Treating Powerless Minorities through an Ecosystem Approach

By Chung, Woo Sik; Pardeck, John T. | Adolescence, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Treating Powerless Minorities through an Ecosystem Approach


Chung, Woo Sik, Pardeck, John T., Adolescence


Americans' overwhelming perception of Asian-Americans in general is that they constitute a model minority, are professionally successful, and according to their own cultural notions of health, are well-adjusted both emotionally and mentally (Butterfield, 1990; Doerner, 1985; Michael, 1985). Contrary to this view, many of these youths have exhibited a greater sense of isolation, anxiety, and alienation than did their Anglo-American counterparts (Sue, 1985).

This paper addresses the issue that certain conditions help create a sense of powerlessness observed in the lives of Korean American children, and suggests an ecosystem intervention aimed at their empowerment.

Since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which resulted in the liberalization of entry for non-whites, increasing numbers of immigrants have come to the United States. From all over the world, but especially from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the increase has been significant (Nah, 1993). "The 1990 census noted that these three groups account for at least 40% of the total population increase over the past decade in the United States" (Barringer, 1990). The number of Korean immigrants has increased from 70,000 in 1990 to 799,000 in 1992 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992). It is estimated that there are between 800,000 and 900,000 Korean-Americans with more than 90% foreign born (Awanohara, 1991). About 30,000 South Koreans who are predominantly well-educated are settling in U.S. cities each year (Awanohara, 1991). It seems that Korean immigrants are attracted to self-employment, and it is estimated that perhaps as many as 80% (about 1,300) of all green grocers in the New York tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut), are owned by Koreans. In Los Angeles, which has the largest Korean population outside of Seoul, 40% of Korean men owned their own businesses in 1989 (Awanohara, 1991). Koreans have the highest rate of self-employment of any Asian group, and only Greek-Americans have an equally high rate.

In spite of what appears to be a successful adaptation, there is a considerable related cost, both on a personal and societal level which manifests itself in family discord and stress-related problems.

Koreans tend to be more insular than other minorities. They speak their own language, and many businesses are criticized for having signs written only in "Hang" script, resulting in other groups feeling excluded. It is difficult to determine whether Koreans remain so insular because they are only marginally accepted by the native populate, or whether they are ostracized because they do not assimilate. Perhaps another factor is that it is difficult for certain people to "pass" if they do not look Caucasian; non-whites experience serious social distancing by the primary group (Hurh, 1984; Kim, 1976). This has been true for all ethnic minorities, and Koreans may feel they must keep or even increase their ethnic attachment for security reasons and to maintain their identity. The internment of second generation Japanese-Americans during World War II is a painful reminder of this insecurity. Empirical studies on social distancing have also repeatedly demonstrated that Americans people want even less association with Koreans than with other Asian groups (Bogardus, 1968; Hurh, 1977; Owen, Eisner, & McFaul, 1981). A conspicuous dilemma is the question of ethnic containment or ethnic pluralism - whether to maintain the culture of the country of origin or adapt the new culture, or both.

The first barrier any immigrant faces is language. More successful immigrants have prepared by learning English before moving to the U.S. Thus the pre-migrational condition has to be considered when assessing the probability of successful adaptation. Employment opportunities in particular depend upon pre-migration conditions since the most recent immigrants usually begin at the lowest level, even if they are well educated.

Most Koreans learn about jobs through friends and family - a limiting approach. …

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