Nikki Haley and the American Dream
by Ellen D. Wu
Poised and polished, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at once personified and celebrated the American Dream as she rebutted President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday. In a soft, genteel drawl, she invited her fellow Republicans to “return” the United States to “the foundation that has made America that last, best hope on earth.”
Her own biography supplied the evidence. The self-proclaimed “proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” she recounted that her parents reminded her daily “how blessed we were to live in this country.” Together, they surmounted the challenges of their modest means and their conspicuous difference in the rural South. Most importantly, like “millions” of other newcomers past and present, “we had the opportunity to do anything, to be anything, as long as we were willing to work for it.”
Just hours before the televised message, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz charged that GOP had picked the governor because of the party’s “diversity problem.” While Republican leaders denied it, Haley’s appearance clearly fell in line with a distinct historical pattern.
For some six decades, a host of stakeholders have cast prominent Asian Americans as “model minorities” to resolve profound contradictions of race, religion, and identity in national life. Model minorities—non-whites who have “made it”—seemingly prove that the American Dream is alive and well and available to all, regardless of color or class.
Why Asian Americans? In the 1940s and 50s, wartime pressures on the United States to act fittingly as the “leader of the free world” necessitated a social repositioning of Asian immigrant populations. Previously, they had been racial pariahs: barred by law from entering the country, naturalized citizenship, and a slew of other freedoms that white people took for granted. But treating them (and other minorities) so poorly, liberals argued, imperiled US relations with their homelands. Strategically, federal authorities regarded Asia as an especially vital region—a matter of winning or losing epic global battles against fascism and Communism.
So foreign policy opened the door to the very possibility of Asian assimilation into the American mainstream. What had been unfathomable before World War II was now thinkable. Just ten years after Congress repealed the immigration and citizenship exclusion laws targeting Indian nationals (Luce-Celler Act, 1946), Democrat Dalip Singh Saund won an unlikely contest in California’s 29th Congressional District, the Republican stronghold Imperial Valley. With it, he became the first Sikh, South Asian transplant, and Asian American to join the United States Congress. In 1957, the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent him on a one-man junket to Asia to show himself as a “living example of American democracy in practice,” as he put it. Saturday Evening Post cheered the “extraordinary expedition” as “a solid contribution to improved relations between East and West.”
The admission of the Hawai‘i to the union in 1959 presented another timely occasion to tout Asian Americans as model minorities. Republican Hiram Fong—dubbed the “Hawaiian Horatio Alger”—took one of the 50th state’s first two seats in the US Senate. The son of immigrant Chinese sugarcane laborers, Fong embodied the rags-to-riches meritocracy ideal, having fought for the Air Force, worked his way through Harvard Law School, and amassed a considerable fortune through multiple business ventures. On the eve of his swearing in, Pageant magazine eulogized that this “American success story” was “clear proof that racism has no permanent place in America.”
Democrat Daniel Inouye likewise exemplified the promise of American society for immigrants and minorities. Inouye also hailed from humble beginnings to embark on a prodigious climb from Honolulu’s slums to Washington DC. As a decorated member of World War II’s legendary Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he lost his right arm in action—a sacrifice unfailingly mentioned by reporters. After the war, Inouye attended college and law school on the GI Bill and served in the territorial legislature before capturing Hawai‘i’s sole birth in the US House of Representatives in 1959. Three years later, when Inouye defeated the scion of one of the islands’ most elite white families to land in the US Senate, Life named him one most influential young members of the nation’s “Take-Over Generation.”
As three of the most visible Asian Americans of their day, Saund, Fong, and Inouye cemented the fledgling stereotype in popular culture that “Orientals” were quiet, upstanding, don’t-rock-the-boat types. Moreover, their trajectories enthralled contemporaries because they reinforced beliefs in America’s protagonist-of-the-world, melting pot greatness.
Their narratives did other political work as well. In the case of Hawai‘i, the rise to power of Chinese and Japanese Americans (rather than Native Hawaiians) glossed over an inconvenient truth: the United States’ violent, illegal overthrow of a once-independent kingdom and its continued colonial domination and exploitation.
Against the backdrop of the intensifying black freedom movement, the success stories of Fong and Inouye had an additional, critical utility. Both politicians lived political moderation in ways that appealed variously to conservatives and liberals fearing radical change. Fong expressed support for racial equality, but also hesitated to “rush into a flood of legislation to reform a mode of living that has been going on for years in the South.”
His colleague, by comparison, actively championed the cause, voting for the historic Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). In his keynote address to the 1968 Democratic National Convention—the first-ever person of color in this role—Inouye described the Vietnam War as an “immoral” conflict and affirmed the right of citizens to protest. He acknowledged the “systemic racism deprivation” suffered by African Americans—a situation, he emphasized, immeasurably more dire than that faced by Asians in the United States.
Yet Inouye also was every bit the respectable, patriotic statesman—a marked contrast to contemporary direct action activists. At the same time, he called for “law and order” to be “respected and maintained.” His careful balancing act caught the attention of Lyndon B. Johnson, who urged Democratic party presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey to tap the Senator as his running mate for the 1968 election: “He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve. He has that brown face. He answers everything in civil rights, and he draws a contrast without ever opening his mouth.”
The parallels between Haley and her predecessors are striking: immigrant roots, high-profile speech, possible Vice-Presidential contender.
Most crucially, Haley also navigates an especially fraught moment in the history of race in the United States. On the one hand, progressive voices tirelessly insist that Black Lives Matter, steering our collective attention to police brutality, mass incarceration, and a host of related issues that reproduce the egregious inequalities and injustices borne by African Americans and other minorities. On the other hand, right-wing extremists from ordinary folks to the GOP presidential frontrunners spew xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racist vitrol with little recourse—with some, frighteningly, translating their words into violence.
Too, like her forerunners, Nikki Haley adroitly assumes the role of model minority—characterized in her case by Christian assimilation, relative moderation (in the GOP context), and USA #1-brand of boosterism. Embracing her historically-prescribed role, she plays by the rules of establishment politics.
But in the end, we might ask, what are the real benefits of doing so? After all, model minority status doesn’t shield her entirely from anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia (“Trump should deport Nikki Haley,” tweeted Ann Coulter in response to the governor’s remarks). What might be next—for her and all South Asians, Arab, Muslims, and Sikhs in our communities?
Model minorities can’t resolve the contradictions of party politics, much less the vexing conundrums of race, religion, and national identity. Only meaningful, material investments in the common good—prioritizing the most vulnerable among us—can do that. Once we collectively recognize this, we can then move forward to transforming the American Dream from an illusive mirage to a substantive reality for all.
Ellen D. Wu is assistant professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of The Color of Success.