RESPONSE: The bamboo ceiling cannot be separated from wider inequality

By Jennifer Chun
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

In the October 3rd issue of The Economist, an article entitled “The model minority is losing patience” speaks of the rising “trend” of Asian Americans more vigorously fighting discrimination, especially in academia. After introducing some of the pending lawsuits filed by Asian American high school students against Harvard and other Ivy League universities for allegedly denying their admissions based on their race, the article analyzes the discrepancy between the percentage of Asian Americans with stellar academic backgrounds and the percentage of Asian Americans represented in top jobs, such as corporate CEOs and Presidents. It concludes that Asian Americans are increasingly looking towards political and legal avenues to address this discrimination. While I was happy to see an article about Asian Americans in a major magazine, I took issue with two aspects of the article.

My first issue with the article concerns its lack of deeper analysis behind many statistics it cites. Take its discussion of the legal profession as an example. The article states that in 2014, only 3% of law firm partners were of Asian descent, compared with 11% of associates. It quotes Lauren Rivera, an Associate Professor of Management & Organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, as saying that the “[r]ecruiters at the top firms typically throw out applications from all but the top universities and scan the remainder for their extracurriculars,” particularly sports that do not typically have a heavy Asian American representation (such as lacrosse, squash, and rowing). And with the end of her quote, the article moves on to discussing the low representation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of other private sectors.

The fact that there are fewer Asian American partners than associates in a given law firm may simply reflect a larger trend of many Big Law lawyers leaving the traditional law firms[1] (associates and partners alike) for “New Model” firms and other places offering more flexible work schedules. The above statistics will also coincide with the long-existing trend of female lawyers leaving Big Law to be the primary caregivers to their children or again, to other places offering more flexible work schedules. Considering that 54% of Asian American associates were women in 2014 then, the given statistics should have been further analyzed to see whether the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in law firm partnership is more of a women’s issue, a bamboo-ceiling issue, or both. In fact, it would not be surprising to learn that the statistics are a mixture of cultural as well as gender issues because Asian American women are more pressured to have children than their White peers and tend to come from communities with more traditional views of marital roles.[2]

My second issue with the article concerns its complete omission of explaining the seemingly absurd rationale behind how these Asian American parents are responding to what they perceive as racial quotas against their children: by grilling their children even harder and by voting against affirmative actions.

One parent quoted in the article expects the current “tiger mom” trend to become more intense as parents “realise [sic] they’re going to have to work even harder” to get their children admitted to these prestigious universities. At this point, a rational reader should wonder aloud, “But why? What is so great about Ivy League that you need to push your children to become award-winning machines?” While the article does hint at an answer to this question by introducing an exasperated rhetoric from one Asian American mother whose daughter was rejected from the Ivy League (“‘If we can’t go to the Ivy League universities, how can we get the positions in Wall Street, or Congress, or the Supreme Court?’”) and by casually stating that the Ivy League does produce “a disproportionate number of CEOs, Congressmen and judges,” it does not dive sufficiently into the question of whether American society today in rewarding those with demonstrated “meritocracy” is what is fueling the very fervor of these Asian American parents to push their children to be perfect in everything. Only when the question of whether it is just for these Asian American parents and students to vigorously complain about their admission rates at elite universities is viewed from the lens of meritocracy, rising socioeconomic inequality, and stalling upward mobility inflicting America today, does the fear of these Asian American parents in forever losing their families’ one-way ticket to the top become a well-justified one.

From this viewpoint then, it also makes perfect sense for these Asian Americans to oppose affirmative actions as they have done so by voting against a bill to rescind California’s ban on using race in university admissions. The article remains silent on the very real consequences that such ban can have on the entire nation by omitting the example of what happened to the University of California (UC), one of the largest public university systems in the nation, as a result of this ban. Since the ban took effect in 1996, the racial and ethnic profile of UC campuses has long stopped reflecting the racial and ethnic profile of the state, creating a deep schism between these UC graduates and the general population of California. As a native Californian, I am worried about this schism because such accelerating socioeconomic inequality has proven to make American elite “more prone to failure and corruption and more out of touch with the people they govern,” and there is no reason why this statement cannot be applied to Asian Americans in California who had beat the odds and successfully joined the ivory towers.

As a second-generation Asian American also borne from the sacrifice of her parents for her education, I instinctively understand the collective desire of the Asian Americans interviewed in this article to view themselves as the “new Jews” and do applaud some of their efforts to break the very real bamboo ceiling. I am also critical of certain affirmative action policies adopted by prestigious universities that amount to nothing more than a series of “diversity talks.” But when I read the gleeful comment by one Asian American political fundraiser at the increasing inflow of money from “[h]edge-fund [ ], private equity, [and] lawyers” to fight against admissions discrimination, it was not the call for justice, equality, and social responsibility of our activists that I sensed but the all-too-familiar worship of wealth, power, and prestige of our imperialists.

[1] While NALP’s 2015 Update on Associate Attrition would have been a better source, I was not able to afford $100 to pay NALP for this 51-page report.

[2] Yan Xia, Kieu Anh Do & Xiaolin Xie, The Adjustment of Asian American Families to the U.S. Context: The Ecology of Strengths and Stress, Fac. Publ’n, Dep’t of Child., Youth, and Fam. Stud. 705, 710 (2013).