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FROM COOLIE TO MODEL MINORITY: U.S. Immigration Policy and the Construction of Racial Identity1

  • Jane Junn (a1)

I examine how and why the social construction of Asian Americans has changed from coolie to model minority over the last century. I examine the role of the U.S. government in creating policies that systematically select particular types of entrants to the United States. Federal immigration policy privileges high-skilled workers, and a disproportionately large number of Asian immigrants are granted the status of lawful permanent resident by the federal government on the basis of employment preferences. U.S. immigration policy thus creates a selection bias, favoring Asian immigrants with high levels of formal education and social standing. I also consider the consequences of this selection bias for the construction of racial tropes and Asian American identity, and argue that the normative content of the dominant tropes of racial identity is critical in establishing the incentives and costs of identifying with racial and ethnic groups. Immigration policy, and the selection biases it may engender, is an important factor in how those tropes are constructed and experienced. Racial identity should, and does, vary as a function of the unique histories of migration, labor market demands, and shared experiences for people classified by race.

Corresponding author
Professor Jane Junn, Department of Political Science and the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, 89 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08816. E-mail:
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I thank Lisa García Bedolla, Dennis Chong, Alexandra Filindra, Ellen Junn, Natalie Masuoka, Anna Murphy, Reuel Rogers, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Rogers Smith, Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, Dan Tichenor, Al Tillery, and Janelle Wong for incisive comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to participants in workshops at Northwestern University, the University of California at Riverside, Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, Florida State University, and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Uri Bronfenbrenner and Stephen J. Ceci (1994). Nature-Nurture Reconceptualized in Developmental Perspective: A Bioecological Model. Psychological Review, 101(4): 568586.

Claire Jean Kim (1999). The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics and Society, 27(1): 105138.

Jean S. Phinney (2005). Ethnic Identity in Late Modern Times: A Response to Rattansi and Phoenix. Identity, 5(2): 187194.

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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
  • ISSN: 1742-058X
  • EISSN: 1742-0598
  • URL: /core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race
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