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

Sonia Shah


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

of 1991.


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.


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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