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A 'Glass Ceiling' of Misperceptions

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 1995; Page A01

Richard Lopez, 29, a fourth-generation Mexican American businessman from San Bernardino, Calif., grew up in what he called a "Brady Bunch" suburb, and learned Spanish only to communicate with his great-grandmother. He is mystified when Hispanic newcomers complain of discrimination and angry when whites assume he needed special help to move up in American society.

"Nobody ever put a roadblock in front of me. I earned my way into college, and it offended me when people asked if I was receiving affirmative action," he said in a telephone interview. "I think a lot of the whining about discrimination is blown out of proportion. The biggest thing holding a lot of Mexicans back here is their resentment against those who succeed."

Ray Chin, 46, an insurance agent in New York's Chinatown, spent his teenage years washing bathrooms and delivering groceries in the city after his parents fled communist China in the 1950s. Today he has earned the stature that often leads Asian Americans to be called the "model minority," a phrase he views as more curse than compliment.

"Yes, we can successfully join the mainstream, but once we reach a certain level, we're stifled by that glass ceiling," Chin said amid the din of a crowded Chinese restaurant. "People think we Asians can take care of ourselves, and they don't see the need to help us. But it's not true. We are still not included in things, and we have to work three times harder to get to the same level as our co-workers."

No matter how much personal success they achieve, Hispanics and Asian Americans say they must fight stereotypes that can undermine their confidence or limit their potential. Whether "negative" or "positive" -- the lazy, welfare-dependent Hispanic or the shy, technically oriented Asian American – such perceptions can be equally harmful and unfair, members of both groups say.

Worse, they say, is that ethnic minorities in the United States sometimes come to accept others' stereotypes about them, even when the facts and their experiences do not support those biases. For that reason, they may remain extremely sensitive to discrimination even when they have matched or surpassed white Americans in income and education.

Such contradictions – both in the views of other Americans toward Hispanics and Asian Americans and, at times, in the views of those groups about themselves – appeared throughout a nationwide telephone poll of 1,970 people conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Yet there is also enormous diversity of opinion and experience within these two ethnic categories, other surveys and interviews show. The perceptions of Hispanics and Asian Americans about their opportunities and obstacles vary dramatically depending on their class, community and country of origin.

"It's very misleading to talk about the views of whites versus the views of minority groups like Latinos, because you cannot assume commonality within those groups at all," said Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin. He said it was crucial to know what language people speak, where they were born and how long they had been in the United States to accurately assess their views.

In a recent nationwide survey of 1,600 Hispanics by the Tomas Rivera Center in Claremont, Calif., for example, 71 percent of Hispanics from Central America said they believe that U.S. society discriminates against Hispanics, but only 42 percent of Cuban Americans agreed. Just over half of Mexican American respondents, by far the largest group of Hispanics in the United States, shared that view.

Poverty rates vary widely within both the Hispanic and Asian American communities, often depending on when, and from what country, members emigrated. In Los Angeles, unemployment is only 4 percent among Korean Americans, who flocked to the United States in the 1960s, but it is 21 percent among newly arrived Cambodian refugees. In New York, 32 percent of Dominican Americans are poor, but only 11 percent of Colombian Americans are.

For Hispanics or Asian Americans who live in the cocoon of urban ethnic enclaves, it may take a foray into other regions to make them appreciate the prejudice faced by others. Juan Santiago, 30, an office manager in the Bronx, N.Y., whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said he never experienced discrimination growing up in his heavily Dominican neighborhood. Then he went out to New Mexico as a foreman on a construction job.

"All the workers were Mexican, and the white owners had no respect for them. The work was very hard, the pay was very low, and there was no overtime," he recounted. "They tried to exploit me, too, but I knew my rights and I wouldn't let them. Until then, I never really understood what discrimination was."

But life inside ethnic ghettos also can confine and isolate, discouraging immigrants from joining American society at large and reinforcing others' misperceptions about them. In interviews, many foreign-born Hispanics and Asian Americans said they cling to immigrant communities, speaking to bosses and salesclerks in their native tongues and rarely meeting white Americans.

Yu Hui Chang, 35, a waitress in lower Manhattan, N.Y., said she and her husband work 12 hours a day in Chinese restaurants and rarely see their young son. Speaking through an interpreter in the cramped office of a Chinatown labor union, the Shanghai-born woman said she felt trapped in her community but is determined to succeed in her new country.

"It is very hard to be a woman in Chinatown," said Chang, who emigrated in 1982. "My life is nothing but working, working all the time. In China, I thought America was full of gold, and I still have the dream of taking that gold back home, but I can never save any."

Like Chang, the great majority of Asian Americans and Hispanics who responded to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll said they believe strongly in the American dream, but 46 percent of Asian Americans and 55 percent of Hispanics said they are farther from achieving it than they were a decade ago.

Both groups singled out hard work and family unity as keys to success here, and both singled out the same major obstacles: lack of good jobs, crime and violence, high taxes and the gap between their incomes and the rising cost of living. All agreed that learning English is crucial.

"You have to learn the language of the enemy to survive," said Juan Garcia, a Dominican-born man who manages a discount clothing shop in Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic section of Manhattan. "I've been here 13 years and my English is still poor, so I can't always defend myself," he added in Spanish, describing his humiliation at being turned away from a fast-food counter when he could not explain his order.

Nonetheless, Garcia said he would not want to give up the comforts of American life. His son, 16, is studying computers and dreams of becoming a doctor. "Once you become civilized, you don't want to go back to a village with no lights or running water," he said.

Nationwide, the poll suggested that Asian Americans as a group think they have done much better economically than Hispanics think they have done. Asians Americans also have a far more optimistic view of their chances for success. Eighty-four percent of Asian Americans guessed that the average Asian American is at least as well off as the average white American, and 58 percent said they have the same or better chance of becoming wealthy.

