Recent reports indicating a lack of racial and gender diversity at major tech companies like Google, Apple, and Yahoo, among others, have rekindled discussion among Asian Americans about a phenomenon known as the bamboo ceiling. The bamboo ceiling is the Asian equivalent of the glass ceiling, that invisible yet all too consequential barrier that prevents women from rising to executive positions in public and private sector employment.
The reason for all the talk is that, while African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are underrepresented in tech sector employment, Asian Americans aren’t. In fact, we’re over-represented.
Asian Americans are 23 percent of the work force at Apple, 34 percent at Google, 41 percent at Facebook, and 57 percent at Yahoo. These are stunning numbers considering Asian Americans are only 5.3 percent of the general U.S. population.
However, our representation at the highest levels of these same companies is far less robust. We’re generally under-represented in management relative to the demographics of the tech workforce being managed. In other words, we’re much more likely to be hired than other people of color, but once hired, we tend to stay stuck in technical positions, basically gloried tradespersons, while white males dominate at the top. Worse, according to the researchers at the American Institute for Economic Research, Asian American tech-sector workers labor under a wage gap.
In 2012, Asians on average made $8,146 less per year than whites in the tech sector, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than those who identified as “other.” So, the story goes, the tech sector is full of Asians, but those Asians still suffer wage inequities and seem to be missing in action at or near the top of these companies, and this in spite of making up such a large percentage of the overall workforce.
It seems that, in general, whether we are laying the tracks for the transcontinental railroad or laying down code for the information superhighway, race continues to function as class for Asians in America.
I know some will argue that Asians enjoy relative privilege in the tech sector, and I agree. We do better than other people of color, and Asian American men certainly do better than women as a group who are both grossly under-represented in the sector and, additionally, earn $6,358 less per year than men. And if you add the relatively low rates of short-term unemployment of Asians, we, at least on the surface, appear to do very well indeed, at least as an aggregate, by which I mean as long as we’re lumped together across ethnic differences and immigration status, geography, language, culture, gender, and class as “Asian.”
But, privileged or not, the story of Asians in the tech sector and in the U.S. is a story about race to which we should be paying special attention. Why? Because from its inception as a justification for native genocide and slavery, race has always functioned as class in America. And today, what we are witnessing in the way of disparities in wealth, education, employment, and lack of social mobility across race is the contemporary legacy of that history.
Race was invented to serve as a form of labor classification in the U.S., the perpetuation of which required the legal exclusion of people of color from public life. In the case of Blacks, it required a general consensus that it was acceptable to class them as commodities. Segregation and historic bans against voting faced by Asians, Blacks, and other people of color in U.S. history weren’t just acts of racial hatred. They were politically necessary to perpetuate race as class in a hierarchy that we now know as white supremacy.
The stereotypes that were invented about us served this hierarchy. They were created or adopted in order to justify white racial dominance, but not just in order for whites to feel superior. White racial dominance allowed elite whites to profit from the exploitation of people of color.
For Asian Americans, the stereotype that justified the way we were treated in the past was the perpetual foreigner trope. As perpetual foreigners, we might be useful workers, but we would never make acceptable citizens worthy of ordinary civil rights. And that meant we could be super-exploited in the American workforce, or excluded any time we were perceived to be threats to white labor.
Today we’ve evolved into the model minority – compliant, stoical, hard working followers; really ideal workers. The trope was popularized order to serve U.S. foreign policy interests in the WWII and Cold War eras, and then was adopted as a foil against Black demands for racial equality during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power.
Being the model minority might explain why we are so over-represented in the tech sector. The Asian model minority is assumed to be good at math and technically adept. We’re supposed to value hard work for its own sake, which leads to the belief that we produce a lot, presumably with precision but without complaint. And if we live up to these characteristics, we become profit centers in the companies that hire us without threatening the security of those at the top.
Profit, by the way, is how exploitation is measured. When measuring degrees of exploitation at work, we must always ask, how much benefit does a worker receive, usually in the form of wages, relative to the value to the company of his/her productivity?
In the case of major tech companies, it’s a fair guess based on the racial demographics of their workforces that Asian Americans are highly desirable workers. Yet, in spite of how much it appears they wish to hire us, we make less than others. In order words, we appear to be a privileged racial class, but at the price of being contained by race as class in a manner that we should all find troubling, not just because of what it means about the exploitation of Asian American tech workers, but because of what this may say about the enduring legacy of the white supremacist racial class system in America fifty-years after the banning of racial codes and legalized segregation.