1998 APABA LA Inaugural Reception
Keynote Speech by Prof. Jerry Kang, UCLA School of Law
Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County
Nov. 6, 1998
It is with great humility and appreciation that I stand before you tonight to help celebrate this momentous occasion. As lawyers practicing in Los Angeles, at the twilight of the 20th century, we lead hard lives. The profession demands much of us, so much that we often forget to recognize moments of significance in the history of our communities. That is why I am so thankful that we are able to convene here, tonight to acknowledge this moment in space and time.
What draws us here together, tonight? In one sense, it is the confluence of two separate forces: one of chance, the other of choice. By “chance,” I mean to the fact that we happen to be Asian Pacific Americans. Through some combination of what we look like (our morphology) and who our parents are (our ancestry), society has inscribed onto us, onto our bodies, racial identities — the identity of Asian Pacific American. We cannot really choose our morphology — even in Los Angeles, the capital of cosmetic surgery. We cannot really choose our ancestry. Our race, thus, is a fact given to us by chance.
By “choice,” I mean to talk about the decision we have all made to become attorneys. Through some combination of native talents, industriousness, and sometimes heroic imagination, we have become attorneys who practice, teach, govern, lead, and adjudicate. We have chosen this profession notwithstanding the stereotypes of Asian Pacific Americans being only good with numbers or computers. We are lawyers, who work not with numbers or technologies but with words, employed to the benefit of our clients, our communities, in the vindication of legal rights and the pursuit of social justice.
What lies at the nexus between chance and choice, between Asian Pacific America and the law? History reveals a powerful dialectic between Asian Pacific America and the law. Each has shaped the other in profound ways. The story starts in the mid 19th century, with the first wave of Asian immigration arriving on the shores of California and Hawaii. These were Chinese immigrants, mostly men, drawn by the promise of Gold Mountain and jobs on sugar plantations and railroad construction sites. When their labor was needed, they were welcomed — or at least tolerated. But soon, they were outcast as unfair competition, and by the end of that century, America slam the door shut. In cases rarely taught in our law schools, litigants such as Chae Chan Ping and Fong Yue Ting lost in the Supreme Court, which affirmed the federal government’s plenary power to shut our doors to immigrants America found offensive because of their race, their inability to assimilate, their degraded status.
The story continues into the 20th century, with Asian Pacific Americans being treated as second class aliens. One cannot say second-class citizens because Asians were not allowed to naturalize until the 1940s and 50s. We were not “free White persons” as the naturalization statute required. Even those classified as “Caucasian,” according to the pseudo-science of the times, did not qualify if they did not look White. That was the lesson learned by an Asian Indian named Thind denied naturalization by the Supreme Court in 1923. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Asian Pacific Americans suffered under a regime of de jure and de facto discrimination in the most basic pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. We could not run businesses, as cities applied regulations with an uneven hand to close our laundries. We could not own property, as Western states passed alien land laws to shut down competition from our farms. We could not study and learn in good schools, as states forced us into separate (and not so equal) schools, under the authority of Plessy v. Ferguson. We could not marry those we loved because the state did not want an impure mixing of blood. And of course, we cannot forget the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, in which 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, two-thirds United States citizens (mostly small children), were interned on the basis of their race. This is not something of the distant past: The internment ended only 50 years ago.
Law’s profound impact on Asian Pacific America continues today. Consider the plight of Americans of Southeast Asian descent, whose communities have been configured by a complicated constellation of immigration and refugee policy, welfare reform, and society’s inability to counter neighborhood resentment and vicious hate crimes. Consider the struggle of Filipino veterans, who have used both law and politics to try to shame the United States into satisfying its once golden promises. Consider sa-i-gu, the 1992 burning of Los Angeles, and the wails of Korean merchants who saw their universe torched before their eyes in the shocking absence of law enforcement.
But our story is not a story only of victimhood. As much as the law has changed us, we have changed the law. We have done so as litigants and lawyers, creating landmark precedents that have vindicated the Civil Rights of all Americans. We have done so as academics and judges, critiquing and interpreting the law to better serve justice. We have done so as elected officials and community activists, many who have been trained in the law, to forge alliances across ethnicities, races, and even ideologies, to better the state of our communities.
This work is not easy. And the work is not made any easier given the differences among us. It is facile to assume that we, as Asian Pacific Americans, all agree on matters of significance. There are political divisions among us — some of us are Republican, some of us are Democrats. There are ethnic divisions among us, as any history of our ancestors demonstrates. Nevertheless, there are deep ties that bind us together, at the nexus of chance and choice.
I want to conclude by revisiting what I called the confluence of two forces, one of chance, the other of choice. To be sure, our morphology and ancestry are matters of “chance.” They cannot be changed. However, the meaning that we and society project onto that combination of morphology and ancestry is up to choice. For instance, we can choose, within certain constraints, to reject any identity but that of human being or American. We can choose to accept only an ethnic identity, such as Korean American. We can choose, in addition, to accept a racial identity, such as Asian Pacific American. We can even choose to accept an identity that links all racial minorities, and become a person of color.
Viewed in this light, the creation of this pan Asian bar is an act of collective choice. It is not a rejection of ethnic identity and ethnic community. Both choices are hardly mutually exclusive. Instead, this bar is a recognition that to get things done in this society, we need to seek out similarities in values, experiences, goals; forge alliances on the basis of these similarities; and translate alliance into action. So, in this sense, perhaps the forces of chance are also the forces of choice.
Reflexively, perhaps the forces of choice are the forces of chance. Perhaps we did not become lawyers by an isolated, existential exercise of free will. Perhaps we became lawyers only because that possibility was opened to us by trailblazers, who came before us; by the Civil Rights movement, which opened up the opportunities of women and men regardless of their color; by our families who gave us support and a reason to care.
We come here tonight, to celebrate the founding of Asian Pacific American bar association of Los Angeles. We come here riding the force vectors of chance and choice. Each of us embodies who is both Asian Pacific American and a lawyer embodies the whorl that is that nexus. Rightfully, we celebrate this achievement, which recognizes how powerfully law has molded the demographics and life possibilities of our communities and how important those trained in the law had been in making sure that molding has been done right and just.
As I said, it is difficult to recognize moments of significance in the daily grind of our lives. But this surely is one such moment. It is also one we recognize and celebrate. This bar has been a long time coming. It is about time.