Wen Ho Lee
Hall of Shame
2/26/01 The New York Times: Public Lives:
Family History Forges Labor Secretary's Convictions "I know what
discrimination is," says Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
JUST weeks into her new job as secretary of labor, Elaine L.
Chao is reluctant to discuss pressing issues she faces, like new safety
regulations meant to reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace. "I'm still
in the process of reviewing them," she said.
Expanding the guest worker
programs elicited a similar response: "That's only a small part of the
question about the major demographic shift coming in the next decades when we
will face a shortage of workers."
But on the question of affirmative action, which touches many
programs her department oversees, Ms. Chao speaks comfortably and expansively.
She favors outreach and access, she said, not racial quotas or numerical goals,
a position that is not only a cornerstone of her political philosophy but also
the essential lesson she has drawn from growing up as a Chinese- American.
"I was very lucky to grow up in a family that believed
in hard work and education," she said, recounting her family's story, which
begins with her parents leaving war-torn China and explodes with success after
success when they reach America. Prosperity for her father's shipping
firm. The honor of five of the six Chao daughters receiving degrees from
Harvard. The fame of the eldest, Elaine, now 47 years old, being appointed to
President Bush's cabinet.
"The American philosophy is equal opportunity for
everyone, but you can't guarantee results," she said. "We are a
As an Asian-American who
believes affirmative action has held back her community rather than helped it,
Ms. Chao believes her family's life is a testimony to the value of rising on
merit and education. "One of my things is to help promote and encourage
workers to get into the practice of lifelong learning," she said.
Her father, James Chao, sailed from Shanghai as an apprentice
merchant seaman in 1949 but never returned after Mao Zedong's forces carried out
the Chinese revolution. Instead he settled in Taiwan, where he met and married
her mother, Ruth, another Chinese refugee. Seven years later James moved to Long
Island, where he worked three jobs to prepare for his family's arrival when
Elaine was 8 years old.
"Growing up with their stories gave me a tremendous
appreciation for the sacrifice of my parents," Ms. Chao said. "The
story of China is one disaster after another."
Once the Chao family settled in America, there were few
disasters except racial discrimination. Speaking no English on her first day at
school, Ms. Chao was accompanied by her father, who instructed her to greet the
teacher. A respectful 8-year-old, she bowed from her waist and heard the
laughter of her schoolmates.
"I know what discrimination is," she said.
Within two years, however, she was elected her class
president. With her father reviewing her work, Ms. Chao rapidly adapted to
American life. "As the eldest, I was a child with a heightened sense of
responsibility," she said.
She earned an economics degree
from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and an M.B.A. from Harvard
Business School. Under President Ronald Reagan she served as deputy maritime
administrator and then chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Under
President George Bush she rose to deputy secretary of the Department of
Transportation and then director of the Peace Corps. After the Republicans lost
the White House, she became president of the United Way of America, reviving the
charity from a scandal with her trademark optimism and hard work.
Then Ms. Chao was recruited to serve on an alumni board for
Harvard. That experience, Ms. Chao said, showed her how Harvard's racial goals
for admission meant that Asian-Americans were held back. Even though
Asian-Americans had the highest test scores and highest grade-point averages,
she said, they had the lowest admission rate because the school did not want to
go over its goals for Asian-Americans.
(In December 2000, when Harvard admitted 1,105 new students
on an early basis for the new freshman class, 18.4 percent were Asian-American,
7.2 percent were Hispanic, 6.1 percent were African-American and 0.8 percent
were Native Americans, according to the school's admissions office.)
"The goal concept means you'll be subject to a higher
standard of achievement for admission," said Ms. Chao, defining the
particular glass ceiling and racial discrimination her community has faced since
Asians first came to this country.
Ms. Chao brought her grievances to the national arena in 1997
during an Oval Office meeting on race relations with President Bill Clinton.
While acknowledging the good intentions of affirmative action, she asked him,
"What happens when good programs in the process hurt other people?"
SHORTLY after Ms. Chao took over the United Way she married
Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and a leading conservative in
His influence could be felt at the Labor Department, where
Ms. Chao has hired his former chief of staff and press secretary to perform
those jobs for her.
"My husband has one of the subtlest political minds in
the country," she said. "I'm interested in finding the best people,
and I can't help it if I'm poaching from his staff."
As one half of Washington's newest power couple, Ms. Chao
says she has learned the price of steady striving and achievement. A few years
ago she became a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in part to slow down the pace
of life and start a family. It didn't work, and she was unable to have child.
"Women think they can order their lives in a sequence,
but sometimes nature doesn't cooperate," she said. "That was an
important lesson for me."