Seasoned Republican Senator Chuck Grassley representing the state of Iowa was criticized after he made a congratulatory remark to Lucy Koh, a United States District Judge for the Northern District of California, who was nominated by the Biden administration for the federal circuit judge as the first female Korean American in the country’s history. Senator Grassley greeted Koh by saying, “Koreans have strong work ethics.”
According to The Washington Post, Grassley congratulated Koh at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation proceeding. “What you said about your ethnic background reminds me of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years has said: ‘If I learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic and how you can make a lot out of nothing. So I congratulate you and your people,” said Grassley. Koh thanked the senator afterward. At the confirmation proceeding, Koh said that her mother, a North Korean refugee, went through a lot of difficulties when she first came to the United States in the 1970s.
The senator’s remark immediately provoked harsh criticism. A California Democrat Congresswoman and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Judy Chu wrote on her Twitter account, “Even as a compliment, assigning any trait to a whole community is the definition of prejudice. Treating all members of a group as the same invites mistreatment.” The Asian Americans Advancing Justice Affiliation, a civil rights nonprofit organization, also joined in the criticism by issuing a statement that said, “Stereotypes, even seemingly benign ones, ultimately harm and create divisions within communities.” Grassley’s spokesperson rebutted in a statement later issued, saying, “[The senator’s] intent was to be complimentary, not to insult anyone. Sen. Grassley intended to share that he has similarly been inspired by the immigration story of his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean-American.”
The Washington Post pointed out that racial stereotypes that Asian-Americans are hard working people are associated with the so-called “Model Minority” concept, which reinforces the racist myth that Asian-Americans are more likely to succeed and more conforming compared to other minority groups, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. It further commented that the “Model Minority” myth not only fuels racial divides among non-white population but also can be used as a justification to assuage Asian-Americans when they are discriminated against— that they are “in better position than other minority groups.”