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A Tipping Point for Asian American Lawyers?

March 19, 2021, 2:50 PM

I don’t know if this is the Come-to-Jesus moment for Asian Americans, but I’ll take it.

Finally, it seems, we’re talking about the racism faced by people of Asian descent. Anti-Asian incidents are now in your face. First, there were those videos of elderly Asians being knocked to the ground, and now horrific details are spilling out about March 16 killings of eight people, including six Asian women, by a 21-year old White man in Atlanta.

You know the issue must be gaining traction because President Biden brought it up at least twice in the space of a week: in his first official speech to the nation, then immediately after news erupted about the Atlanta killings. During his speech, Biden highlighted the “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who’ve been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated” during the pandemic, and added, “it’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”

The attacks have been escalating since the beginning of the pandemic, fueled, some say, by Donald Trump who called the Covid-19 “the China virus” and “Kung flu.” According to a recent report by the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) and Paul Weiss, there were more than 2,500 anti-Asian hate incidents related to Covid-19 nationwide between March and September 2020, and the actual number is likely higher. Some Asian American advocacy groups, such as StopAAPIhate.org, put the most recent figure at more than 3,800.

Asian American lawyers say all this hits home. “I was not shocked by the rise of attacks on Asian Americans,” says Paul Weiss litigation partner Jennifer Wu, one of the report’s co-authors. “When I was growing up in the 1980s, I remember my father hanging an air freshener on the rear view mirror that looked like an American flag, because he didn’t want us to be targeted, adding, “the reality is that anti-Asian hate is not new to this country.”

It’s not new, yet the discussion about race and racism is often framed as a black and white issue in which Asians don’t quite figure. People seem shocked that Asian Americans face prejudice. My central question: will the attacks against Asians recast the race discussion and bury the myths surrounding the model minority?

Speaking as a Chinese American, I’ll gladly put the nail on the coffin of the model minority. That trope—that Asians are strivers who grind away at schools and in jobs to earn their place in America—started off as a compliment to Asian American resilience. It’s awfully old and tiresome. Yet, it still defines the Asian American persona in the popular imagination. It’s the default explanation for why we succeed, fail or otherwise fade into the American fabric. And it’s emerged as the reason why Asians are scapegoated in this country during moments of insecurity such as the pandemic.

It might seem puzzling to attribute the recent assaults against Asians to the model minority myth, but many Asian Americans see the connection immediately. “The model minority myth is that they’re docile, submissive and won’t fight back—which is why they’re easy to pick on or exploit,” says Frank Wu, president of Queens College, City University of New York, and the former chancellor of University of California, Hastings College of Law. “That also makes them the perfect associate—someone who will work really hard and won’t complain, and someone you don’t have to make partner.”

A corollary to the model minority myth is that Asian Americans lack the creds of real Americans—and always will. It doesn’t matter whether they’re born in the U.S.A. or are embodiments of the American Dream. “It’s the perpetual foreigner syndrome,” explains Frank Wu. “You just can’t persuade people you’re American. Civil rights are for citizens, not foreigners, so Asian Americans have no right to complain.”

To be perfectly clear, in the world of Big Law, Asian Americans have made significant strides—at least compared with other minorities. According to the latest diversity report by NALP, Asian American lawyers represent 12.1% of all associates and 4.08% of all partners, while Black lawyers make up 5% and 2.1%, and Latinx lawyers comprise 5.64% and 2.8%, respectively, of those ranks.

But here’s the rub: For all their representation—some say, over representation—in top law schools and Big Law, Asian Americans also have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates, according to a seminal study about Asian Americans in the legal profession by Liu and students at Yale Law School. “Asian Americans have penetrated virtually every sector of the legal profession, but they are significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of law firms, government, and academia,” sums up the study A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law.

“They are honorary Whites, until they’re not,” sums up California Supreme Court Associate Justice Goodwin Liu. “They’re valuable worker bees but invisible when it comes to promotion.”

Being accepted just enough is also why Asian Americans seem sidelined in the race discussion, even though every law firm, company and organization seems to be engaged in corporate soul searching about race these days. And it’s also why some Asian Americans find it awkward to bring up the racism they’ve faced.

“Do people look down on us because we’re Asian? Yes. Do we get less sympathy than other minorities? Yes,” says Mark Mao, the West coast managing partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner. “But I also know it’s because we’re more affluent and have been less involved in other people’s diversity than we should have been.” Though Mao admits, “I’ve always had a lot of issues playing the diversity card,” he adds, “we should use this crisis as an opportunity for solidarity and co-leadership, working together with other groups to fight against prejudice and violence.”

Which brings me back to my original query: Are we at an inflection point where Asian Americans will break free from those myths and stereotypes and become active participants in the race discussion?

You bet, says Frank Wu. “Asian Americans are now fighting back. They’re organized now. People used to say that name calling—Chink, Jap, gook—won’t harm you. But now we see the violence, and it’s coast to coast.”

Justice Liu is more restrained in his enthusiasm. “It’s unusual to have such big environmental changes,” says Liu about the recent violence against Asians, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Donald Trump’s presidency. He says, however, “the trend data shows small changes,” adding it’s too early to tell if those events “will affect Asian Americans’ view of themselves as lawyers and lead to activation of advocacy and an attitudinal shift.” But Liu also see one hopeful sign: the younger generation of Asian American lawyers. “I see it in my law clerks and the students I teach; they’re much more sophisticated about gender and diversity issues,” says Liu. “When I was in law school, we were just grateful to be there.”

Until the Atlanta attacks, Jennifer Wu wasn’t betting that this is the defining moment for Asian Americans. We often forget what Asian Americans have endured through history, she warns, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese from citizenship, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit by two out-of-work white autoworkers.
“It often quickly ebbs,” says Wu about spikes in race consciousness.

But the murders in Atlanta feel different, Wu says: “The fact that there is attention on anti-Asian hate from the media, corporations, law firms and others is a game changer.” Still, she’s cautious: “It remains to be seen whether this movement will result in real change for Asian Americans—both as to the incidents we are seeing in the news and also the casual racism that happens in every day interactions.” She adds, “it’s not enough for Asian Americans to speak out about how we are feeling; it is equally important for all of us to talk about what we as Americans are doing to address these issues.”

Crafting a plan is ambitious; more ambitious is actually putting it to action. Let me propose something more modest as a starter: Acknowledgment that racism against Asians is an American phenomenon. Getting buy-in for that would be almost victory itself.

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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