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Chuck Grassley owes Lucy Koh an apology

I don’t care what his intentions were. I don’t care if he thinks what he said was a compliment. It wasn’t.
Image: Chuck Grassley
Ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

President Joe Biden's nomination of the Honorable Lucy H. Koh to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a historic choice. Koh would be the first female Korean American federal circuit judge in the country's history. But to be fair, Koh has been breaking barriers in our judicial system throughout her career.

A brilliant jurist with an unimpeachable record, Koh was welcomed into the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation proceeding Wednesday with this greeting from the committee's ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Quoting his daughter, Grassley said the "Korean people" can make a lot out of nothing." "So I congratulate you and your people," he added.

Taylor Foy, Grassley's communications director, said in a statement that the senator's comments were intended to be "complimentary, not to insult anyone." But the senator from Iowa seems to have confused racial stereotypes, especially the long-standing and racist myth of "model" Asian minorities, with praise.

We've seen this play before.

In 2018, an intelligence analyst was badgered by then-President Donald Trump, who was obsessed with finding out where her "people" were "from." Sound familiar? He also labeled her the "pretty Korean lady" who should have been a part of negotiations with North Korea.

Those who advance these kinds of stereotypes are deliberately creating a false and damaging binary. On one side are the "good" and acceptable minority communities, and on the other are communities deemed inferior. These categories are also created to highlight and praise nonwhite Americans who have sufficiently assimilated into American — read: white — society. This is terrible for minority groups, who find themselves pitted against one another, and it creates a wildly counterproductive cultural dynamic.

After having spent the better part of two years being associated with the "China virus" and dealing with an onslaught of violence, Asian Americans are more politically organized than ever before. We are now the fasting-growing racial or ethnic demographic in the entire electorate. And census data show that Asian American voting turnout increased by more than that of any other racial or ethnic group from the 2016 to the 2020 presidential elections. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll focusing exclusively on the Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community found that 71 percent of AAPI adults blame Trump for the rise in targeted discrimination. Sixty-five percent of respondents said violence was a major threat during the coronavirus pandemic, while more than 60 percent also said discrimination remained a major threat.

Again, Grassley probably thought he was praising Koh. But his words have more power than he knows. And even the implication that one race is superior to the other is a gateway to violence and oppression. That worldview manifests itself in many ways, one of them being through the expression of stereotypes and racist tropes. And it is enabled by language and rhetoric that separates Americans into groups: not the collective we, but my people and your people.

Again, Grassley probably thought he was praising Koh. But his words have more power than he knows.

This is neither here nor there, but Koh was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Mississippi. She is also the child of immigrants; her mother was a refugee who escaped from North Korea, and her father fought against the communist north.

Koh is also certainly a hard worker — you don't graduate from Harvard (twice) or get nominated to the federal judiciary without an incredible work ethic. But when you attribute that work ethic to the countries where her parents were born, you're suggesting her background has as much to do with her success as her actual achievements. (And the idea that any demographic has a monopoly on "hard work" is idiotic.)

And while Koh comes from a family of immigrants, Grassley's comment about immigrants' making something out of nothing is also ridiculous in its own right. Immigrants can work hard, or not. They can come from wealth and privilege, or not. The same is true for white Americans, who are almost all descended from immigrants, anyway.

Chuck Grassley is 88 years old. When he was first elected to the House of Representatives, some communities were still arguing over whether public schools should be desegregated. For much of his life, America was a very, very different place. It is unclear how much his ideas about race have evolved, but this country's certainly have. I don't care what his intentions were. I don't care if he thinks what he said was a compliment. It wasn't. Ideally, this moment would be cause for some reflection — but at minimum, he owes Judge Koh an apology.