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The Celebrated Immigrant
Labor secretary Elaine Chao's Asian American subterfuge
Labor and civil rights groups were outraged at Bush's nomination of anti-affirmative action, anti-minimum wage Linda Chavez for labor secretary. But strangely, when Bush quickly replaced Chavez with anti-affirmative action, anti-minimum wage (and anti-feminist) Elaine Chao, nary a peep was heard. Chao sailed through her confirmation.
For one thing, Elaine Chao is the first Asian American woman to hold a cabinet-level position. The Organization of Chinese Americans supported her on the grounds that her selection would help the Bush administration “represent the diversity of the nation.” Union leaders John Sweeney and Morton Bahr gave the thumbs-up because they had worked with her at the United Way; unions help fund that organization by soliciting contributions from workers (to the tune of $2 billion last year), in exchange for free trainings, staff, and other support. Chao has no tell-tale paper trail of right-wing blather, as Chavez did. The rest of us were lulled by spin—of a uniquely Asian American nature.
Throughout her career, Chao, a Harvard MBA, has been loyal to her Republican patrons. In 1988, as a young White House fellow with a background in banking, Chao chaired Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle. In 1989, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole paved the way for Chao's appointment as deputy secretary of transportation. In 1991, Chao opposed the Civil Rights Act because it promoted “quotas.” In 1993, Chao married Kentucky's anti-campaign-finance-reform Republican senator Mitch McConnell, named by Congressional Quarterly and the now-defunct George magazine as one of Washington's most powerful people; he was present at her confirmation as labor secretary. In 1998, now a Heritage Fellow, Chao publicly denounced affirmative action. In March 1999, she opposed the confirmation of Asian American Bill Lan Lee as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice because he supported affirmative action. In this past presidential campaign, she raised more than $100,000 for George W. Bush.
Even when Chao hasn't been working under or raising money for Republicans, she's found ways to publicly announce her support for the Republican party line. In a 1992 appearance on “CBS This Morning,” she recalled the “great work of President Reagan and President Bush.” In a 1994 CNN interview on the United Way's fundraising campaign, she pronounced that “There's overall, universal agreement that the current welfare system does need to be revamped…. Obviously, the tenets and cornerstones of any future welfare reform must also rest on self-sufficiency, self-reliance.”
During her inexplicable 1998 appearance on a panel of race scholars and journalists discussing former President Clinton's “Dialogue on Race,” Chao interrupted her own obvious platitudes (“…when we talk about diversity, what a wonderful notion it is. Of course, most of us support it. I for one definitely support it,” she said) to veer off topic to introduce her overriding theme: affirmative action is bad.
Ironically, given how loyal Chao has been to Republican color-blind politics, both the news media and conservative elites have fallen over themselves extolling the virtues of her race, gender, and immigrant status. Almost every article ever written about her, and at almost every political event she's spoken at, her story of immigrating to the U.S. from Taiwan as a non-English-speaking 8-year-old has been celebrated and elaborated, with varying degrees of irrelevance. The Christian Science Monitor led its 1997 story about her appearance at a women's leadership conference with a somewhat exaggerated version: “Elaine Chao began her life in this country with nothing,” it starts. A 1999 profile of her that ran in Heritage Today titled, “An American Success Story,” (underlining the fact that for Heritage, at least, an Asian woman being “American” and a “success” is particularly noteworthy) repeats the poor immigrant story: her family came to America with “little more than the clothes on their backs.” The sob story came into full effect after Bush's announcement of her nomination as labor secretary, in which he said, “Elaine Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it. She came to America at the age of eight not knowing a word of English. Her successful life gives eloquent testimony to the virtues of hard work and perseverance, and to the unending promise of this great country.”
Chao has, by all accounts, not intervened in the starry-eyed media portrayal of her as the embodiment of the American Dream. But by repeating this story ad nauseum, weighing Chao's accomplishments against her immigration, Bush and company imply that immigration itself (or learning English at age 8 rather than age 2) is a disadvantage. This is a demonstrably false assumption given the thousands of wealthy elites that immigrate to this country every year.
