Asian Americans Spurn Image as Model Minority Perceived as Always Successful, These Americans in Fact Battle Poverty and Discrimination, Activists Say

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IN north Chicago's heavily Asian Uptown neighborhood, Southeast Asian immigrants are going to jail for crimes they didn't commit because they lack the English-language skills to defend themselves, according to an Asian-American policeman who works in the area.

In south Chicago ghettos, Korean-American merchants are shaken by looting, vandalism, and the specter of an outbreak of anti-Korean violence similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. They are joining a growing exodus of thousands of Koreans from the United States, says In Chul Choi, a Korean-American activist.

In the glittering "Loop" of Chicago's downtown, Asian-American lawyers and other professionals say their career advancement is limited by subtle yet potent racial stereotypes and resentment over their perceived success.

In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities, Asian Americans face widespread discrimination and, in some areas, a growing incidence of hate crimes, according to government reports and Asian-American advocacy groups.

Increasingly, such problems are leading Asian Americans to challenge the widely held image of themselves as the most affluent, readily assimilated, "model" minority group in the US. The "model" minority image is not only oversimplified and misleading, they say, but damaging to the efforts of Asians to gain equal treatment in US society.

"Being labeled a model minority is more a curse than a blessing for Asian Americans," Nancy Chen, of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, told a conference in May in Chicago on civil rights issues facing Asian Americans.

"{It} ignores those in our community who have not advanced and ignores the barriers we face," said Ms. Chen, who directs US Sen. Paul Simon's Chicago office.

As the fastest-growing minority group in the US, many Asian Americans are concerned that prejudice against them will rise as their numbers and visibility increase. The Asian-American population reached 7.3 million in 1990 and is projected to expand to as many as 20 million by 2020, the US Census Bureau projects. Mainstream politics

They are an increasingly foreign-born, diverse mixture of Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, and members of other ethnic groups.

To protect their rights, Asian-American activists are working to mobilize their communities to participate in mainstream politics. Still, they say they are hampered by their relatively small numbers, low voter registration, and the power of larger minority groups to dominate redistricting battles. Deep ethnic schisms within the Asian community also hinder activism.

Contrary to the stereotype of the highly educated, affluent Asian professional, Asian Americans occupy a wide economic spectrum and suffer discrimination at all levels of society, according to 1990 census data and a recent report by the Los Angeles-based Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP).

While Asian Americans on average are wealthier than African Americans or Latinos, their per capita income is lower than that of whites. Asian male workers are better educated but earn less on average than their white counterparts, according to the LEAP report.

Moreover, some 14 percent of all Asian-American households - and a quarter of recent Asian immigrants who arrived between 1985 and 1990 - are poor, with incomes below $10,000 a year. More than 1 million Asian Americans have little or no English-speaking ability and less than a high school education.

The worst-off group is the Southeast Asians, mainly refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Nearly half of them live in households with annual incomes of less than $10,000.

In Chicago, most Southeast Asians live in ethnic enclaves that offer a sense of security but often leave them trapped in low-wage jobs with limited opportunities to improve their skills and English ability. …