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Asian Americans Spurn Image as Model Minority

Perceived as always successful, these Americans in fact battle poverty and discrimination, activists say

IN north Chicago's heavily Asian Uptown neighborhood, Southeast Asian immigrants are going to jail for crimes they didn't commit because they lack the English-language skills to defend themselves, according to an Asian-American policeman who works in the area.

In south Chicago ghettos, Korean-American merchants are shaken by looting, vandalism, and the specter of an outbreak of anti-Korean violence similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. They are joining a growing exodus of thousands of Koreans from the United States, says In Chul Choi, a Korean-American activist.

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In the glittering ``Loop'' of Chicago's downtown, Asian-American lawyers and other professionals say their career advancement is limited by subtle yet potent racial stereotypes and resentment over their perceived success.

In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities, Asian Americans face widespread discrimination and, in some areas, a growing incidence of hate crimes, according to government reports and Asian-American advocacy groups.

Increasingly, such problems are leading Asian Americans to challenge the widely held image of themselves as the most affluent, readily assimilated, ``model'' minority group in the US. The ``model'' minority image is not only oversimplified and misleading, they say, but damaging to the efforts of Asians to gain equal treatment in US society.

``Being labeled a model minority is more a curse than a blessing for Asian Americans,'' Nancy Chen, of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, told a conference in May in Chicago on civil rights issues facing Asian Americans.

``[It] ignores those in our community who have not advanced and ignores the barriers we face,'' said Ms. Chen, who directs US Sen. Paul Simon's Chicago office.

As the fastest-growing minority group in the US, many Asian Americans are concerned that prejudice against them will rise as their numbers and visibility increase. The Asian-American population reached 7.3 million in 1990 and is projected to expand to as many as 20 million by 2020, the US Census Bureau projects.

Mainstream politics

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They are an increasingly foreign-born, diverse mixture of Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, and members of other ethnic groups.

To protect their rights, Asian-American activists are working to mobilize their communities to participate in mainstream politics. Still, they say they are hampered by their relatively small numbers, low voter registration, and the power of larger minority groups to dominate redistricting battles. Deep ethnic schisms within the Asian community also hinder activism.

Contrary to the stereotype of the highly educated, affluent Asian professional, Asian Americans occupy a wide economic spectrum and suffer discrimination at all levels of society, according to 1990 census data and a recent report by the Los Angeles-based Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP).

While Asian Americans on average are wealthier than African Americans or Latinos, their per capita income is lower than that of whites. Asian male workers are better educated but earn less on average than their white counterparts, according to the LEAP report.

Moreover, some 14 percent of all Asian-American households - and a quarter of recent Asian immigrants who arrived between 1985 and 1990 - are poor, with incomes below $10,000 a year. More than 1 million Asian Americans have little or no English-speaking ability and less than a high school education.

The worst-off group is the Southeast Asians, mainly refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Nearly half of them live in households with annual incomes of less than $10,000.

In Chicago, most Southeast Asians live in ethnic enclaves that offer a sense of security but often leave them trapped in low-wage jobs with limited opportunities to improve their skills and English ability.

``The main reason my clients face hardship is because of the language barrier. If you speak English with an accent, you're labeled a foreigner ... and may be a victim of discrimination,'' says John Chen, a partner at the law firm Rudnick and Wolfe. He assists immigrants at a legal clinic in Chicago's Uptown area.

Typical is the story of Van Huynh and her family, who arrived in Chicago's Uptown after fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1980. After three years on welfare, Mrs. Huynh's husband found a part-time job at a Thai grocery in the neighborhood. For eight years he supported his wife and four children on food stamps and $110 dollars a week. Finally, in 1991, he landed a full-time job at the grocery at $14,000 a year.

``It has been very hard for us,'' says Mrs. Huynh in broken English. Still, she considers herself lucky. ``My whole family got out [of Vietnam], but many people died in the ocean.''

A more recent Vietnamese immigrant, Harry Luong, compares the struggle for survival in the US to the hardships faced under the Vietnamese communist regime.

``We learned many things from the communists, how to struggle against adversity. Frankly, without that experience we would have returned [to Vietnam].''

Crime and gang activity are major concerns for Huynh and other Southeast Asian immigrants in Uptown. They are especially vulnerable because they have difficulty communicating with police. Frequently, immigrants who are victims of crimes have been jailed in error because of language breakdowns.

Language and law

``Asians are going to jail because they can't express themselves,'' says Dean Sakurai, a Chicago police officer who has worked in Uptown. Such problems exacerbate the immigrants' fear of police and their reluctance to report crimes, says Mr. Sakurai, who has encouraged Asian community groups to act as intermediaries.

The shortage of ethnic Asian police officers, who currently number less than 100 on Chicago's 12,500-strong force, severely limits the force in investigating and fighting crime in Asian neighborhoods, says Sakurai, who heads an organization of Asian-American officers.

The Chicago police department has no affirmative action policy for hiring and promoting Asian-American males, as it does for blacks, Hispanics, and women.

Until this year, not a single Asian American served on an elite Asian crime task force set up by Chicago, state, and federal authorities. Partly as a result, the force has lacked the crucial insiders' knowledge necessary to prevent crime in Asian communities, says Dennis Sakurai, a program coordinator at the South-East Asian Center in Uptown who works closely with immigrants and has been consulted by the task force. He is a brother of the policeman.

``They were talking to the wrong people and getting false leads. It was like talking to the Don, to people they should have been investigating,'' said Mr. Sakurai.

While thousands of Asian immigrants live strapped in poverty and isolation in crime-ridden enclaves, upper- and middle-class Asian-American professionals say they, too, face discrimination.

In Chicago, ethnic Asian professionals at universities, law firms, businesses and in government say they are pegged as nonaggressive, highly technical, and lacking in interpersonal skills. This stereotype in turn creates a ``glass ceiling'' that limits their promotions, especially to upper management positions.

At Chicago-area universities, Asian Americans tend to be concentrated in nontenure track positions and have difficulty rising into top administrative jobs, said scholars who testified before the US Civil Rights Commission in May.

At Chicago law firms, Asian Americans say they face greater difficulty than whites in becoming partners. One reason, says Young Kim, president of Chicago's Asian American Bar Association, is that Asian Americans often lack the close, informal social ties with white corporate clients that help secure business for their firms.

``We look different, so it is harder to make those deeper bonds,'' says Mr. Kim.

Indeed, several Asian Americans said they believe much of the discrimination is rooted in the subtle yet pervasive perception that they are ``foreign,'' unlike blacks and Hispanics, who tend to be accepted as US natives.

``The underlying assumption is that you don't belong here,'' says Ms. Chen. ``People ask where I am from. When I say `Seattle,' they say, `Where are you really from?''' says William Yoshino, Midwest Director of the Japanese-American Citizens' League. ``Because I look different, they assume I'm foreign.''

A national survey released in March by the National Conference on Christians and Jews showed that whites, blacks, and Latinos all felt they had more in common with one another than with Asian Americans. As groups, whites and blacks felt the ``least in common'' with Asian Americans.

Far more than the other groups, they are also seen as economically threatening and are resented for their perceived success, LEAP research shows.

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