Chao's gender has come under scrutiny as well. The Christian Science Monitor described her as “subdued” and “petite.” A conference director was quoted calling Chao “this little woman.” The Los Angeles Times called her “willowy” and described her outfit. Chao admitted that her gender and race clouded people's judgments of her: “I am a woman,” she said. “I am a minority. I am young. I get past this by just letting people get to know me.”
But all of these accolades for being an Asian immigrant woman may have gone to her head. So much so that this Republican woman of color who thinks that racial identity doesn't matter, that her gender and race is something one should “get past,” has herself waxed eloquent about the virtues of her race, gender, and immigration status. Unlike someone like Linda Chavez, who is unapologetically ideological, Chao has shrouded her right-wing stances and hard-core corporate mindset in soft-core identity politics.
At a 1997 conference on women and leadership, Chao gave homage to her femininity and Asianness—not her merit, of which she has plenty—in explaining her success. Women, she said, are “better at building alliances, better at listening, and hearing what other people say.” The success of women like her doesn't flow from their high-ranking Republican patrons or their business and banking savvy. It flows from “women's natural managerial skills—focusing consensus, seeking compromise, motivating, cajoling,” which she said was “much more important now.” In fact, these skills she sees as so intrinsic to femininity are equally intrinsic to her own Asianness: “Traditional women's managerial style is very emblematic of how Asians manage—not top down, very conciliatory, very polite, very group-oriented. So as [the nation] becomes more international and part of a larger community…[these] skills are very valuable,” she said. According to Chao's retrograde definitions, then, her own success stems from being the ultimate Asian American woman.
Chao has been appointed to positions in which a corporate bureaucrat has been called for, whether for political or business reasons—and she (and her handlers) has rationalized these appointments with her Asianness and her immigrant status. In late 1991, Chao, an ambitious government bureacrat with a background in banking (a Los Angeles Times reporter found her “suited, crisp, and ever the polished MBA”), was appointed by former President Bush to direct the Peace Corps. Her appointment to one of the last at-least-nominally idealistic government organizations probably signified the low regard the Republican administration had for the Corps' humanitarian mission.
Yet when taken to task for her lack of humanitarian or development work experience, Chao claimed her immigrant status gave her “profound understanding” of Third World poverty. Standing before the celebrity photographs that adorned her Washington office suite, Chao proclaimed that her “memories of living in a developing nation are part of who I am today and give me a profound understanding of the challenges of economic development.” She couldn't have helped people in poor countries before, she said, because “if you're of a minority background, you have obligations to your family to support them financially.” Here Chao equates minority status with poverty, negating the reality of her own middle class or better family, which far from needing her to work for money, had to be persuaded to let her work a summer job (one of which was an internship).
Chao's manufactured image as a by-the-bootstraps humanitarian has gotten a lot of mileage from her brief stint at the Peace Corps. In her address to the Republican National Convention in July 2000, Chao mentions just one of her myriad work experiences: her brief and 8-year-old experience at the Peace Corps. “In my travels as Peace Corps director to remote reaches of the world, untouched by the Internet, television or even electricity, I found universal recognition of the word ‘America.' In any language, it means freedom and opportunity.”
One would be misled to believe Chao's work at the Peace Corps was all idealistic humanitarianism. In fact, her few months at the Corps were dominated by a controversial Republican-mandated transformation of the Peace Corps from humanitarian development work to capitalist development in former Soviet Union countries. In her remarks to the National Press Club, Chao elaborated on the MBA mindset she brought to the organization. “What's really needed” in the former Soviet Union, she said, are “managerial skills,” which she considered “basic skills by which free people live and make their living in peace with one another.” Chao sent to Russia and other former Soviet countries hundreds of “business consultants” with MBAs or at least five years experience in business, marketing, or finance. These business professionals were given free language and other training, as well as medical benefits, housing, and stipends that allowed them to live at the same level as the business professionals in their host countries.
Having helped usher in a capitalist plunder of the former Soviet Union, Chao was tapped to take over as CEO of the United Way of America in November 1992, which at the time was falling apart after her predecessor, William Aramony, was removed for misusing funds.
