Michael Lowe Wu was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is committed to fighting for those stuck in the criminal justice system and will be spending his summer interning with the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender.
Several months ago, Margaret E. Montoya, the first Latina admitted to Harvard Law School and a law professor at the University of New Mexico, came to UC Davis School of Law as a special speaker. Within minutes of taking to the floor, she had the audience engaged in a fascinating discussion on race, ethnicity, language, and identity in the legal profession. She ended with a passionate plea, urging the students in attendance to recognize the embarrassing lack of diversity in the legal field and to hold on to their individual identities as they prepared to enter it. It was a truly inspirational speech.
Yet, as moved as I was by her presentation, the event was titled "Latina/o Identity in the Legal Profession," was held during Cesar Chavez Week, and was organized by the La Raza Law Student Association. She made her message applicable to all of us, but her words were especially directed at the Latina/o students in the audience. As a public-interest oriented, Asian American law student, I came away from the event asking myself, "Where are all the similarly fired-up Asian Americans and why don't I know who they are?" I've come to several conclusions.
Although Asian Americans in law school are in the best position to know and understand the history of discrimination that our predecessors have suffered, for many of these students, there is no personal connection to that history. I admit that I am one of them, having been born in this country, raised in a middle-class family, and never subjected to blatant racism. However, Asians have endured a long history of racism and discrimination in this country. (Remember the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Angel Island, and the Japanese American Internment?) Our generation is at risk of forgetting this history and foregoing progress if we do not vigilantly protect the legacies and retell the stories of those that came before us.
This year, California celebrated the first ever Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution in honor of the civil rights icon who challenged the legality of Japanese internment and eventually achieved vindication for his people. However, the purpose behind this commemoration was not just to honor Fred Korematsu. It was to remind us of the principles of equality and freedom that Fred stood for and to inspire us all to finish the work that Fred and so many others started. We have been given an occasion to celebrate the countless Asian American leaders that, along with Fred, have been champions for civil rights. Yuri Kochiyama, Richard Aoki, Ronald Takaki and many others were prominent leaders during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, contemporaries such as Bill Tamayo, Sumi Cho, Julie Su, and Angela Chan carry the banner and continue to inspire young people to join in. These passionate, outspoken Asian American civil rights leaders are out there in our communities, we just need to care enough to look to them for inspiration and bravely join their ranks.
At times, I find myself growing discouraged by the apathy and indifference I sometimes see in Asian American law students. But I know that there is still hope. I truly believe that a person can successfully transition from indifference, to awareness, and eventually to a genuine understanding of the role that they can play in furthering the causes of justice. Not everyone is meant to work in a non-profit as a die-hard, civil-rights attorney and activist. However, every student privileged enough to be in law school has a duty to recognize the progress that still needs to be made and actively seek out opportunities to contribute. Our predecessors started a movement. It is now our job to join in and continue it.