Wall Street’s Overlooked Minority Is Waiting to Be Heard

From the outside looking in, her Wall Street CV seems impeccable: Columbia, Princeton, Salomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch and, finally, a top job at JPMorgan.

None of that protected Joyce Chang from encountering hate in her daily life.

One moment, she was taking in Chinatown, just north of New York’s Financial District. The next, racist slurs were being hurled at her from a passing car.

Wall Street’s Overlooked Minority Is Waiting to Be Heard

The ugliness of the past year — the racism in the streets, the waves of anti-Asian violence, the deadly shooting rampage in the Atlanta area — have lit fires of fear among the nation’s almost 23 million people of Asian descent.

But the events have also carried a special resonance on Wall Street, where powerful institutions are confronting one reckoning after another over race and inequality — and where Asian Americans often occupy an uncomfortable middle ground. 

On one level, they face many of the same hurdles as other minorities in the mostly White, mostly male world of finance. There are the everyday slights, the racist jokes, the crass stereotypes, the missed opportunities, the stunted careers — all with the gnawing knowledge that almost no one at the very top looks like you. The challenges are particularly formidable for Asian-American women. 

‘Model Minority’

But here’s a key difference: On Wall Street, Asian Americans are sometimes stereotyped as a “model minority” because of their economic success as a group. They can also seem like forgotten minorities or, sometimes, not even minorities at all. “Honorary whites” is one term. That is particularly so next to their Black and Latinx colleagues, who are statistically even less represented in upper management and, to some Asian Americans, appear to be the main focus of belated efforts on diversity and inclusion.

Granted, the catchall “Asian American,” coined in the 1960s as a phrase of empowerment, is overly broad. The roughly 5.9% of Americans who identify as people of Asian ancestry aren’t a monolithic group. They comprise a multitude of ethnic groups and cultures, as well as stark economic realities: Asian Americans, often viewed in elite circles as more advantaged than disadvantaged, have the largest income inequality within any racial community in the U.S.

On Wall Street, the presence of highly educated, well-paid Asian Americans can mask the issues of racism and economic disparities that exist in broader society.

Speaking Out

Interviews with more than 20 Asian Americans working in U.S. finance, in positions ranging from analyst to managing director, suggest this broad, diverse group is now united in its anxiety and fear. Many feel angry. Others betrayed or overlooked. More and more are speaking out.

“We need to break the silence,” Chang wrote in a March 26 internal blog post at JPMorgan Chase & Co., where she is chair of global research. She urged her colleagues to talk about the contradictory stereotypes of Asian Americans being perceived as a group to be feared at the same time as being labeled “silent, invisible achievers.” 

At the heart of this story are numbers. The fact is, Asian Americans make up a greater percentage of finance workers than Black or Latinx people. The total workforces of the six biggest U.S. banks average 15.5% Asian American, 15% Hispanic or Latino, and 10.3% African American. 

Yet at a time when Kamala Harris became the first Indian American and Black person to be elected vice president, and Andrew Yang, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, is running for mayor of New York, no Asian American runs a top five U.S. bank. Among companies in the S&P 500, fewer than 1% of all CEOs in recent years have been of East Asian descent. 

Across the six largest U.S. lenders, the proportion of Asian Americans in executive or senior management roles ranges from 7% to almost 19%, even though they comprise an average 23% of middle managers and professionals. Greater strides have been made in areas like private equity: the head of Carlyle Group Inc., Kewsong Lee, is Korean American, as is KKR & Co. Co-President Joe Bae.

But U.S. asset-management firms that are actually owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, like the ones owned by Black Americans and women, manage only a small fraction of all the money out there — just 0.7% of the total, according to research published in December by the Association of Asian American Investment Managers. 

Major banks and investment firms say they strive to treat everyone equally and recruit and promote diverse workforces. Many have publicly condemned the racism and violence directed at Asian Americans, much the way they’ve issued support for Black Americans. Banks including Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan and Bank of America Corp. have condemned anti-Asian racism in recent weeks. So has the Business Roundtable, a group representing chief executive officers of major U.S. companies.

But the anxiety is palpable among rank-and-file workers and executives of Asian ancestry. 

“It's been gut-wrenching,’’ said Ida Liu, global head of private banking at Citigroup.

Wall Street’s Overlooked Minority Is Waiting to Be Heard

Like Chang at JPMorgan, Liu said she’s had a stranger shout racist slurs at her on a New York City street. Up in Boston, Jane Li, an equity analyst at Zevin Asset Management, makes sure to be aware of her surroundings after several run-ins with people yelling anti-Asian remarks at her in a grocery store and in South Station. One banker has bought pepper spray. Another has taken to wearing a hat and sunglasses, in addition to the now ubiquitous Covid-19 mask, in order to hide her ethnicity.

A new sense of dread is descending as more finance professionals prepare to return to their offices after the long pandemic lockdown. Asian-American women, in particular, are speaking out about the racism and sexism that has blighted their careers for years. Many are asking if anything will change. Various racist stereotypes — “Dragon Lady” is one — can sometimes prevent Asian women from climbing the corporate ranks, according to Ascend, a pan-Asian professional association. “Tiger Mom” is a more recent addition to the lexicon.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Binna Kim, president of financial-communications agency Vested, told of how men at industry events have made her uncomfortable time and again with comments like “Asian women are sexy.” 

Others, worried about jeopardizing their careers by being quoted, told private stories of insults and abuse. One spoke of lewd remarks — an offensive line from “Full Metal Jacket,” the Vietnam war film, for example. Another of belittling shouts of “hello” in various Asian languages.

Dark History

Recently, the new fears of Asian Americans — just the latest entry in the nation’s dark history of anti-Asian bias — reached the highest office in the land. After his predecessor repeatedly blamed an entire ethnic group for the Covid-19 pandemic, President Joe Biden named a White House liaison to the Asian-American Pacific Islander community. The Senate this week passed a bill to address hate crimes directed at Asian Americans.

Wall Street’s Overlooked Minority Is Waiting to Be Heard

Chris Bae, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America, wonders if Wall Street is listening.

“I’ve been on a lot of diversity and inclusion panels in my career, and I can tell you, in my 23 years on Wall Street, I’ve never had a management committee meeting, a senior leadership meeting, business meeting where we sat around the table and said, ‘How do we get more Asians promoted, how do we get more Asians in the C-suite?’” said Bae, head of investment strategy at UBS Asset Management, a division of the big Swiss bank. “That’s not a conversation I’ve ever had.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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