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August 1-7, 1997
New study finds disparity in government affirmative action programs
BY FRANK WU
Asian Pacific Americans as a group have long been been ambivalent about affirmative action. While many of us enjoy the benefits of equal-opportunity programs, others resent the limits imposed in college admissions and other areas. The topic is heating up again with a comprehensive study of the subject.
"Asian Pacific Americans and Public Contracting," a 64-page booklet prepared by the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC), a Washington-based nonprofit group, and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, offers statistics and case studies which show that Asian Americans are not receiving as many government procurement opportunities as might be expected.
"Most Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants to the United States came in search of the 'American dream,'" the report states in its introduction. The authors stress that many APAs "have made progress toward fully participating in mainstream American economy."
Using data from many sources, however, the NAPALC report documents that in many areas Asian Americans are underrepresented. For example, an Urban Institute study conducted in 1996 concluded that APAs were "underutilized" in every area, from construction to sale of goods to professional services.
A study conducted in San Francisco concluded that Asian Americans were not well represented in fields such as contracting, sales, services, and occupations working with the government including lawyers, accountants, and even stereotypical APA professions such as doctors and computer consultants. On the other hand, the study found that APA management consultants were overrepresented. The same pattern was revealed at federal, state, and local levels.
Significantly, the data compare Asian Pacific Americans receiving government contracts with the available APA firms working in the area. Thus, the studies do not compare APAs receiving government contracts with all Asian Americans generally. Many have criticized the latter type of comparison because it assumes that without racial discrimination, people of diverse racial backgrounds would choose occupations in exact proportion to their overall representation in the population.
On average, APA business owners and their firms also differ from the majority. More than half of Asian American businesspeople have at least a college degree--the highest number of any racial group, surpassing that of whites at about 37 percent. Almost a quarter rely on loans from family or friends, compared with 10 percent of whites. But Asian Pacific Americans receive commercial loans at a lower rate than whites. The study lists examples of APA entrepreneurs being denied credit while their white counterparts were offered credit.
In addition, the report reviews types of discrimination faced by Asian Americans. Widespread perceptions of the model minority are accompanied by the belief that APA businesses cater only to APA clientele and are not interested in working with other customers, despite evidence to the contrary.
Finally, the report lists different affirmative-action programs. It shows the detailed criteria for benefits, which are "race and ethnicity" for some goals and "social and economic disadvantage" for set-aside programs. The "mechanisms" of affirmative action included "goals and outreach" throughout the federal government, "technical assistance and set-asides" for small businesses, price advantages in bidding for defense contracts, and rewards to prime contractors for working with disadvantaged small businesses as their subcontractors.
According to NAPALC, affirmative action has worked for Asian Pacific Americans. In San Francisco, after the school district was required to make "good-faith efforts" to meet goals for working with racial minorities and women, Asian Americans in 1993 received $4.4 million, or 17 percent, of $25.2 million in construction spending, up from only about 6 percent during the 1987-1990 period.
The NAPALC report offered several recommendations in the area of public policy. Some suggestions are aimed at Asian Americans. For example, NAPALC urges that data on APAs be kept to determine their situation, since many of the statistical records either group all racial minorities together or list Asian Americans and Native Americans as a single category. Other suggestions would benefit everyone. For example, NAPALC argues that paperwork requirements for bidding on government contracts should be simplified, since newer and smaller companies cannot compete effectively due to bureaucratic burdens.
Jacinta S. Ma, a fellow at NAPALC who worked on the report, stated: "Like other minorities, Asian Pacific Americans have made progress because of affirmative action programs."
Gwendolyn Yip, a former fellow at NAPALC, also helped write the report. Now an attorney in private practice in Boston, she believes that affirmative action should be continued but that it must be amended to better include Asian Americans. She explained in a telephone interview, "Asian Americans have benefited to a certain extent from participation in affirmative-action programs. But the way some of these programs are structured, they have not always been tailored to identify the problems facing particular communities. The implementation must be sensitive to the communities with which it is working. Broad-based assumptions aren't necessarily the case.
"African American, Hispanic, and Asian American communities may have different cultural backgrounds or educational backgrounds, and there is a difference within the Asian American community, too," she continued. "What helps some people doesn't always help the mom-and-pop store."
Yip added, "The biggest problem for any community is access to financing and having the network. In the Asian American community, there has been reliance on personal resources; so many people don't have the track record of loans and paying off loans. And there is the problem of gaining access to people who make the decisions.
"For Asian Americans," she said, "that is particularly a problem because many Asian Americans are recent immigrants and they don't necessarily know how to do business the way it's done--the wining and the dining. Plus they aren't comfortable with the paperwork that must be done if English is their second language. The bidding process is complex, for the government and for large corporations, and that discourages people."
Yip observed that many of the small-business affirmative-action programs, as the name suggests, target small business rather than race specifically. Like Ma, Yip also emphasized that many Asian Americans may not be aware of the scope of public contracting opportunities--part of the problem--and are missing an opportunity to compete for a vast amount of business.
"There is no single solution," Yip concluded. "Affirmative action has its limits. It must be constantly re-adjusted for a multicultural society to reflect different experiences."
NAPALC has issued its report at a timely moment. Affirmative action continues to dominate discourse on civil rights. In Congress, Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., has introduced another bill that would abolish affirmative action. Two years ago, Canady sponsored similar legislation, which was unsuccessful despite the support of then-presidential candidate Bob Dole. Now, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has signed on as a co-sponsor in an effort to use some of the backlash that pushed Proposition 209 to victory in California.
At the same time, a "new paradigm" for civil rights has become the subject of debate. The Presidential Commission on Race Relations opened its discussions with tension between chair John Hope Franklin, one of the most distinguished historians in the country and a specialist in African American experiences, and member Angela Oh, a Los Angeles lawyer who has been a leading advocate for Asian Americans following the 1992 riots there. While some observers have suggested that Franklin and Oh may agree much more than has been reported, the idea of a country that is more than black and white may not be familiar to many people.
With Asian Pacific Americans becoming more visible in politics, perhaps the views of NAPALC will attract greater attention. As Ma said, "We hope that people will think about the findings and recommendations and help to improve affirmative-action programs, so that Asian Pacific American businesses will be able to compete equally."
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