Federal Courts Play a Crucial Role in the Fight for AANHPI Equity and Equality

June 10, 2021

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities have a long and consequential history in the U.S. It is imperative to continue raising awareness of the rise in violence against Asian Americans over the last year and emphasize the role the federal courts play in the fight for racial equality. The term “Asian American” encompasses more than 20 nationalities with distinctive cultures, yet the burden of violence and discrimination against these communities has opened up a much-needed national conversation.

As Asian Americans continue to be falsely blamed for the spread of coronavirus, there have been over 6,600 self-reported racial transgressions against all Asian Americans. Six of the eight people killed during Atlanta’s March 16th mass shooting were Korean American women, and four members of the Sikh community were killed during the April 15th Indianapolis shooting. This unconscionable violence magnifies the fear many Asian Americans constantly feel, and emphasizes an overwhelming lack of knowledge of the history of anti-Asian discrimination. We stand with those who are grieving and join them in demanding the advancement of equity for all people and an end to their persecution.

Why #CourtsMatter

The inequities faced by members of AANHPI communities have become invisible due to our country’s history of exclusion, discrimination, racism, and xenophobia against Asian Americans. We must recognize the pivotal role federal judges have on the lives of AANHPI individuals every single day. For example, birthright citizenship was upheld in U.S. v. Wong Kim, where a Chinese American was denied re-entry to the U.S. The Court ruled that Wong acquired citizenship when he was born in the U.S. and thus should be allowed entry because the Chinese Exclusion Act did not apply to him. Unfortunately, more than 75 years after Fred Korematsu fought for the rights of Japanese Americans after they were forced into internment camps, AANHPI communities are still fighting for racial justice, which includes key issues such as voting rights and linguistic equity.

The Detrimental Impact of Trump’s Judges

Trump shamelessly disparaged communities of color and immigrants during his presidency, and during his unprecedented wave of federal judicial nominations, he chose individuals who have demonstrated their opposition to protecting Asian Americans from injustice. Trump also used words that exacerbated anti-Asian racism throughout the pandemic, causing a spike in anti-Asian hashtags after first tweeting “Chinese virus.” In 2018, a divided U.S. Supreme Court reversed the preliminary injunction on Trump’s Muslim ban, repeating history by upholding a xenophobic immigration policy. Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained in her dissent that the majority “redeployed the same dangerous logic” as Korematsu, by “blindly accepting the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group.”

Trump Judge Kenneth Lee cast the deciding vote in Farrens v. Esper, ruling that Farrens could not pursue his hostile work environment claim even though his supervisor stated that “Asians could not be trusted,” and witnesses testified that she grew agitated when she saw Asian employees working. During his employment, his supervisor increased his workload, ordered his colleagues to see if he “was being honest,” and criticized his work in front of others at staff meetings. Judge Matthew Kennelly, explained in a critical dissent that Farrens had provided sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment and that the discriminatory remarks support a reasonable inference that he was mistreated because of his race.

Another Trump Judge, Nancy Brasel, dismissed a March case that eroded protections from racial discrimination. May Yang worked as an attorney in Minneapolis, and after several incidents, she sued her employer and her co-workers for racial discrimination. Yang is a Hmong from Laos and was the only person of Asian descent working at her office, despite Minnesota having one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Yang’s co-workers made racially charged comments towards her, including referring to her as a “promiscuous person” because of her race, calling her a “ho,” and making other statements because of Yang’s ethnicity. Yang’s supervisor continuously dismissed her concerns Yang bore the consequences for the harassment, including a work suspension. Yang ultimately left the company and filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Despite these facts, Judge Brasel dismissed Yang’s claim and minimized the discrimination by making the baseless suggestion that the actions were motivated by her co-workers “simply not getting along with Yang.”

Progress in the Biden-Harris Administration

We will have to endure the repercussions of Trump judges for decades, but President Biden’s judicial nominations could have a significant influence in the fight for equality. Biden has already nominated several well-qualified members of AANHPI communities to the federal courts, demonstrating his commitment to achieving a diverse and reflective judiciary. These nominations include Tana Lin, Zahid N. Quraishi, Florence Y. Pan, and Regina Rodriguez.

There are other signs of progress. It is equally important to celebrate the achievements of Vice President Harris, who became the first person of South Asian and African descent to become Vice President. The Biden-Harris administration issued a proclamation recommitting to advancing AANHPI equity and recently signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law.

As the fight continues to combat generations of racial injustice and discrimination, the importance of our courts cannot be emphasized enough. Our federal judiciary has the final say on issues that are critical to protecting the rights and interests of AANHPI individuals. If you care about equality and equity for AANHPI communities, you care about the courts. We continue to stand in solidarity with the AANHPI communities.

The nomenclatures “Asian American” and “AANHPI” are used for convenience, consistency, and efficiency in this blog post. It is not intended to minimize the intricacies of ethnicities, cultural and language diversity, and lived experiences of the people who are members of this group.