Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday congratulated a Korean American judicial nominee for the “hard work ethic” of “you and your people,” invoking a stereotype about Asian Americans.
The 88-year-old senator, who is seeking reelection to another six-year term, praised Lucy Koh, a judge nominated by President Joe Biden to the federal appeals court, during her confirmation hearing.
“What you said about your Korean background reminded me a lot of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years has said: ‘If I’ve learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic. And how you can make a lot out of nothing,'” he said. “So I congratulate you and your people.”
“Thank you,” replied Koh, a district judge for the Northern District of California since 2010. Biden has tapped her to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the senator’s “intent was to be complimentary, not to insult anyone. Chairman [Richard J.] Durbin invited Judge Koh to share the inspiring story of her family’s immigration to the United States. Sen. Grassley shared that he has similarly been inspired by the immigration story of his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean-American.”
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said even if Grassley’s motives were well-intentioned, they came from a place of prejudicial views.
“Even if you think you’re being complimentary, assigning any character trait to an entire community is the definition of prejudice,” she said. “Treating all members of a group as the same invites mistreatment when one person can be held accountable for the actions of someone else. It may not be the same incitement to violence seen in other slurs, but it is harmful nonetheless.”
The idea that Asian Americans are known for having a hard work ethic has come under increased scrutiny over the past few years amid national conversations about racism in America. The concept of “the model minority” suggests that Asian Americans enjoy more professional success than other minority groups — such as Black Americans, Latinos and Native Americans — because of ambition and dedication.
But activists and academics who study the issue have said that the belief that Koreans — or other people of Asian descent — are known for being hard workers erases the real challenges that Asian Americans face that impede them from experiencing the success that many white Americans enjoy. Too often, the “model minority” idea has been used to create division among other groups of color and to justify discrimination against non-Asian people of color such as Black Americans and Latinos, wrote Margaret M. Chin, author of “STUCK: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder.”
“The ‘model minority’ image stratifies non-White racialized groups by pitting the ‘good minorities’ (Asian Americans) against ‘bad minorities’ (Black/African Americans),” Chin and Yung-Yi Diana Pan, a sociology professor at City University of New York-Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, previously wrote for The Washington Post.
“But both communities are systematically deemed divergent from the White cultural norm — or ‘othered.’ Further, this drives a wedge in a long history of cross-racial solidarity between Black and Asian American communities.”