Hirose: Senators’ Statements Exploit Racial Fears

Posted June 13, 2011 at 8:07pm

For good and ill, we should not soon forget May 2011, the Asian Pacific American community’s recent heritage month.

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal acknowledged the Justice Department’s complicity in withholding evidence from the U.S. Supreme Court while defending the internment of Japanese-Americans. As the child of U.S.-born parents interned during World War II, I can attest to the profound significance of this long-overdue admission and what it says about the harm that occurs when minority groups are denied their status as “real” Americans.

We also saw the historic confirmation of U.S. District Judge Edward Chen. After waiting nearly two years, Chen became the first Asian Pacific American on the federal bench in San Francisco. Nationwide there are now 14 active Article III judges (out of 875 judges) who are Asian Pacific American — an all-time high.

But our community also suffered a major setback last month. Senate Republicans voted to filibuster California law professor Goodwin Liu’s nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, employing a tactic that they had previously forsworn as unconstitutional. Liu, a brilliant scholar, former Supreme Court clerk and Rhodes Scholar who had strong backing from conservatives such as Ken Starr, would have been only the second Asian Pacific American in active service on the federal appellate bench (out of 179 circuit court judges).

Whatever one’s views about Liu’s nomination, two incidents in the Senate debate were particularly disturbing for their racial undertones.

First, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, gave a speech on the floor disagreeing with Liu on the proper balance between free enterprise and regulation. In his commentary, Grassley asked, “Does [Liu] think we are the Communist-run China?  That the government runs everything?”  After decrying the Chinese system, Grassley said Liu believes “if you get government more involved like they do in China, it’s somehow a better place.”

Intentional or not, this language was unfortunate. Asian Pacific Americans such as Liu, who was born and educated in America and has given valuable service to our nation, still struggle with the false perception among some that we harbor foreign sympathies and are less than fully American. Accusing Liu of endorsing Chinese communism reinforces that unfair perception.

Compare Grassley’s remarks to the recent debate over the confirmation of U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell. McConnell, a successful trial lawyer, was alleged to be such an enemy of American capitalism that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a rare move, opposed his confirmation. Many Republicans, including Grassley, spoke against him. But there was no allusion to “Communist-run China” or the like.

Moreover, Liu’s parents emigrated from Taiwan, not communist China. They sought the freedoms that we cherish, and at his confirmation hearings, Liu spoke eloquently about the profound appreciation for America that his parents’ experience instilled in him. To suggest that Liu is a Chinese communist sympathizer dishonors that legacy.

The second incident involved Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who did not filibuster Liu but gave a speech opposing his confirmation. Webb criticized Liu at length for supporting affirmative action while allegedly ignoring poor whites who have faced “many generations of hardship and strife.” According to Webb, “We do ourselves an enormous injustice by turning a blind eye to the wide variance among white cultures as we discuss greater representation from different minority groups. For all of his emphasis on diversity programs, I do not see anywhere that Mr. Liu understands this vital point.”

But in a 2002 article on affirmative action in higher education, Liu wrote that “us[ing] racial preferences as a means of enhancing educational diversity runs the risk of stereotyping white applicants” and that this risk “raises valid constitutional concerns.” Liu illustrated the point by highlighting Jennifer Gratz and Cheryl Hopwood, two white students who challenged affirmative action policies. Gratz, he noted, “came from a working-class home where neither parent had finished college,” and Hopwood was “the mother of a severely disabled child [and] applied to law school at age twenty-eight after working all through high school and then putting herself through [college].” Liu lamented that “elite schools traditionally have not sought out applicants with the social, educational, or economic profile of Gratz’s family or Hopwood’s.”

Liu tackled this issue again in a 2004 article showing that elite colleges generally admit students from wealthy families to the detriment of poor and working-class whites. He urged top universities to make “a conscious policy choice” to admit more “highly qualified students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Webb’s depiction of Liu as an advocate for racial minorities to the exclusion of disadvantaged whites is belied by Liu’s record of concern for all disadvantaged individuals, regardless of race. Further, the idea that Liu, whose wife is from a modest Irish Catholic family in Maine, is “blind” to “the wide variance among white cultures” simply has no merit.

We deserve better from our leaders than misleading statements that have the effect of exploiting racial fears or negative stereotypes. Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality, including the milestones we celebrated last month, and continuing that progress is a hope that all of us, as Americans, earnestly share.

Paul O. Hirose is president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.