The Problem With Time Magazine’s New Take on Asian-Americans in Tech

By Julianne Hing Oct 20, 2014

Why do people of Asian descent make up 34 percent of Facebook’s technical staff but only 19 percent of the company’s leaders? At Yahoo! the discrepancy is larger–Asians comprise 57 percent of the company’s technical staff but just 17 percent of its leadership. And why are 60 percent of LinkedIn’s technical employees Asian but only 28 percent of its leaders Asian?

Despite considerable effort from Time magazine’s Jack Linshi, his article "The Real Problem When It Comes to Diversity and Asian-Americans" doesn’t do much to sort that out.

Linshi’s article, which appeared online on October 14, seeks to explore a real employment issue–the seemingly invisible barriers that stifle Asians’ advancement into upper tiers of corporate life. But instead of investigating the matter directly, he trips over broad generalities about Asians and Asian-Americans and reproduces the confusion that so many journalists display when attempting to discuss Asian-Americans. In the absence of testimony from tech executives, hiring managers and people who’ve been stifled by the so-called bamboo ceiling, Linshi attempts to explain its role in the Asian tech worker-executive gap by relying on a simplistic reading of tech sector statistics and more damaging misinterpretations of the model minority stereotype and affirmative action.

Linshi opens his article referencing his own publication’s now-infamous 1987 cover story announcing the arrival of Asian-American "whiz kids." That cover image is often used as Exhibit A in discussions of the prevalence of the model minority stereotype, which portrays Asian-Americans as uniformly hard-working and high-achieving nerds who need little in the way of support, academic, professional or otherwise. Linshi’s 2014 update is ostensibly about the lasting power of that myth and its impact on perceptions of Asian-Americans in the tech industry, but he only ever lays the two phenomena side by side, implying rather than substantiating a causal relationship. Ultimately he extends Time’s nearly three decade-long streak of getting it sloppily wrong about Asian-Americans.

He sets up his argument with a powerful quote from Virginia Kee: "If you try to navigate the human part of it, we are seeing, as yellow people, our stereotypes still existing in the heads of many people. We don’t get the chance to really go through and break the glass ceiling." But Kee is not a tech-sector worker, and neither does Linshi describe her as someone who was snubbed for an executive promotion. She is an 83-year-old founder of a New York City Chinese-American social services agency and a former high school teacher whose distinguishing characteristic, in Linshi’s eyes, is that she was featured in Time’s "Whiz Kids" cover story. Linshi’s first mistake was in looking to a reviled 27-year-old story as a reporting map and going no further than those sources.

Linshi uses as his hook tech companies’ slow summer reveal of their staff demographics. The headline-grabbers were the sector’s uneven gender and racial demographics: for example, just 17 percent of Google’s technical staffers are women, 2 percent are black, and 3 percent are Latino. (For a point of reference, blacks are 13.2 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 17.1 percent. Women are 50.8 percent.) According to Linshi, the ensuing public conversation ignored what he calls "the discrepancy between the high percentage of Asian tech employees and the disproportionately low percentage of Asian leaders."

Linshi’s right about the discrepancy and that relative lack of discussion. But he interprets the "silence" as "say[ing] this: Asians and Asian-Americans are smart and successful, so hiring or promoting them does not count as encouraging diversity. It says: there is no such thing as underrepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans."

It’s a provocative point. But he doesn’t fill that silence with meaningful context or stories of actual tech-sector workers’ personal experiences. Instead, Linshi posits that this modern-day exclusion of Asians from the diversity discourse fits in with a history of negligence beginning in 1965, when the nation functionally repealed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to exclude immigration on the basis of race.

I’d argue something a little different. People who shape the dominant political narrative in this country–politicians, pundits, media–have little use for substantive conversation about any group of non-white people unless it’s to uphold, in stark terms, notions of black inferiority and white supremacy. To that end, Asians have actually been the subject of quite a lot of public fascination, mainly as props used to denigrate blacks and Latinos and programs designed to support them and other people of color–including segments of the Asian-American population. All too often, Asians are willing to play along.

