The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Commission Meeting on Race and Color Discrimination of April 19, 2006, Washington D.C.

Remarks of Paul M. Igasaki Executive Director, Rights Working Group Before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Good Morning. It is my pleasure to join the members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to offer my thoughts on the need to vigorously enforce Title VII’s prohibition against race and color discrimination. I believe that I was asked to appear to share thoughts from my perspective on the treatment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

I am currently Executive Director of the Rights Working Group, a coalition of organizations dedicated to restore civil and human rights lost since 9/11/01 in the U.S. While that is not primarily about Asian Pacific Americans, though they are affected or about job discrimination, you know that my background provides me ample experience to draw upon for this discussion. My years as Vice Chair of this body, as Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus, as Washington Representative of the Japanese American Citizens League, as an Mayoral advisor and enforcer of the City of Chicago’s civil rights laws and as a civil rights attorney in California and Illinois provide me, I think, with sufficient experience to speak to these issues.

I want to begin by thanking the Chair, the Vice Chair and the Commissioners for this invitation – this is like coming home for me – and for issuing this important document. As you know, Asian Pacific Americans have not substantially utilized our job discrimination laws and that is clearly not, as I recently read in thoughtful statements by the Vice Chair and Commissioner Ishimaru, due to not experiencing or feeling discrimination. For that reason, additional information on the laws, the remedies and the institutions available to them, as well as the protections against retaliation, are particularly useful.

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. One reason for this is that a majority of the community is made up on immigrants, some recent, some longstanding, but, in any case, coming from nations with different laws and rights. The legal system is perhaps most intimidating to immigrants due, frankly, to factors ranging from language barriers, cultural insensitivities and the lack of diversity in the institutions. There are also probably, though I know it is impossible to say this for each and every part of Asia, cultural reasons in societies with strong group oriented approaches to resolving what are largely individual matters in the U.S. Whatever the reasons, it is critical to communicate both the system and its important values to the API community.

As I often told API audiences, complaining, is the American way. That always drew a laugh, but, as a lawyer, I believe that to be true. Democracy, and our discrimination system, relies on each person defending their rights. To bear what should not be borne, allows a wrong to continue and, potentially, to be revisited upon another. Certainly, it is good when one stands up for somebody else, as a witness or otherwise, but without that complaint, nothing happens. While I know there are some that overuse the system, and Asian Pacific Americans could fall in the category and, indeed, a few do, that is rare with the reverse being the norm.

Asian Pacific Americans face the same kinds of discrimination that all Americans face, ranging from harassment, sexual and otherwise; discrimination due to a disability and age discrimination. Much of the discrimination faced is due to national origin. While that isn’t the primary topic today I understand, for APIs the forms of discrimination cross over. Consider that discrimination against, for example, Vietnamese people may well be lodged against a Japanese American. The common minority experience of, “you all look alike” is borne out in discrimination as well. When Vincent Chin, a Chinese American in Detroit, was murdered by out of work auto workers angry at Japan, they were not deterred when they learned Vincent’s real ethnicity.

That is particularly disturbing to Asians who are well aware of our community’s tremendous diversity. Dozens of languages and dialects as well as nationalities and religions make up the category of Asian Pacific Islanders. We are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu and many other religious groupings, as well as agnostics and atheists as well. Many Asians and Pacifics have intermarried, both within and outside the racial grouping. Probably at a higher percentage than any other minority group, especially among the American born, interracial marriage is an increasing reality. There are many similarities, but even more differences. What draws us together as a group is the experience and treatment as a minority racial group in the United States and other nations of the West.

In the area I work in now, that is also true. In the times after the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City, even after we came to learn that the terrorists were white, people seen as Middle Eastern or Muslim were targeted for hate crimes. And after 9/11/01, that has been all the more true. This resulted in an upswing in job discrimination, from harassment to misplaced and inappropriate treatment of not only Arab and Muslim Americans, but of South Asians and even Latinos or other dark skinned people. Sikhs particularly, due to the beards and turbans that observant men wear, have faced tremendous discrimination. Some of this has taken the form of religious discrimination and some of it in harassment or in unfair treatment in work standards. Some employers, concerned about customer reaction, have acted against such employees and either their race or their religious attire.

