Chao not a model for Asian-American Heritage month
May 8, 2001
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's career serves as an important case study for this month's celebration of Asian and Pacific-American Heritage.
It would be easy to call Chao's appointment to the head of the Labor Department -- a first for an Asian-American woman -- a great leap forward for Asian Americans. But in fact, her anti-affirmative action, anti-labor agenda will do little to help Asian American progress.
Chao ascended the power ladder through powerful connections, ambition and partisan loyalty, while using her heritage as a shroud to soften her pro-business, anti-civil-rights agenda.
Chao has been lauded as the very embodiment of the American Dream by everyone from President Bush to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Her mentors have included her husband, anti-campaign-finance reform Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Elizabeth Dole.
Chao immigrated to the United States at the age of eight from Taiwan, not speaking a word of English. Yet she has risen to the very top echelons of this country's government.
How did she do it?
For one thing, she did it by toeing the Republican Party line throughout her career. Chao opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. She opposed the 1999 nomination of fellow Asian American Bill Lan Lee for assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, on the grounds that he supported affirmative action.
And she did it by extolling her immigrant status. In 1991, President George Bush appointed the young government bureaucrat to direct the Peace Corps. When questioned about her lack of development or humanitarian experience, Chao asserted that her status as an immigrant gave her a "profound understanding" of Third World poverty.
Because of her fund-raising skills and her demonstrated pro-business attitude, Chao was a logical choice for CEO of United Way, which she led from 1992 until 1996. Her spin was that her immigrant status was what qualified her for that job, too.
In her speeches, Chao tells her audiences that she endured hardships and poverty as a young immigrant. Yet unlike thousands of Chinese immigrant youth who toil in family businesses, Chao had to beg her college-educated father to even let her take a summer job. Having established a successful shipping business, Chao's father moved the family to affluent Westchester County, N.Y.; Elaine was sent to Mt. Holyoke College and Harvard University, where she earned an MBA.
While it is certainly noteworthy that Bush has appointed a few minorities to positions of power, let's not be fooled into thinking these folks have gotten where they are by virtue of their loyalty to their unique cultural backgrounds.
"The way she uses her Chineseness to undermine affirmative action is particularly offensive," said Diane Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
Connections, opportunism, and ambition still rule, no matter what color you are or where you come from.
Sonia Shah is a writer and editor of "Dragon Ladies: Asian-American Feminists
Breathe Fire" (South End Press, 1997). She lives in Storrs, Conn., and can be reached at email@example.com.