Although many perceive them as the affluent “model minority,” Asian Americans are just as likely to be impoverished and disadvantaged as they are to be economically successful, according to a UCLA study released Wednesday.
And even those who are thought to have made it have encountered “glass ceilings” and discrimination in the workplace, the study found.
“It’s been an uphill battle to get decision-makers and the population overall to realize that the Asian Pacific American population is a diverse one,” said Paul Ong, editor of the report and an associate professor at the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
“Asian Pacific Americans have made great strides and had great success in this economy, but you can’t ignore the other side of this,” Ong said. “There are tremendous challenges faced by this population.”
The sweeping study, which Ong described as the first of its kind to address the role of Asian Americans in the U.S. economy, challenged policy-makers to make the best use of the talents of the well-educated while not ignoring the sizable segment of the Asian American population that lives in poverty. The report, issued by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics Inc., a Los Angeles-based nonprofit community organization, also made specific recommendations in several areas, including job training, business practices and welfare reform.
The UCLA study paints a picture of a rapidly growing population whose glossy veneer of success masks signs of some disturbing struggles, including:
* A poverty rate for Asian Americans in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York that is nearly twice as high as that of whites. For every Asian American household with an annual income of $75,000 or more, there is another making less than $10,000 a year.
* A growing reliance on welfare. In fact, Southeast Asians--Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians--have the highest welfare dependency rate of any racial or ethnic group. Southeast Asians make up only 13% of Asian Americans but account for up to 8% of all Asian Americans on welfare.
* An explosion of entrepreneurship that focuses on low-margin, low-profit businesses. One-third of self-employed Asian Americans are in the highly competitive retail sector, most commonly operating restaurants. Asian American entrepreneurs accounted for 2.6% of all firms in 1987, but only 1.7% of all receipts.
* A disproportionate concentration in low- and mid-level jobs with little advancement into management ranks. A look at three major public hospitals in Los Angeles found that Asian Americans made up 34% of doctors and nurses, 28% of all supervisors and 12% of upper management.
At the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, the UCLA study came as no surprise.
“Clearly, this model minority image is a myth,” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the center, which specializes in employment discrimination and civil rights cases. “There are people who are well off and there is a well-educated group and a middle-income group, but there sure are an awful lot of poor people.”
In the workplace, many companies maintain a “glass ceiling” preventing Asian Americans and other minorities from becoming managers, Kwoh said. “For Asian Americans, we find we have access as technical and professional workers, but when it comes to mid- and upper management, there is a declining percentage.”
In the typical aerospace company, for example, Asian Americans make up 20% of the technical staff but only 1% to 5% of upper management, Kwoh said. A lawsuit settlement last year by the Los Angeles Police Department promised aggressive promotion of minority and women officers, but still no Asian American holds a rank higher than lieutenant, Kwoh added.
The study made three primary recommendations:
* Promote multiculturalism and intercultural sensitivity within existing legislation, programs and agencies.
* Modify the concept of civil rights so protection covers the types of discriminatory practices encountered by Asian Americans, such as denial of a promotion to a person with an accent and blaming it on “poor communication skills.”
* Expand programs that help Asian newcomers adjust to U.S. society.
“If we have a simple picture of a population that is successful economically, then that argues for ignoring the needs of this population,” Ong said. “The idea is to move public discussion on Asian Pacific Americans beyond where it is now.”
“We are moving toward a multiethnic society,” he said. “We have populations with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and we need to act in a more positive fashion in dealing with that.”