The Celebrated Immigrant: Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's Asian American Subterfuge
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
one thing, Elaine Chao is the first Asian American woman to hold a cabinet-level
position. 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.
her career, Chao, a Harvard MBA, has been loyal to her Republican patrons,
including former President Bush (whom she championed via her chairmanship of
Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle), Elizabeth Dole (Chao's mentor at the Bush
White House), her husband, the powerful Republican senator Mitch McConnell (who
was present at her confirmation hearing) and President George W. Bush (for whom
she raised more than $100,000). She has publicly opposed affirmation action, the
confirmation of Bill Lan Lee to the Justice Department, and the Civil Rights Act
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
emigrating to the U.S. from Taiwan, as a non-English-speaking 8-year-old, has
been celebrated and elaborated, with varying degrees of irrelevance.
Ted Kennedy called her "a vivid example of the triumph of the American
dream." Senator Susan Collins said "clearly, she is the embodiment of
the American dream." "You so epitomize the American story and the
American dream," said Senator Judd Gregg, "that your choice as
secretary of labor by President Bush I think is a reinforcement of that
has frequently jumped on the bandwagon, painting herself as a
poor-immigrant-woman-done-good. This is not only inconsistent with her
anti-affirmative-action, color-blind political stances; it may be stretching the
truth. This country has seen thousands upon thousands of wealthy immigrants, who
have been able to transfer the wealth, education, and social assets they had at
home to the U.S. Chao's family of anti-communist refugees were part of an elite
group that labor historian Peter Kwong describes as "former government
officials, top financial managers, diplomats, and generals." They
originally settled in New York City, but soon moved on to the Long Island's
North Shore and finally New York's affluent Westchester County, where Elaine's
college-educated father runs a successful shipping business.
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. "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.
being appointed by former President Bush to direct the Peace Corps, Chao was
taken to task for her lack of humanitarian or development work experience.
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." (Not bad for an 8-year-old.) And
anyway, 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." Yet her own father had to be persuaded
to let her work a summer job (one of which was an internship).
any case, although the 11 months she spent directing the Peace Corps (out of a
two-decade-long career) is frequently mentioned, it would be wrong to think she
furthered the Corp's at-least-nominally humanitarian mission. Most of her time
was taken up with sending fellow American MBAs for capitalist development in
former Soviet Union countries.
a skilled fundraiser with a demonstrated pro-business attitude, Chao was a
logical choice for CEO of United Way, one of the nation's largest charities with
one-quarter of its funds raised from businesses. She went on to slash 1/3 of the
staff (despite this, Morton Bahr later said he thought she would be
"responsive to the needs of working families.) She also claimed she
understood charity because her family was helped by the Salvation Army.
Chao's business skills, conservative views and partisan loyalty land her jobs,
both she and her bosses are hesitant to admit it. Perhaps it is too incongruous
to publicly name this Asian immigrant woman a business powerhouse. Or perhaps
the opportunity to showcase their own sensitivity and magnanimity toward
minorities is just too tempting to pass up. Either way, 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.
Sonia Shah is a freelance writer and editor of Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire (South End Press, 1997). She lives in Storrs, CT.