HIGHLAND PARK, MICH. -- Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, escalating his long-running battle with Japanese car companies, is forging an alliance with American civil rights groups in a bid to pressure the Japanese to end what he and the groups contend are racially motivated hiring practices at Japanese U.S. car operations.
Iacocca's move this week seems likely to touch off a firestorm of debate over Japanese business relations with blacks in the United States, particularly in the wake of recent comments from Japan's justice minister, Seiroku Kajiyama, who compared blacks with prostitutes.
Kajiyama last month apologized for his remarks, but Iacocca said in an interview here this week that the minister's comments and the plant-location policies of Japanese car companies in America bespeak racial bias.
Iacocca said that he intends to work with the NAACP and other civil rights groups to highlight discriminatory practices by Japanese companies in the United States.
Iacocca charges that Japan's major car companies have purposely located their U.S. manufacturing facilities in rural areas to avoid hiring blacks and other minorities who more often live in urban areas.
While declining comment on Iacocca's remarks, several Japanese auto industry officials said that they are as committed to equal employment opportunity as their American competitors.
"We've been very active in the African-American community," said Jim Tetherow, spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. He said Toyota is supporting minority scholarship and job internship programs in the United States, and is underwriting a number of other education projects to sensitize Japanese to dealing with black businesses.
There are seven major Japanese auto plants in the United States, all located in rural areas and mostly in the Midwest and South.
Most of Chrysler's plants are located in urban areas, and blacks and other minorities represent 26 percent of its hourly work force, Iacocca said. Blacks and other minorities constitute nearly 35 percent of Chrysler's U.S. white-collar workers.
An estimated 23 percent of General Motors Corp.'s hourly workers are black and other minorities, and 15 percent of GM's U.S. administrative workers are black and other minorities, according to reports by the company filed with the federal government.
Blacks and Hispanics represent 20.5 percent of Ford Motor Co.'s work force. About 9.1 percent of Ford's black and other minority employees are executives and managers.
Similar information for Japanese automakers is difficult to obtain, largely because foreign businesses operating in the United States are not governed by the employment reporting rules that apply to American companies. But research by the Congressional Black Caucus indicates that Japanese automakers as a group employ a relatively small number of blacks and other minorities, often less than 5 percent of their work forces.
Chris Miller, spokeswoman for the Subaru-Isuzu Automotive plant in Tippecanoe County, Ind., said that her company is working diligently to attract black and minority employees in an area where they are 3.7 percent of the population. An estimated 4.1 percent of the plant's workers are black and other minorities, she said.
Of the 3,470 employees at Toyota's assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., 12.7 percent are black, according to Tetherow.
By locating their U.S. plants in mostly rural areas, the Japanese are saying to their American competitors: "Whatever problems you have in your big cities, you keep them," Iacocca said.
His comments found enthusiastic agreement among NAACP officials and the officers of other national black groups, such as the Washington-based Black Business Council.
"It doesn't take a terrible amount of scrutiny to see that, just by where they are currently located, if there was no intentional decision to avoid blacks, there clearly was a lack of sensitivity to the racial issue" on the part of Japanese car companies, said Albert L. Nellum, president of the Black Business Council.
Nellum and other black leaders said the perceived insensitivity among Japanese businesses, coupled with racially derogatory slips of the tongue by Japanese politicians, could jeopardize Japan's $7 billion share of black America's $300 billion in disposable income.
The 24-member Congressional Black Caucus is planning to launch hearings in January to explore allegations of racial discrimination in Japanese companies doing business in the United States.
Iacocca said that his latest charges against the Japanese constituted no racial bias on his part.
"I am not dumping on the Japanese; I am not anti-Japanese," said Iacocca, whose company has had extensive dealings with Japanese firms, including a joint venture with Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to build cars and trucks in Normal, Ill. Over the past 10 years, Iacocca has accused the Japanese of shutting American companies out of Japan while building up auto market share and other businesses in the United States.
Earlier this year, in a controversial round of television commercials, Iacocca said that his cars and trucks were every bit as good as those made by Japanese companies, but that Americans, laboring under conventional wisdom that Japanese products are inherently superior, were not giving U.S.-made products a fair shake.