Goal IX Newsletter

Winter 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

Are Asian Americans Ready to Confront Criminal Justice: Marian M. Yim

“Can they do that?”

It took someone like Wen Ho Lee to get Asian Americans to ask that question about due process and criminal justice. For two years, the Los Alamos “spy” scandal has been the focus of rallies, editorials, symposiums, conferences, online discussions, and letter-writing campaigns. There is a sense of fear, outrage, and confusion in the Asian Pacific American (APA) community, as we ponder questions about racial bias in the legal system.

Marian M. Yim

Dr. Lee, a scientist, was imprisoned under charges of mishandling government secrets, held in solitary confinement for nearly a year based on exaggerated claims of national security, tried in the media as a “spy,” and then released in a cooperation agreement with the government after pleading to one minor charge. The federal judge presiding over the case apologized to Dr. Lee for unjustified harsh treatment.

What makes Lee’s case different, from the APA perspective? For one thing, he personifies the APA version of the American Dream. As an immigrant who became a naturalized citizen and distinguished scientist, Dr. Lee represents the idealized cultural norm. He reminds us of our dads and uncles—even if our dad ran a grocery instead of a nuclear lab. As a “typical” APA, his experience shattered the belief that if we work hard and get a good education, we will be immune from racial discrimination and injustice. We learned that education does not keep you from being targeted as a suspect based on race. It does not protect you from public humiliation. It does not exempt you from being held in solitary confinement and deprived of food and a familiar language, or from being chained and shackled. Dismayed APA parents are now asking: “What do we tell our kids now?”

The second disturbing aspect of the case is the reminder that, to Western eyes, we will always look foreign. It saddens us to think that our neighbors and co-workers mistrust us or see us as a threat, because people who feel threatened can be dangerous. Early Asian immigrants learned to avoid contact with the American justice system. In the Western states, the “authorities” often harassed, murdered, or ran out of town the early Asian immigrants. They were found unfit to serve on juries or to testify against whites. During World War II, thousands of Japanese American families were arbitrarily sent to internment camps in the name of national security. We wonder if these things could happen again.

Finally, the Lee case is important because it breaks through a wall of silence. Whether because of pride or a sense of helplessness, many APA victims of racism and discrimination have suffered in silence in schools, workplaces, and communities throughout the country. This silence contributes to the illusion that APAs are seldom victims of racial violence or discrimination. Reports of anti-Asian violence have risen dramatically in the last year. The massive community support for Dr. Lee, whom many perceive to be a victim, has reduced the stigma of victimhood for those who felt ashamed to complain.

Now that this case has penetrated the facade of security in middle-class Asian America, there is a motivated audience hungry for information about how the American justice system works. It wants to know how to end “racial profiling.” It wants to know what to say when pulled over for a traffic stop or the FBI comes to call, and where to report hate crimes. It wants to know who makes the decisions about our liberty.

As lawyers, we can help find answers to these questions. The national, state, and local bars should seize this opportunity to add new intellectual capital to the shared goal of equal justice for all. In addition to recruiting more APAs to the profession, the bar should invite APA nonlawyers in universities, scientific organizations, churches, and community organizations to sit on law enforcement citizen advisory panels and commissions. Bar leaders should also go into the communities and facilitate law-related education. We will all benefit from fresh perspectives on justice for the diverse America of the twenty-first century.

Marian M. Yim is a staff attorney for the Arizona Supreme Court, and the Year 2000 recipient of the Arizona State Bar's Committee on Minorities and Women award for advancing equal opportunity in the legal profession. She is an officer of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). The opinions in this article are the author's alone, and not issued by NAPABA.