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The Celebrated Immigrant:
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's Asian American Subterfuge

By Sonia Shah

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. 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.

But 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, 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 of 1991.

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 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.

Senator 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 dream."

Chao 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.

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. "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.

Upon 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).

In 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.

As 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.

Although 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.

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