Let’s take a look at just the last few years. Abigail Fisher, the white plaintiff who sought to challenge the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policies in 2012, peppered her Supreme Court brief with nearly two dozen mentions of Asian-Americans to attempt to show that people of color are hurt by affirmative action, Reuters reported. In 2011, and then again this year, Amy Chua brought hard-ass Asian parenting and bigoted beliefs of inherent Asian superiority to the fore with two books. Both were New York Times bestsellers and the topic of quite a bit of public conversation. (If only a belief in one’s cultural supremacy were enough to eradicate racism.) When the Pew Research Center released its comprehensive report on Asian-Americans in 2012, it borrowed Chua’s invented "tiger parenting" phrasing to paint a portrait of Asians in the U.S. as overwhelmingly happy, hard-working, well-educated and high-achieving. Never mind that that’s not the reality

Linshi’s outlook fits in among these examples. Asian-Americans are being punished for, in Linshi’s words, their own "visible success, with numbers to prove it." The model minority stereotype’s stronghold on the public imagination "began to mean [Asians] should be excluded from inclusionary practices like affirmative action. More severely, Asian-Americans were seen as a hindrance to diversity," Linshi writes. So much so that in 1987, Yat-Pang Au’s parents filed a complaint with the Department of Justice charging that affirmative action policies at U.C. Berkeley discriminated against their son. Two years later, Au got in. Today, he is the CEO of a San Francisco-based investment company. Still, Linshi uses Au’s claim of victimhood, and in the process reveals the deepest weakness of his article. He opines about the lack of fair representation even as he argues against affirmative action. 

Linshi can be forgiven for confusing affirmative action for a diversity promotion mechanism. After all, the legal debate has constrained the vocabulary affirmative action proponents can use to defend race-conscious admissions. Affirmative action, which was conceived as a small and imperfect Band-Aid to rectify the enduring legacy of racism, is today spoken of, even by its advocates, as a program that will promote diversity and therefore enrich the educational experiences of white students on campus. What Linshi misses, though, is that Asian-Americans have benefitted from affirmative action in public contracting, employment and education. To this day, some Asian-Americans–namely people of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong descent, who have some of the lowest college-going rates in the nation–need and would benefit from affirmative action. 

"Today, it appears that Asians and Asian-Americans still pose a threat to diversity," Linshi writes, adding, "The previous year, an Associated Press article reported that many Asian-Americans were no longer checking off the ‘Asian’ box on college applications, in order to circumvent unspoken quotas at top colleges. Their threat to diversity is so convincing that Asians and Asian-Americans have begun to offer what is, at its core, an inadvertent apology." Withholding information about your race on college applications is not an apology, it’s a racial calculus in the cutthroat, zero-sum game of elite higher education admissions.

Asian-Americans are only a "threat" to diversity in a world where we forget that white supremacy and anti-blackness are twin founding values of this nation that continue to be the central organizing principles of life in contemporary America. Asian-Americans are subjected to the model minority myth, and yet also reap the social, cultural and economic benefits of not being seen as black.

According to Linshi, Asians no longer count when tallying up who’s being left behind in the current tech industry boom. But he doesn’t make a convincing case that they’ve ever been left behind–or at least, not in the way he says they are. What seems to be true across the board for the tech companies that shared their demographic data is that Asians make up large percentages of tech workers, but make up smaller portions of those in leadership ranks (though we can’t know about Cisco–as they only bother to publicly classify their employees as white and "other").

Yet Asians happen to have an outsized presence in the tech industry compared to their presence in the country. At Google, for example, Asians make up 34 percent of the company’s technical positions and 23 percent of its leadership. Asian-Americans, the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., are 5.3 percent of the U.S. population. What’s more, Asians make up a larger portion of technical sector workers (from 23 percent at Apple to 60 percent at LinkedIn) compared to even their representation among the ranks of those awarded computer science degrees from U.S. institutions. According to the 2012-2013 Computer Research Association Taulbee Survey (PDF), 18.4 percent of those who graduated with computer science degrees in 2012 were of Asian descent.

What Linshi doesn’t explore is that company statistics lump together Asian-Americans and H-1B holders, highly skilled foreign workers recruited for three- to six-year visas. As Jeff Yang wrote for CNN earlier this year, more than 40 percent of H-1B visa holders are Asian, and the bulk of these visas serve the tech industry. Those demographics could go some way toward explaining another issue ripe for discussion–the Asian tech wage gap. As Lakshmi Gandhi reported for NBC, Asian tech workers made $8,146 less than white tech workers in 2012, and $3,656 less than black tech workers. 

In other words, it’s plenty complex, but Linshi is too busy being angry at the "diversity" conversation to make it that far. Linshi explains the model minority stereotype capably but ends up buying into it, frowning that, in his mind, Asians are not yet seeing the dividends of "Asian success." 

In the end, Linshi’s article reads more like an extended whine for Asian-Americans who’ve bought into model minority-buttressed myths of white supremacy but wake up from entitled slumber surprised to find themselves stifled by it.