Asian Americans are battling bias, and that fight is good for everyone.
Bias is a beast that can take a bite out of anyone, which makes fighting it in everyone’s interest.
Maybe you read that the U.S. Department of Labor is suing Palantir Technologies, accusing the Palo Alto, Calif., company of discriminating against Asian job applicants. Does the script in your head include a tech company being biased against Asian workers?
Tech companies have been called out for employing disproportionately few African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women of all races. Their workforces are heavily male and white, with large percentages of Asian and Asian-American employees (the government uses “Asian” for both in its suit).
Asian numbers may look good. But consider that in one job category in the Palantir case, the government said Asians were 77 percent of the applicant pool, but the company hired one Asian and five non-Asians. That’s not just chance.
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Asian Americans in tech fields are already fighting a glass ceiling that limits their access to executive positions.
An analysis of data from five large tech companies shows Asians occupy 27.2 percent of professional positions but only 13.9 percent of executive jobs. The analysis was done by the Ascend Foundation, an organization dedicated to increasing Asian leadership in business.
Discrimination against Asian Americans is a part of America’s story. We know about the mistreatment of Chinese miners and railroad workers in the 1800s, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
But the Asian-American experience has also been different from that of other minority groups. Asian Americans in significant numbers are a relatively new part of a demographic landscape that is always changing and becoming ever more complex.
Racist immigration policy kept Asian numbers low until fairly recently. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is one of the most significant parts of that legacy. The act wasn’t repealed until America’s alliance with the Chinese during World War II made it insupportable.
Other groups faced barriers, too. By the calculus that gave us the ridiculous notion of biological races, people from the Indian subcontinent were classified as white, but the supremacist nature of the classification system there showed itself in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1923. An immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned to be allowed to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Thind didn’t argue against the race restrictions in U.S. immigration law, but rather that he was a high-caste Hindu and, therefore, white. The court said no anyway.
Civil-rights legislation of the mid-1960s finally opened doors to large-scale immigration from Asia and other areas of the world outside Europe.
Today, 74 percent of Asian-American adults were born in another country. That means they weren’t here when discrimination was more blatant. It still can be, but it often it operates subtly.
There wasn’t a whites-only sign at Palantir, just data that showed Asian applicants for software-engineering jobs being turned away in large numbers in favor of white applicants with similar credentials.
Asian Americans have the highest incomes of all American demographic groups, but that is not the whole story. There is great variety among the groups lumped together as Asian, and some of them are not faring so well. Even those who are “making it” are speaking out against biased treatment. That activism has become more visible in recent years.
Asian-American writers have pushed back against the “model-minority” label.
Asian Americans (Constance Wu, star of “Fresh Off the Boat,” for one) are speaking out forcefully against marginalization in Hollywood. There’s a campaign substituting the actor John Cho for other stars as a way to say Asian-American actors deserve a shot at leading movie roles. They’re fighting whitewashing — having white actors play Asian characters (Emma Stone in “Aloha”).
Asian-American college students have taken on anti-Asian campus environments, and Asian Americans have fought against college-entrance practices that limit their numbers.
And especially given today’s political climate of anger and anxiety partly driven by changing demographics, everyone who wants a more equal America should welcome Asian voices for equality.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., injustice against anyone is a threat to justice for everyone.