Hispanics, on the other hand, tended to be more pessimistic and to believe others' critical views of them. In the poll, 74 percent of Hispanics said the average Hispanic is worse off than the average white, and 41 percent cited low motivation and unwillingness to work as a reason for their lack of advancement. Yet studies show that Hispanics have an unusually high level of participation in the work force.

"We are very susceptible to what others think about us, so we absorb those negative stereotypes in defiance of the facts," said Cecilia Munoz, Washington director of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. A 1994 survey by the council found that Hispanics have been most often depicted on TV and in films as "poor, of low status, lazy, deceptive, and criminals."

In the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll, only one-quarter of white Americans cited unwillingness to work as a major obstacle for Hispanics; many more agreed with Hispanics that language problems and lack of educational opportunities are their biggest problems. In assessing the status of Asian Americans, whites cited only language difficulties as a major problem, suggesting that whites believe that Asian Americans face fewer barriers than Hispanics face.

More Hispanics said they thought they face the most discrimination as a group, but despite their relative economic success, more Asian Americans said they and their relatives and friends had experienced prejudice personally.

A majority of both groups agreed that minorities should work their way up without special government help but also insisted that government should protect their rights, for example by enacting tougher laws against workplace discrimination. And in interviews, many Hispanics and Asian Americans expressed deep concerns about a rising tide of anti-immigrant feeling.

Some specialists said the recent political furor over illegal immigrants has exacerbated a false impression that hordes of foreigners are arriving on U.S. shores. In the poll, the respondents guessed that 65 percent of Hispanics in the United States were born in foreign countries. According to the National Council of La Raza, only 33 percent of Hispanics were born in foreign countries.

"I see many Latinos trying to distance themselves from their roots as they react to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment," said Harry Pachon, who directs the Tomas Rivera Center. "But I keep asking, how does an Anglo driving down the street pick out which Latino is native-born, which is a refugee, which is undocumented?"

In other ways, the poll suggested that most respondents are not especially hostile to either ethnic minority. Three-quarters said it "wouldn't make much difference" to the country if the number of Hispanics or Asian Americans were to increase significantly. Less than one-quarter said it would be a "bad thing" if either group were to grow a lot.

Yet the perception of growing xenophobia has created tensions between foreign-born and more established Hispanics and Asian Americans. Even in a community such as Jackson Heights, in Queens, N.Y., where Korean, Cuban, Vietnamese and Colombian immigrants live in tolerant proximity, second-generation residents expressed concern in interviews that illiterate or illegal newcomers are creating a negative image of all ethnic minorities.

"People have this idea that we are coming here in industrial quantities to invade America or go on welfare. The truth is that most of us were born here, we are working hard or going to school," said Mario Vargas, 22, a college student whose parents emigrated from Colombia. "But these days, the stereotypes are making it harder for the rest of us."


The Complexity of Diversity

"I'm feeling bad. Who do they think put up the signs {written in English} in my store?"

"I'm too old to dream," Tran says. The couple's hopes center on their son, David, 21, a student at Northern Virginia Community College.

"About nine years ago, I stopped wearing the sari. It was the only thing I could control." She has always felt like an outsider in the predominantly white, male engineering world.

"People think we Asians can take care of ourselves, and they don't see the need to help us. But it's not true. We are still not included in things, and we have to work three times harder to get to the same level as our co-workers."


This survey is the first of several polls that The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University are planning over the coming year to measure the ways that information -- and misinformation – shapes how people think.

Representatives of the three sponsors worked closely to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results on which this series of stories is based. The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation with Harvard University are publishing independent summaries of the survey findings; each organization bears sole responsibility for work that appears under its name. The Post and the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors research into health care and other public policy issues, paid the survey expenses. The survey data will be sent later this year to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, where computer tapes will be available.

A total of 1,970 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone in August and September, including 802 whites, 474 blacks, 352 Asian Americans and 252 Hispanics. Other respondents declined to identify their race. The survey was conducted by Chilton Research of Radnor, Pa.

The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margins of sampling error for the subsamples ranged from 4 percentage points for the white subsample to 7 percentage points for the Hispanic subsample. Sampling error is one of many potential sources of error in public opinion polls.


Poll respondents were given a list of things some people have mentioned as reasons for the economic and social problems that some Hispanics and Asian Americans face today and were asked if each one is a major reason for those problems. Is this a major reason for Hispanics' problems?

              Hispanics:  Whites:  Blacks: Asians:
Lack of jobs     68%        42%     14%     53%
difficulties     66%        56%     59%     59%
Lack of
opportunities    51%        46%     63%     53%
Breakup of the
Hispanic family  45%        28%     38%     22%
Past and present
discrimination   43%        31%     58%     29%
Lack of motivation
and an unwillingness
to work hard     41%        25%     19%     32%

Those polled were asked the same question about Asians: Is this a major reason for Asians' problems?

              Hispanics:  Whites:  Blacks: Asians:
difficulties     44%        44%     52%     37%
Lack of jobs     34%        31%     46%     43%
Past and present
discrimination   20%        24%     41%     31%
Lack of
opportunities    17%        18%     31%     31%
Breakup of the
Asian family     14%        16%     27%     35%
Lack of motivation
and an unwillingness
to work hard     10%        22%     23%     20%

Polling data comes from a survey of 1,970 randomly selected adults interviewed in August and September, including 802 whites, 474 blacks, 352 Asian Americans and 252 Hispanics. The minority groups were oversampled to obtain large enough subsamples to analyze reliably. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margins of sampling error for the four subsamples ranged from 4 percentage points for the white subsample to 7 percentage points for the Hispanic subsample. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in public opinion polls.

SOURCES: Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University survey

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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