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Asian-American 'Visibility' Is Not the Whole Story

By Elaine Kim
Posted November 17, 1999

Walking through Sproul Plaza at midday, one could easily conclude -- and many do -- that Asian Americans, because we are so visible, have no reason to feel marginal at Berkeley.

Indeed, the campus has become predominantly Asian and white in terms of undergraduate students. The Asian-American undergraduate population has grown by more than ten times since I was a student here 30 years ago.

The Asian-American presence among today's campus undergrads can be traced partially to Proposition 209 -- which is threatening to decimate diversity at Berkeley -- but mostly to the enormous increase in California's Asian-American population since federal racial immigration quotas were changed in 1965.

When I was tenured in 1981 -- the only woman of color to receive tenure that year -- 98 percent of tenured professors at Berkeley were white and male.

Aggressive affirmative action measures and new faculty hiring policies enacted in the late 1980s and early '90s made a dent in the old statistics. This was true especially for white women faculty, but also for Asian Americans -- whose percentage among faculty increased from less than four percent in 1976 to nine percent this year.

Do these figures mean that Asian Americans are moving from margin to center? It depends on your perspective.

Viewed in relation to Asian-American population increases, or the percentage of Asian-American students on campus, there is a serious imbalance: Asian Americans make up about 40 percent of the undergraduate student population, but we comprise only 6.8 percent of the tenured faculty and only 3 percent of academic administrators.

Meanwhile, whites make up 35 percent of the undergraduate student body, but comprise more than 87.4 percent of the tenured faculty and 90 percent of campus's academic administrators.

Among staff, our numbers have increased mostly in the lower tiers, especially in maintenance and food service. Asian-Americans are much better represented in the clerical and middle manager ranks than at higher levels, and those in higher levels are mostly clustered in information technology.

In most ways, Asian-Americans are doing better than other people of color, but much worse than whites, in the UC Berkeley pyramid. We are concentrated with other "minority groups" at the base, which makes our marginality not much different in substance from what it was before the dramatic growth in Asian-American communities.

How does the future look? The push for faculty from underrepresented groups, which occurred in the early to mid-1990s, dissipated after the passage of Proposition 209. Today there is no longer a serious, centralized, rewarded effort to recruit and hire faculty of color, including Asian Americans, whether in science (where we were traditionally more likely to be situated) or in humanities and social sciences (where we have traditionally been underrepresented).

No Asian Americans are currently in policy-making administrative positions at Berkeley. And the possibility that Asian Americans will be better represented on the faculty and in administration in the future doesn't look good, since despite all those highly visible Asian-American undergraduates, enrollment of Asian-American graduate students has been falling since Proposition 209.

Asian Americans at Berkeley may no longer be invisible, but in terms of consequence, in terms of being positioned to help determine the future, we remain marginalized.

Some geneticists back in the 1930s claimed that Asian people are "mimetic" rather than "original" or "creative," and are therefore best suited for carrying out other people's orders and ideas.

Even today, Asian Americans are invisible to some people because of old notions about us as perpetual foreigners or hard-working imitators with no leadership potential. It's time to recognize and make room for talent and ability from everyone, including Asian Americans.

For Asian Americans, it's important to raise our consciousness, build our networks and cultivate our leadership abilities. As neither black nor white, we are uniquely positioned to appreciate complexity. We can use the wisdom that our unique position affords us to work toward change that will help make Berkeley a better place not just for Asian Americans, but for all Berkeleyans -- a place of fairness, equality of opportunity and genuine diversity.

Elaine Kim is a professor of Asian-American and ethnic studies. This opinion piece is excerpted from her keynote address at a recent conference on the changing status of Asian Pacific Americans at Berkeley.



November 17 - 23, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 15)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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