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Combating the Model Minority Stereotype

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by Molly Nance

LOS ANGELES

For more than a decade, a group of educational leaders within the University of California system have been working towards a common goal: the development of a statewide think tank that would address the issues of the growing Asian American and Pacific Islander population.

In July, the university system’s Office of Research announced the establishment of the first UC Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Multi-Campus Research Program, headquartered at the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The program’s director, Dr. Paul Ong, a professor of urban planning, social welfare and Asian American studies at UCLA, says such collaborative action is long overdue.

“I think the big change is that until recently the public policy issues for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were second thoughts in term of priorities,” he says. “And clearly with the growing numbers, they bring a different perspective and different set of challenges to public policy.”

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States has grown from 7.3 million in 1990 to 10.6 million in 2000, an increase of 45 percent. Nearly 4 million of them live in California.

The research program comprises 50 faculty members from all 10 UC campuses, bridging an assortment of disciplines including political science, economics, education and urban planning. This compilation of expertise will foster successful policy change, says Dr. Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.

“This program is unique in that it will link together scholars from different disciplines to take a very close and hard look at the Asian American population and do so in a way that will be a public service,” he says.

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Nakanishi says a research program is needed to combat the Asian American “model minority” stereotype and address issues involving health care, educational access, employment and language acquisition.

“In fact, there are significant problems within the Asian population,” he says, using as an example the disparity of income levels among Asian communities.

The research program has already gathered data showing that less than 13 percent of Asian Americans live at or below the poverty line, but as many as 40 percent of Southeast Asian populations – including Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians – live in poverty.

Nakanishi also notes that discrimination against Asian Americans still exists in the corporate and academic worlds.

“There is the issue of diversity within higher education. What you see is a pyramid of Asian American and Pacific Islander decline,” agrees Ong, referring to the proportionally smaller number of Asian administrators compared to professors, and professors compared to students. “Part of the research group is to address what appears to be another glass ceiling in higher education.”

The research program is also working to create solutions for English language learners as the number of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands continues to increase.

“We do have immigrants who have enough command of the English language to become citizens,” says Ong, but he notes that there is a language barrier for more complex tasks, such as understanding a voting ballot or visiting the doctor.

“Health providers don’t speak the same language as the immigrants,” he continues. “In the past, what they’ve done is have their kids be the interpreters, but that places the children in a bad position. There are technical issues that don’t easily translate to a minor, so we think it’s very important for immigrants to have access by having an appropriate language facility.”

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Working with multiple campuses to research public policy issues for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is both advantageous and problematic, says Dr. Andres Jimenez, the executive director of the University of California International Center on Opportunity and Equity.

Jimenez, a member of the executive committee for the program, explains that while there is a great amount of value put on interdisciplinary work and collaborative work among UC campuses, junior faculty participation is sparse.

“The main hurdle is the academic culture and academic rewards. There aren’t enough incentives to work collaboratively until a faculty member is senior or has tenure,” he says.

Ong says another pitfall is simply the distance between campuses. For example, UCLA is located 600 miles away from UC-Davis.

“The real complication is that we are staggered,” he says. Still, “when you deal with policy issues that are complex, with economical, cultural and sociological dimensions, it’s important to look at an issue from multiple perspectives.”

Although the multi-campus research program is based within the UC system and will be a resource for state legislators and community organizations, education leaders, like Nakanishi, Ong and Jimenez, say they would like to see the program develop nationwide in the following years.

“We will establish a base here,” says Ong. “But we’re just getting started.”

– Molly Nance

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