The Genie is Out of the Bottle

by Sandra Yamate

We’ve always had some rabble-rousing, don’t-take-any-s**t, types within the Asian American legal community. Often, they’ve not only used their legal skills and abilities for the benefit of individuals within our community but for the community at large. But putting aside the Model Minority Myth, which suggests that we, as a community, by dint of our hard work and self-discipline, have achieved a degree of educational, economic, and social success that other minority groups could also attain if they would simply apply themselves as we Asians have, ours is a community where a good many of us have indeed been very fortunate. One consequence has been that we haven’t perceived ourselves as needing the kind of legal and civil rights advocacy and social justice leadership of other communities of color. A great many Asian American attorneys could afford to become complacent: “Oh, sure, we have less fortunate segments of our community who have needed help battling housing and employment discrimination, social services, and criminal justice. But there are organizations addressing that.” And other groups facing similar or worse? “Not our problem.”

Or so these lawyers thought. Indeed, for many Asian American lawyers, we could blissfully (relatively) go about our jobs in the world’s largest law firms and corporate law departments, the halls of legal academia and prestigious governmental agencies, all the while without feeling a need to do more than perhaps serve on the board of a community organization, or write a check to one of the Asian legal advocacy organizations, or turn up at the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (“NAPABA”) Convention where we could always expect to enjoy a lively presentation or three during which some of the more prominent civil rights lawyers and judges amongst us relive old glories and share war stories that have passed into the annals of Asian American legal history.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And with it came efforts to lay blame for the economic devastation, social destruction, and death left in its wake on us. “Us” as in us Asian Americans. As reported by major news media outlets, following close upon the heels of the arrival of coronavirus has been a surge in anti-Asian/anti-immigrant violence and hate crimes. Deep-seated fears of the Yellow Peril – the vague and ominous fear that Asians, regardless of nationality or national origin, are a vast and menacing nameless and faceless horde, poised to exploit any weakness or opening to the detriment of white people – have surfaced yet again. And Asian Americans are suffering for it . . . yet again. Some 30% of Americans report having witnessed people of Asian descent getting blamed for the pandemic. That the perpetrators of these incidents are not discerning enough to distinguish between people of different Asian ethnicities is scant comfort. Deflection is an unsatisfactory reaction that fails to challenge the wrongness of the attack. After all, the idea is not to deflect the attacks but to stop them.

Yet could it be that there is a silver lining in this? For the first time, we are starting to see greater activism on the part of Asian Americans whose day jobs have nothing to do with social justice or civil rights. Asian American lawyers are suddenly not only encouraging but insisting that their law firms undertake programming aimed at educating others in the firm and clients about prejudice, discrimination, and violence directed toward Asian Americans and others. We see them openly sharing their own experiences with implicit bias and racism, experiences not only personal but organizational and systemic. We’re hearing them speak publicly about the discrimination they’ve endured and that directed against their families and friends. These stories range from the over-abundant queries about their origins – “No, where are you really from?” – and “praise” for their command of English to backhanded compliments used to explain their exclusion – “But you’re so good at researching and writing briefs, we can let someone else argue the motion!” – to biased assumptions about their practice interests – “Your credentials and pedigree are so impressive but sadly we haven’t much Pacific Rim work” – and competency – “You look so young and we need someone who can project the right level of gravitas” – to incidents marginalizing the value of their diversity – “Our company is trying to support minority lawyers but you Asians don’t need it.” And that’s just for starters.

For the first time, there appears to be a critical mass of previously quiet Asian American lawyers willing to speak about, confront, and challenge the bias and racism they are experiencing both as individuals and as part of a larger community throughout educational, health, legal, economic, and other structures in our society.

And it’s not just those who practice in law firms. Asian American in-house lawyers find themselves invited to – and accepting with the approval of their employers – opportunities to speak on programs that have nothing to do with their substantive area of practice or the ubiquitous “how to position your firm to get business from us,” and everything to do with race, justice, equity, and law through an Asian American lens. Since the start of the pandemic lockdown, I have lost track of the number of large law firms in which an Asian American lawyer(s) has spearheaded web-based programming, sometimes just for the firm, but often for the firm and its clients, to explore and discuss topics such as:

  • Hate Crimes and Anti-Immigrant Violence
  • Systemic Racism and Racial Discrimination in the Legal Profession
  • Social Justice in a Post-Pandemic Profession

For those who have not grown up or lived within the Asian American community, this may not seem like a big deal. African American lawyer friends and colleagues are frequently engaged in, participating at, or at least attending the wealth of programs law firms and other employers present during Black History Month. Women lawyers are visibly vested in Women’s History Month programs. LGBTQ+ lawyers promote PRIDE and straight allies. And so it goes for each group that falls under the diversity tent.

But for Asian Americans, this represents a huge shift, both in terms of how we think about ourselves and how we’re choosing to present ourselves and our communities. This isn’t presenting our history – although Mainstream America knows much less about Asian American history and the Asian American experience than that of other racial/ethnic groups – or showcasing those among us who have attained exceptional success in the legal profession. This is about us, today and every day, and things we barely share with each other, much less discuss with others who aren’t part of the safety circle of NAPABA or the South Asian Bar Association (“SABA”) or other internally-focused Asian American groups. This is about opening up and sharing our fears and frustrations, our vulnerabilities and self-criticisms, and our deepest hopes and dreams. It’s about owning the realization that going along doesn’t automatically mean we get along. It’s about acknowledging that we can’t have it both ways with the Model Minority Myth: bemoaning the stereotypes and limitations it places upon us, all the while feeling a sort of pride and taking advantage of the benefits and privileges it confers, rarely acknowledging that it is, first and foremost, a tool that drives a wedge between other communities of color and our own. In doing so, it’s about finally moving out from behind the “protection” of the Model Minority Myth: for all that it gives, it always takes away more.

The reactions of Asian Americans to all of this gives me great hope: For the first time, I am seeing a multitude of Asian American lawyers beyond the usual suspects finding their voices about being Asian American and using those voices, for themselves and others. And they are feeling empowered by it in a way that those practicing in the private sector have rarely, if ever, felt. I can’t wait to see what they do next!

The genie is out of the bottle.