Asian-Americans fret about effects of chill with China

More than other minority groups, they see their standing tied to US ties with their countries of ancestry.

Regarded over the years as America's "model" minority, Asian-Americans are finding themselves surprisingly vulnerable to racist attitudes that are not quite like anything experienced by other minority groups.

For instance, while African-Americans have had to combat notions of inferiority, Asian-Americans have found that high achievement carries its own backlash.

And while immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere face a stigma of being foreigners, Asian-Americans often confront deeper questioning about their very loyalty and allegiance to the US.

Awareness of these issues, say a number of analysts, is stirring anew among Asian-Americans as they brace for what looks like a chilly chapter in relations between the United States and China.

The heightened diplomatic tension, resulting from this month's downing of an American surveillance plane in China, comes on the heels of other recent sources of discomfort for Asian-Americans.

The treatment of Wen Ho Lee, accused by the US government of stealing nuclear weapons secrets last year, was widely seen by Asian-Americans as having a racial component. And the political fund-raising scandals of a few years ago resulted in treatment of Asian-Americans that soured their relations with both political parties.

Each of these incidents has reinforced what Asian-Americans see as the paradox that, despite their economic and educational achievements in the US, they remain the target of stereotypes and suspicion.

What's more, their status in American society is strongly hinged to external relations between the US and Asia, a feature that sets them apart from the nation's other large minorities and is intensely frustrating for Asian-Americans because it is so beyond their control.

"The way Asian-Americans are treated in this country has been very much dependent over the years on relations between the United States and their country of ancestry," says Ted Wang, policy director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, based in San Francisco.

Military threat during World War II clearly affected the treatment of Asians and led to the internment of many Japanese Americans. But Mr. Wang notes that even during peace time, Asian-Americans have suffered from developments beyond US shores. During the 1980s, for instance, Japanese Americans and other Asians drew ire as a result of the stiff economic competition their region posed to the US.

What is frustrating to Asian-Americans, says David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, in San Francisco, is that the always-tense relationship with China creates a cloud that is "almost inescapable" for Asians in the US.

While Asian-Americans say discrimination and stereotyping is a persistent problem, American attitudes toward them are much less well-documented than for other minority groups.

But last week, the Committee of 100, an elite group of Chinese Americans that includes musician Yo Yo Ma and architect I.M. Pei, reported findings from one of the broadest surveys ever conducted of American attitudes toward Asians in the US.

The news was not heartening. The poll, by Yankelovich Partners, found 68 percent had strong or somewhat negative attitudes toward Chinese Americans. Nearly a third said Chinese Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States.

About one in four Americans said they would not vote for an Asian-American for president, a higher disapproval rating, for instance, than for an African-American, a woman, or a Jew, according to the survey.

These negative notions are all the more striking because of the positive views of Chinese-American family values, honesty in business, and dedication to education.

The contrast, say analysts, suggests that while Asian-Americans are admired, they are not trusted.

"Trustworthiness is at the heart of the issue, and it plays out in daily life for Asian-Americans," says Wang. A perceived lack of trustworthiness can also translate quickly into questions of allegiance on issues of national security, he adds.

Asian-Americans are a fast growing minority group, though they remain small, accounting for about 4 percent of the US population. That small size, and the geographic clustering of Asian-Americans in a few metropolitan areas, could play a role in the negative views and stereotypes held by many Americans, say analysts.

Tensions over the downed American spy plane has brought forth a number of complaints by Asian-Americans of racist treatment and jokes they say would never be tolerated if aimed at blacks or Latinos.

And Wang says worry is high that, if relations with China deteriorate further, "there is real danger people will act out their stereotypes of Asian-Americans."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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