One area of particular concern for Asian and Pacific American workers is the glass ceiling. Even as a large number of API’s, though by no means all, have attained some professional success, they find their ability to take that next step, into management roles, to be incredibly difficult. Some of this is the responsibility of the community itself, to put oneself forward for opportunities, to socially network and to take risks. But the problem goes farther than that. Many with tremendous leadership potential find that they are simply not seriously considered. Prejudice due to stereotypes leads many to see Asians as hard working and intelligent, but not decisive or as leaders.

Language is also an issue. Accents that don’t interfere with one’s ability to do their job or to be understood at the level appropriate for the job should not prevent promotional opportunities. A factory line worker needs to be understood by her or his coworkers in the work that they do, a public relations person needs much more flexible linguistic abilities. Many Asians have reported, though their accents may have been slight or even non-existent, that it has been used to say that they were not good communicators. Is this equally true for European accents or nationalities or American regional accents?

This is not limited to situations involving the corporate boardrooms. It is also a serious problem on the factory floor. Consider the lawsuit filed by the EEOC against a factory fish processing operation where Vietnamese American workers were not allowed promotion above the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs. Where there is exploitation of Asian immigrant workers, often there is racial or ethnic discrimination. That was the case in the treatment of Filipina nurses, relegated to lower pay by a nursing home chain in another case brought by the EEOC.

Harassment faced by Asian Pacific people often has to do with irrational racism that stems from past wars or international conflicts. Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese Americans have faced this and, as I mentioned earlier, so also have those from South Asia in recent times. Asian women have also faced incidents of sexual harassment, due often to racial fantasies held by harassers.

Employers need to educate their managers of the problems of racial stereotyping and the importance of overcoming assumptions of what managers should act and look like. Companies are wise that support affinity groups and encourage employees to network and learn new skills. Beyond that, the results of glass ceiling discrimination will never be eliminated without careful monitoring of your results promoting diversity. It is proper and appropriate to set goals and to consider why they have not been met if they aren’t. Strategic diversity programs are essential if companies are serious about overcoming the natural tendency of people to hire and promote those that are most like themselves. Those companies with these “best practices” are always at the top of those advancing diversity and reaping the benefits of our nation’s great complexity.

The EEOC has a critical role to play in serving Asian Pacific Americans and better meeting their needs in fighting discrimination that affects them. When I was at the Commission, serving my own community, while important, was not my only priority. We were establishing new standards on sexual harassment and disability. But what was most necessary for Asian Pacific Americans, was reaching out to the community. Articles, speeches, news reports and multi-lingual outreach make a difference. I was very much impressed by certain offices that did an especially effective job connecting to the communities that they serve. Having these connections makes it easier for people to come forward when they know and trust the agencies that receive their complaints. It makes a difference for government agencies when the leadership cares about it and expects offices to build those relationships.

But more important than that is the enforcement that the EEOC does. All of you know that all of the things that you do, the press is most interested when you bring the strength of the agency against those that discriminate in public. This has never been a large proportion of the cases going through the agency, but it has always been the most visible part of EEOC’s work. Most of you know that I have always been a believer in mediation as an option. I still am. But with Asian Pacific Americans, if they come forward at all, mediation isn’t something they usually need to be encouraged towards. It is more important, in appropriate cases, to urge those with strong cases to pursue their cases to their full conclusion. After the Vietnamese American fishing factory case that I discussed earlier in the Northwest, we saw Vietnamese language papers cover it around the nation. I don’t know that there has been an increase in lawsuits from that community, but I do know, through meetings that I have had in that community that the case, and others, have affected the willingness of many to stand up for justice when they are wronged. This agency is the primary public enforcer of our nation’s job discrimination laws. I urge you to keep providing that enforcement to my community.

Thank you for including Asian Pacific Americans in your discussion here today.

This page was last modified on June 12, 2006.

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