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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : BACKLASH AGAINST THE 'Model Minority' : Asian-Americans Find Themselves Resisting a 'Demure' Stereotype

February 13, 1989|BILL SING | Times Staff Writer

If there is any profession in which Asian-Americans seem to have made tremendous strides, it is engineering. Asian-Americans abound in such high-technology industries as aerospace, health care and electronics, leading many to label them as part of a "model minority."

But talk to Asian-American engineers like Alice Lei and a story of frustration emerges. Lei, a Chinese-American engineer at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contending racial discrimination against her involving her rank at the company.

"They have certain stereotypes that (Asian women) are demure, not dynamic," Lei said.

Lei is not alone. A growing number of Asian-Americans like her contend that they are victims of systematic discrimination arising, ironically, from the popular image of Asian-Americans as a model minority. That image of Asians achieving success through quiet achievement--while helping them to get hired at bottom and middle levels--works against them in promotions to senior positions.

White managers "feel Asians just want to do technical work so they leave them there and won't help train them" for management positions, said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California.

"There's a real big gap between the reality and the myth" of Asian-Americans as successful minorities, said Don T. Nakanishi, a UCLA assistant professor of education who has filed a grievance with the university claiming he was denied tenure there due in part to racial bias.

The evidence indicates that at least some of the complaints may be justified. Asian-Americans make up 8% of all professionals and technicians in the private sector, but only 1.3% of all managers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded in a recent report that Asian-Americans are under-represented in managerial positions and called for further study of the issue.

As a result, frustrated Asians in such industries as electronics and aerospace are leaving companies in growing numbers, moving to where they can start over again or form their own firms. A growing number of Asians are also filing--and winning--employment discrimination complaints against employers.

The issue of discrimination based on the model minority stereotype is not limited to employment, Asian community leaders contend. Among other examples, they cite:

- Asian-American students, because of their academic success and growing enrollments, have become victims of reverse quotas limiting their admission at some major universities.

- Asian-American students are pushed into engineering and science--and not social sciences or humanities--by teachers who believe the stereotype that Asians are best-suited for technical professions and lack communication skills.

- Asian-Americans are appointed to few policy-making positions in government despite their high level of campaign contributions.

- Immigrants from Southeast Asia who have problems adjusting to American society receive limited government services and funding for language programs, immigration-adjustment services and other programs.

"The perception is that Asians have made it so they don't need any assistance," Kwoh contended. "So it's very hard to convince (government officials or the media) that Asians have immigration problems or civil rights problems."

But the problem is most evident in the workplace.

Asian-American leaders contend that management under-representation is particularly noticeable in education, health care and engineering, where Asians have made inroads at entry levels.

To be sure, Asians admit that they deserve part of the blame. Many Asians, through cultural upbringing or other factors, work hard but quietly and may also be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with office politics at white-owned corporations. And few are willing to file formal complaints or lawsuits.

"Among groups of employees, Asians are the least active" in filing complaints, said Kent Wong, staff attorney for Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 40,000 Los Angeles County public employees, of which about 10% are Asian.

But that reluctance to speak up may be changing, Wong said.

He cites the case of Wallace Shishido and Tom Ohgi, two Los Angeles County health inspectors who claimed they were denied promotions because of race. Through filing a complaint in 1986 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Shishido was promoted.

A group of Filipino-American public employees for Los Angeles County filed a class-action complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging systematic discrimination against Filipinos in promotions, noted Cecile Ochoa, an equal employment opportunity investigator for the county who has filed a grievance alleging she was denied a promotion due in part to racial discrimination.

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