A professor who urged Asian-Americans to boycott national weapons labs to protest the treatment of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee is close to calling off the action in exchange for promised workplace changes.
Ling-Chi Wang said Tuesday he is prepared to start a recruiting drive if the agreement to change hiring practices and improve working conditions, now pending before officials in Washington, is finalized.
“I think the labs realized they had a real serious problem,” said Wang, director of Asian-American studies at UC Berkeley.
Wang initiated the boycott two years ago in response to the firing of Lee from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Taiwan, was arrested in December 1999 on suspicion of spying for China and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging he transferred nuclear weapons information to portable computer tapes.
Although he denied passing secrets and was never charged with espionage, he was held in solitary confinement for nine months. After the government’s case fell apart, Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count of downloading sensitive material and was freed in September 2000. The judge in the case apologized to Lee.
After Lee was fired, Asian scientists at the national labs reported an increase in what they perceived to be racist incidents, ranging from cutting remarks to denied promotions. The Lee case also proved a platform for long-buried resentments over how Asian-Americans are treated and paid at the labs.
It was difficult to determine how many scientists may have shunned the labs because of the boycott, which was endorsed by Asian-Pacific Americans in Higher Education and the Association of Asian American Studies.
A number of Asian employees left the labs and officials reported fewer applications from Asian graduate students, but administrators said it was possible outside factors, such as the dot-com boom, played a role.
“It’s clear that the boycott did happen. It is not clear to me what effect it had,” said Jeff Garberson, spokesman for the University of California, which runs the Los Alamos and Livermore national laboratories under contract to the Energy Department. The nation’s third weapons lab, Sandia National Laboratory, also in New Mexico, is run by Lockheed-Martin.
Some Asian-Americans opposed the boycott, saying prejudice should be fought, not fled. Still, the public disavowal was certainly an embarrassment for lab officials.
“A sign of reconciliation is very welcome,” Garberson said.
The boycott hasn’t officially been called off and Wang said it won’t be until lab and federal officials sign off on the new plan that, among other things, addresses increasing promotion and research opportunities for Asian-Americans and all other minorities at the labs.
At Los Alamos, for instance, there are three Asian-Americans in top management positions now, compared to none five years ago.
Wang said he’s encouraged that lab officials have been looking into the treatment of Asian-American workers and also have made some promotions in recent months.
“I take these to be positive signs,” Wang said.
The agreement has been sent to the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Energy Department, which oversees the labs.
Concerns about how minority lab employees are treated have not gone away. A class-action suit charging women are paid less is pending against Livermore and another suit claims Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are paid less than whites.
“I am really looking for fundamental changes of the lab for all employees,” said Wang. “The easiest thing for the lab to do is to promote people. The hardest thing is to change the culture within the lab, the way they view Asian-Americans and treat Asian-Americans.”