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The Lee Case Shakes Asian Americans' Faith in Justice System

September 24, 2000|Xiao-huang Yin | Xiao-huang Yin, chairperson of the American Studies Program at Occidental College, is author of "Chinese American Literature since the 1850s."

The unusually harsh and unfair treatment that Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born nuclear scientist, endured during his nine-month detention on suspicion of espionage shocked many Asian Americans. For some, most notably scientists, the episode strikes at the heart of their trust in the U.S. justice system. It appears clear that the government's suspicions about Lee's loyalty, seemingly because of his race, may have a chilling effect on Asian Americans considering a career in science, particularly in fields that may have national-security implications.

The effect could be profound. Statistics show that a disproportionately large number of Asian Americans choose to work in science and engineering. For example, Asian Americans are nearly 30% of the student body at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, their largest representation among universities outside California. Although Asian Americans account for less than 4% of the U.S. population, about 25% of the faculty members and research staff at the California Institute of Technology are of Asian descent. Nationwide, more than 80% of Asian Americans seeking PhDs pursue them in science and engineering. The situation is especially conspicuous in the case of overseas-born Asian Americans. As Robert Richardson, a Nobel laureate in physics and a professor at Cornell University, observes, "Every physics, engineering and life-science department [in U.S. universities] has brilliant young scientists born in Asia and Pacific Rim. And we'd be in deep trouble if we didn't have them here."

It is important to understand why many talented Asian Americans, particularly those of immigrant background, choose science as their career. While there are many factors accounting for this phenomenon, Asian Americans do not merely pursue science to realize individual ambitions. Rather, they perceive the field of "hard science" as a world of open and fair competition.

Being a research scientist requires meticulously detailed attention to work, years of hard training and long hours conducting experiments in lab. The lab work, in particular, is often tedious, exhausting and even risky to health; monetary compensation is relatively small. Difficult as it is, however, many Asian Americans believe that, compared with other professions, scientific research enables them to be judged on merit rather than on race or social connections. In science, furthermore, an individual has a better chance of being treated with respect. The less-demanding language requirement of science also plays a role, especially for many Asian immigrants. But the bottom line is this: To many aspiring Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, a career as a research scientist means guaranteed freedom and employment security, awe-inspiring enough to symbolize the realization of their American Dreams.

It is no accident, then, that Asian American contributions to science have been singular. There have been six Chinese American Nobel Laureates, five in physics and one in chemistry. As they earn distinction in science, Asian Americans are lauded by the mass media as the latest success story of the American Dream. In fact, it is mainly their accomplishments in science and academe that have made Asians the "model minority" in U.S. society.

Unfortunately, Lee's experience has painfully upset many Asian Americans' expectations about a career in science and added a powerful irony to their dreams. While government prosecutors no doubt believed that their treatment of Lee protected U.S. interests, their action may have damaged the foundation of U.S. national security by destroying the confidence of some of the nation's best and brightest Asian American minds in choosing science as a career.

One immediate consequence is that the nation's labs may have a harder time attracting and retaining talented Asian Americans. If Lee, an accomplished physicist with more than 20 years devoted to the design and development of nuclear weapons, can be treated so cruelly, why not other Asian American scientists who find themselves under similar circumstances of suspicion?

Lee is fortunate to have the support not only of the Asian American community but also of mainstream society, including some of the nation's most famous scientists. It is unprecedented that the three most prestigious science and engineering organizations in the United States have rallied to his side. But most Asian American scientists are less resourceful and prominent. They may find it far more difficult to defend themselves if wrongfully targeted by the government. Why should they continue to pursue a career that might expose them to potential harassment? According to Bob Suzuki, president of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and a member of the National Science Board, many Asian American scientists working in weapons labs have already begun considering other jobs.

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