Times (Nov.6, 2018),

[12] Kat Chow, ‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks, National Public Radio (Apr. 19, 2017),

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

Eryn L. Pollard is a second-year law student at Notre Dame Law School and is the Secretary of the Black Law Students Association.

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