Elaine Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it. Her successful life gives eloquent testimony to the virtues of hard work and perseverance and to the unending promise of this great country.
—George W. Bush
Strengthened by faith in God and family, we knew in our hearts that with hard work, perseverance, and the help of newly found neighbors and friends, we could indeed achieve the American dream.
Senators from both parties at the Education, Health, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing hailed Ms. Chao, who immigrated from Taiwan when she was 8, as the incarnation of the American dream.
—The New York Times
It’s enough to make you gag. But more nauseating than the rhetoric itself is the fact that it actually worked. It stymied everyone—unions, minority and women’s groups, Democrats—who should have challenged the appointment of Elaine Chao to the labor secretary post. The Chinese American’s smooth confirmation has been hailed as a sign of social progress, but all it really proves is that the retro model-minority myth still works.
How the myth functions: Those in power invoke—in this case, enlist—the story of a successful minority, usually a docile and diligent Asian, in order to deflate claims of injustice from other minority groups. She flourished, so the problem must lie with you and not the system, the logic goes. Invented by nervous establishment types during the civil rights movement to get minority groups to hate each other, it’s a slippery, deliberately confusing spiel, which results in someone getting played. In this case, the unions, minority groups, and the media got played; they, in turn, played the people. The real dupes in the end will be the working poor, for whom the anti-affirmative-action, anti-feminist, pro-business labor secretary will make the most difference.
It was dismaying to watch the same news outlets that knowingly reported the Linda Chavez scandal to be more than she said it was turn around two days later and regurgitate the touching tales they were told about Chao. The ones about coming to New York on a freighter as a little girl, speaking not a word of English, but managing against all odds eventually to get a business degree from Harvard. Also, the ones about her being good, decent (she headed the Peace Corps under George Sr. and moved on to the United Way), and so, well, nice. The universal pronouncement: pleasant. Easy. Anyone for demure?
The Bush camp wasn’t going to screw up twice. They invoked the myth early, and Chao’s by-the-bootstraps background became untouchable. No matter that she runs with the same crowd—the proudly conservative Heritage Foundation folks, the sexual-harassment-is-a-state-of-mind Independent Women’s Forum gals—as Chavez and most of the other cabinet picks, including the reviled John Ashcroft. The coalition of civil rights and labor groups against Linda Chavez was strong; at least six organizations were on line to testify against her at her confirmation hearings. Opponents at Chao’s proceeding? None.
The insidiousness and strength of the myth lies in its appeal to those who most wish that reality were anything but. National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland sidestepped political questions and instead gave the Bush administration credit for at least recognizing that women can be competent. So what if Chao is a longtime advisory board member of the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization that aggressively counters the notion that sexual harassment, glass ceilings, and wage disparities are real problems for women and chalks these concerns up to “gender correctness.”
Similarly, Organization of Chinese Americans executive director Daphne Kwok declares, “[Chao’s nomination] really is a recognition that we are full participating Americans. It shows to the world that America fully embraces its diversity.” Never mind that Chao has actually equated Asians with whites, arguing that affirmative action hurts both. Never mind that she opposed putting Bill Lann Lee, an Asian American, in charge of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, because he sought to use existing laws to counter racial discrimination. (Trent Lott floated Chao’s name as an improvement on the liberal Lee.) For some Asian Americans, Chao is the antidote to Wen Ho Lee, the man whose troubles reminded us that as long as you look funny, they’ll treat you funny.
Of course, embracing Chao merely because she is an Asian American woman is like enjoying the 2000 Republican convention with the sound off. “Far from being a model of Asian American empowerment, Chao’s selection is a dark day in the history of Asian America,” warns Eric Tang of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. She’s not only a false symbol of progress, argues Diane Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action, she’s a dissembler. “The way she uses her Chineseness to undermine affirmative action is particularly offensive to us,” Chin says. Aunt Elaine, meet Uncle Tom.
But hardly a concerned word was heard during Chao’s confirmation proceeding. That’s largely because the big boys, the ones who can get senators to listen, bowed out. The Bush camp spoon-fed the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney with a buttery call from Chao before going public with the news, and he ate it right up. His counterparts followed suit. What a pleasant lady, the general sentiment went. Much nicer than that abrasive, outspoken Chavez.
The office of Edward Kennedy, who presided over Chao’s hearing, didn’t receive so much as a phone call of protest from any union, according to the senator’s spokesperson. Mainstream labor denounced Chavez because of the danger she posed to the minimum wage, affirmative action, and other government protections. Like anyone vying to take over an agency overseeing 125 million workers, Chavez protested that she would fully and fairly enforce existing labor laws. Bullshit, the unions said. They planned to orchestrate a filibuster to block her nomination. But Chao, who pussyfooted around questions about minimum wage, affirmative action, workplace protection, and health care during her hearing, got the benefit of the doubt.
What doubt? True, Chao, unlike Chavez, has almost no labor background (a fact that worries nobody), nor has she been as forthcoming with her views. Therefore, some argue, there’s not enough to judge her on. But her opposition to affirmative action—with her own success as the primary example of why it’s not necessary—is well documented; the federal government, which she would represent, is the biggest affirmative action employer in the nation. She sits on four corporate boards: Northwest Airlines, Clorox, C.R. Bard, Columbia/HCA Healthcare. As a member of the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation, she has argued that the greatest regulator of the free market is the free market itself. To her, the instability experienced by globalization-era workers is not a burden, it’s “autonomy.” In one interview a couple of years back, she declared, “Levi Strauss is going bankrupt, basically, because they pride themselves on being the most worker-enlightened corporation in America.”
In a way, it really doesn’t matter who the labor secretary is. Anyone would ultimately be a mouthpiece and mule for the Bush agenda, the project of privileging profit over the poor. But in another sense, it does. It matters that Linda Chavez was such a despicable figure, a common enemy for the disunited left. The many-faceted myth of Chao, on the other hand, has bewitched potential critics—minorities, women, unions—and caused them to roll over. With Chao as its spokesperson, the new administration is selling the American dream. The final price may be higher than buyers realize.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2001