[Viewpoint] The mythical rise of Asian-Americans

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[Viewpoint] The mythical rise of Asian-Americans

The Pew Center’s recent report “The Rise of Asian-Americans,” which shows that Asians, not Latinos, comprise the largest group of immigrant arrivals in the United States, took many people by surprise. The data also show that Asian-Americans have the highest education and per capita income. Together with low reported discrimination, the report paints a portrait of American success. On the face of these findings, now already three years old, Asian-Americans should expect to have a bigger voice in American politics and, indeed, in American society.

In fact, Asian-Americans remain a relatively rare sight in leadership positions, even in the corporate world, where one would assume that their education and ambition would be most beneficial. If hard work was all it took to rise into the upper echelons of power in corporate America, one would expect to see many Asian American faces at the top, perhaps especially in financial services, accounting, technology and health care.

Study after study shows the reverse to be true. For example, research conducted by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics shows that just 30 Fortune 100 companies had Asian-Pacific Islander representation on their boards in 2011. Twenty-nine API directors held 32 of 1,211 total board seats, and two of the 100 CEOs were of API descent.

Asia Society’s own research of Asian-Pacific American employees finds that just 42 percent believe that there are APA role models at their companies, and only 48 percent believe that APAs are amply represented in key positions at their companies. And, in the comprehensive National Asian American Survey 9 percent of respondents reported being unfairly denied a job or fired, and 12.9 percent alleged that they had been unfairly denied a promotion at work.

This is not a picture of a minority group marching inexorably toward better lives and reaching into the upper echelons of U.S. society, without facing discrimination. Instead, the barriers faced by all minority populations in the U.S. apply equally to Asian-Americans, with certain features particular to, or more apparent in, this community.

If all it took was hard work to succeed in America, what has happened to all those APAs who entered U.S. companies on the bottom rung? Surely they did not just disappear. Rather than being a model minority, Asian-Americans are in fact a neglected minority.

Part of the problem is an overall insistence on looking at the Asian American population largely from the point of view of its members’ countries of origin. This extends the exoticism of the “Orient” with a litany of names that only recently have entered the American consciousness, while overlooking more integral perspectives.

For example, we have seen from workplace data that time in the U.S. or nativity is a critical factor. Pew’s research finds some fascinating differences between native-born and foreign-born Asian-Americans. Simply put, Asian immigrants who arrive in the U.S. at younger ages are more like their native-born counterparts in outlook and perspective.

In addition, the perception of Asian-Americans as the “perpetual other” is alive and well. Indeed, the rise of Asia itself, and U.S. companies’ resulting focus on the Asian market, has in many ways served to amplify it.

We see this when companies hold up their activities in Asia as examples of what they are doing for the Asian American community. There is also the insidious inference that someone who chooses to call herself Chinese-American is clinging to a non-American identity, whereas someone who chooses to call herself, say, Italian-American, is above suspicion.

This alienation is felt in the workplace as well, with just 49 percent of APA employees in our survey saying that they feel a sense of belonging at their companies. The perception that these employees are “great workers but not leaders,” or that they have “problems communicating or showing assertiveness,” is pervasive.

In many ways, Asian-Americans are caught in a no-win situation. When their behavior aligns with preconceptions (shy and non-assertive), this is used to justify not promoting them or engaging them on important projects. On the other hand, when Asian-Americans exhibit leadership behaviors similar to those of others, they are perceived as overly aggressive. As Asian-Americans become a majority native-born community in the next few decades, challenging these perceptions will become increasingly important.

The model minority myth perpetuated by the Pew research is misleading. At its core, it contains a highly objectionable assumption that other minorities do not work hard enough to succeed. In addition, as others have eloquently argued, the topline numbers and statistics hide wide variance within the Asian American community itself. Finally, insistence on holding up Asian-Americans’ “success” often serves as an excuse to overlook the very real challenges that they face.

If corporate America and the U.S. more generally are to realize the full potential of all citizens, we can no longer use Asian-Americans to cling to the idea that it is an unalloyed meritocracy. If anything, their experience points to the need for profound change in the American workplace and U.S. corporate culture.

* The author is president of the Asia Society in New York.

by Vishakha N. Desai
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