By Mandy Lee
Earlier this month, I learned of the popular movie, A Time to Kill, based on the John Grisham novel by the same name. Set in Mississippi in the 1980s, it entails, partly, a white man who defends a black man accused of killing the men accused of raping and killing the latter’s young daughter. “It is a gold collection movie for lawyers!” a student, a prosecutor in her home country, described the film. Our English conversation group’s discussion revolved around the issues of closing arguments in American courtrooms, the roles of the judge and jury in determining guilt, and race.
“What do you learn about U.S. history, society, culture in school? When you’re learning English?” I looked from one Zoom square to the next, foreign-trained lawyers enrolled in Chicago-Kent’s LLM program. Downcast eyes and silence stared back at me. One spoke up – “What we see in movies.” The others murmured in assent.
My chest heaved as I tried to comprehend the magnitude and weight of my response. How to compress four hundred-plus years of racial trauma, animosities, crimes, incidents, laws, aggressions and micro-aggressions, against, among, and between so many races, into a few words? How do you begin to explain the racial dynamics and their repercussions to, in some ways, tabulae rasae? “The history of race relations in the U.S. is so complicated,” I began.
“In March of last year, did you hear about the shooting in Atlanta, Georgia? Eight people were killed. Six were women of Asian descent.” One of the five nodded. Speaking about the injustices of which I had some knowledge, from reading and documentaries, I told of the Chinese Exclusion Act, of the internment of Japanese Americans, of the travel ban on Muslims, of my relatives’ inability to buy a house in neighborhoods in Southern California in the 1960s because they were not white. I emphasized that I was speaking of these because I was the most familiar, but that circumstances similar to these affected people of many more races and ethnic origins. “You’ve heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case?” Some nodded. “That allowed black and white people to go to the same schools? Before that, there was Tape v. Hurley, a California Supreme Court case that helped to desegregate schools for people of Chinese descent in California.”
“In the U.S.? These were not laws?” one student’s tone and facial expressions were incredulous.
“They were actual laws,” I tried to convince the gathering, fearful that my few words lacked the strength of conviction necessary to break down lifetimes of images of the U.S. as a gilded place of opportunity for all, of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
A student, who happened to have his immigration casebook at the ready, cited the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Many wise and well-known people have been credited with equating silence with complicity. In this February 2022, Black History Month and the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and after we approach the first anniversary of the Atlanta shootings, I feel, more urgently than ever before, the need for popular representations of significant events in United States history that have heretofore been relegated to archives, footnotes to mainstream historical records such as textbooks, and, at most, news articles that likely will not reach a readership beyond the country’s geographical borders.
“Now is the time to boycott silence,” our colleague Andre Davison urges us in his post, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Einstein.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, an Academy-Award-nominated (2018) PBS documentary about the Department of Justice’s dogged litigation against a small, Chinese-American-family-owned bank after the 2008 financial crisis, is one such story. Then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance led the witch hunt against the bank’s owners. Former employees were marched, in handcuffs, chained together, through the courthouse halls (video footage here). This took place in New York City, arguably the most well-known American metropolis in the world, in 2012. Plans are in the works to transform it into a feature film; a director and financiers are on board as of this writing. The world will know, and people will be outraged, my mom, ever the optimist, predicted. No one cares about Chinese-Americans, mom, I countered.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. But only by telling these stories will people start to be aware, and then, perhaps, will they care.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.