Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley Invokes Model Minority Myth, Tells Judicial Nominee Lucy Koh He Supports ‘Her People’ and ‘Their Work Ethic’

Even though he has had a Korean American daughter-in-law for more than four decades, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (who, at 88, is the oldest member of the Senate) still doesn’t appear to know how to avoid using racist or otherwise harmful language while at the Capitol.

Kimmy Yam of NBC News reported that Grassley “drew criticism Wednesday, Oct. 6, for comments he made about Lucy Koh, a Korean American judicial nominee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in which he described stereotypes about Korean people.”

According to Yam, “Grassley made the statements during Koh’s nomination hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said that Koh, who had shared stories during the proceeding of her heritage and her mother’s escape from North Korea, reminded him of what his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean American, had told him about Korean people.”

While addressing Koh, Grassley said, “What you said about your Korean background reminds me a lot of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years said, ‘If I learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic, and how you can make a lot out of nothing.”

Grassley then went on to praise Koh, the U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California, congratulating “you and your people.”

Social media and progressive members in media were immediately appalled by Grassley’s word choice and his invoking of the model minority stereotype.

In a statement, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of policy and civic engagement for the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said the types of comments Grassley had made were “dangerous,” especially in our current political climate. She also called these types of comments out for the way they obscure and hide the struggles and challenges thousands of AAPI community members endure on a daily basis. 

“It is not a compliment to say Koreans can make something out of nothing,” Choimorrow said. “We don’t survive and make a living to be validated or congratulated by people like Sen. Grassley.”

She then added that instead of invoking stereotypes, Grassley should have simply listened to her story and then graciously acknowledged the numerous sacrifices Koh’s family had made on the way to her potential judicial appointment. During her testimony, Koh detailed her immigrant family’s struggles; how her mother had fled North Korea for South Korea at the age of 10 in 1946; and her own experiences attending highly segregated schools while growing up in Mississippi.

“What [Grassley] should have said instead is, ‘No one should have to suffer and struggle so hard to survive, I’m so sorry for the ways our country has disrupted the lives of Koreans to make families like yours struggle,’” Choimorrow said.

For their part, Grassley’s camp insists the senator’s comments were intended to be “complimentary” and not meant to “insult” anyone.

“Chairman Durbin invited Judge Koh to share the inspiring story of her family’s immigration to the United States,” said Taylor Foy, Grassley’s communications director. “Sen. Grassley shared that he has similarly been inspired by the immigration story of his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean-American.”

“Koh did not return NBC News‘ request for comment,” Yam said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Koh would become the first Korean American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge in U.S. history.

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