As a skilled fundraiser with a demonstrated pro-business attitude, Chao was a logical choice for United Way, one of the nation's largest charities with one-quarter of its funds raised from businesses. In an article entitled “United Way CEO Knows About Being a Charity Recipient,” Chao claimed that her newly-immigrated family was “helped” by the Salvation Army. At the United Way, she further capitalized on her Asianness to persuade Asian Americans to contribute money to her new organization. “We Asian Pacific Americans have a rich and strong tradition of helping our family members,” she said. By giving money and time to the United Way, she claimed Asian Americans would “have the opportunity to let others unlike us understand our cultural background, our heritage, and our philosophical thinking.”
Not only is Chao's reliance on her immigrant status (and her silence when others use it) inconsistent with her anti-affirmative-action, color-blind political stances, it rests on some shaky assumptions. There's nothing inherently wrong with being an upper-middle-class professional woman from an educated, middle-class background. But Chao has implied her origins are otherwise. At the Republican National Convention in July 2000, she spoke of “hardships” in America; at an interview in Cleveland, of being “helped” by the Salvation Army; at her nomination for labor secretary, of her young parents' having “so little”; in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, of having to play with red clay, because nothing else was available, and of having to eat ducks' eggs instead of chickens' eggs.
Yet the evidence points to a fairly privileged background. The Chao family, like so many other Chinese immigrants, settled in New York City. But unlike the thousands of other Chinese immigrants there, who toil for decades in dead-end restaurant and sweatshop jobs, Chao's father worked his way to a higher degree. He moved his family to Long Island's North Shore, where Elaine finished high school. And unlike many Chinese immigrant children and youth who must work long hours in family businesses, Elaine had to beg her father to let her work. “I had to convince him that to be American, I had to get a summer job,” she said in a 1996 interview. Her father established a successful shipping business and moved the family to affluent Westchester County, New York. Elaine was sent to Mt. Holyoke for her bachelor's degree and then to Harvard for her MBA.
At the United Way, Chao was able to do what she seems to do best: fundraise and network. She paved the way for her uncontested confirmation as Bush's labor secretary by networking with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and president of the Communication Workers of America Morton Bahr, and raising billions of dollars for the United Way from union members. Bahr later said he thought she would be “responsive to the needs of working families,” despite the fact that she slashed one-third of the United Way of America's staff. She was rewarded for her loyalty to right-wing and Republican causes in 1997, with a fellowship at the conservative Heritage Foundation. A year later she was named chairman of the foundation's Asian Studies Advisory Council, a “trans-Pacific group of leading scholars in the region,” despite having no published work (nor substantive work experience) on Asia, save having famously immigrated from there.
But in the case of her confirmation as labor secretary, a post which Republican presidents have bestowed upon other well-connected political wives with little or no labor experience—even her admirers had to admit she had no appropriate experience for the job. Senator Patty Murray rationalized that Chao was a “quick study”; “I know this is new territory for you,” said Senator Christopher Dodd, but “you will quickly learn the issues.”
Chao's patchwork career is more a jumble of opportunistic leaps than a dreamy trajectory to success. “The way she uses her Chineseness to undermine affirmative action is particularly offensive,” says Dian Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Her acceptance speech was alarming enough, yet completely predictable, considering the Bush administration's politics of sham diversity based on skin colors. It was perfectly in line with ‘model minority,' ‘hardworking immigrant,' and ‘American dream' narratives,” said another Asian American feminist.
Calling her an inspirational humanitarian based solely on her immigrant status—and in sharp contrast to the actual work she has done—is a fake-out that progressives should see through. Chao's subterfuge—in addition to her general self-mythologizing, she's been caught in a few blatant if minor misrepresentations—adds a chilling new twist on the right's cooptation of the politics of identity.
Here is an ambitious businesswoman who married big, attached herself to the right mentors, aggressively furthered the capitalist cause, shrouded her history and race in myth, and ended up leading the world's most powerful country in its war against its workers. Perhaps Elaine Chao is exactly what she claims to be: the American Dream come alive. Z
Sonia Shah is an author and long-time staff member of South End Press. She is currently working as a freelance writer and editor.