IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Sen. Chuck Grassley congratulates Korean American judicial nominee on 'your people' and their 'work ethic'

The Republican senator from Iowa said in a hearing on U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh's nomination to an appeals court that her story reminded him of what his daughter-in-law, also a Korean American, had said about Koreans.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks during a Senate hearing on Sept. 15, 2021.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a hearing Sept. 15.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, drew criticism Wednesday for comments he made about U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, a Korean American nominee for an appeals court judgeship, in which he described stereotypes about Korean people.

Grassley made the statements at a Judiciary Committee hearing on Koh’s nomination for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He said Koh, who had shared stories of her heritage and her mother’s escape from North Korea during the proceeding, reminded him of something his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean American, had told him about Korean people.

“What you said about your Korean background reminds me a lot of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years said: ‘If I learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic and how you can make a lot out of nothing,'” he said before he congratulated Koh, a U.S. district judge in Northern California, about “you and your people.” 

The comments prompted backlash from many on social media who accused Grassley of invoking the model minority stereotype.

Taylor Foy, Grassley's communications director, said Grassley's comments were intended to be "complimentary, not to insult anyone."

Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., " invited Judge Koh to share the inspiring story of her family’s immigration to the United States," Foy wrote. "Sen. Grassley shared that he has similarly been inspired by the immigration story of his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean-American."

Koh did not reply to a request for comment.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director for policy and civic engagement of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said comments like Grassley’s were “dangerous,” given the damage the model minority stereotype has done to obscure the struggles and challenges of the community. 

“It is not a compliment to say Koreans can make something out of nothing. We don’t survive and make a living to be validated or congratulated by people like Sen. Grassley,” she said.

During the proceeding, Koh, who would make history as the first Korean American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge if she is confirmed, spoke about her immigrant family, calling her mother one of her “heroes.” She told the committee that her mother, who was in attendance, was about 10 years old when she fled North Korea for South Korea in 1946, when such an act was forbidden.

“She and her uncles have basically escaped. It was illegal to leave North Korea,” she said. "That 38th parallel had been established in August, the year before, but it was porous, it was not enforced, so she and her uncles — she was about 10 at the time — walked for two weeks to come ... to freedom in South Korea.”

Koh also shared a bit about her own experiences growing up in Mississippi, attending highly segregated elementary schools. 

Koh thanked Grassley briefly for his comment before the hearing proceeded.

Choimorrow said that instead of invoking stereotypes, Grassley should have listened and acknowledged the sacrifices Koh’s family has made. 

“What he should have said instead is: ‘No one should have to suffer and struggle so hard to survive. I’m so sorry for the ways our country has disrupted the lives of Koreans to make families like yours struggle,’” she said.