At Korematsu Lecture, New York Assemblymember Yu-Line Niou discusses the legacy of racist legal policies on Asian Americans

At the 2022 Fred D. Korematsu Lecture, New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou traced the history of public policies that purposefully excluded immigrants—particularly in Manhattan’s Chinatown—and how those policies still work to exclude Asian Americans today.

The Korematsu Lecture was created in 2000 to provide a forum for Asian American perspectives on the law, as well as to honor Asian Americans who have advocated for a more equitable legal system. The April 18 event was co-sponsored by NYU Law’s Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association and the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. It was moderated by Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law Sateesh Nori ’01.

In her remarks, Niou noted that she was the first Asian American to represent Manhattan’s Chinatown (in addition to representing the Lower East Side, South Street Seaport area, Financial District, and Battery Park) when she won her first race in 2016. She traced the persistent lack of Asian American representation and as well as the marginalization of Asian Americans to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and widespread anti-miscegenation laws that targeted Asian Americans in particular. These laws, she said, created a sense of “otherness” regarding Asian Americans, or a belief that they are not “full” citizens and may be targeted for specific exclusionary laws and actions. Niou said this belief is still evident in the widespread lack of funding and resources for Asian American communities—though Asian Americans represent a large percentage of Americans living in poverty—as well as the recent rise in violence against Asian Americans since the pandemic began.

“We deserve a system that works for us that treats us as an essential part of America's cultural and political experience and strives to build a system in which we can thrive on the same terms as any other person,” said Niou. “And that is the work we must commit ourselves to now, because I can tell you from experience, if you are not the ones carrying this effort for no one else will.”


Yuh-Line Niou, 5:55: “When we think about Manhattan’s Chinatown, I think it’s easy for us to think of it as a place that created itself organically instead of as a concentration of families, businesses, and cultures driven into a siloed location by intentional public policy decisions.”

18:16, “The number of anti-miscegenation and segregation laws specifically mentioning Asians increased every single year between 1910 and 1950 even as Asian Americans populations remain basically stable…. We face a similar circumstance today, even if the outward face isn’t as disgusting as the Jim Crow era. Today, these explicitly racist and exclusionary laws are gone, but their legacies remain in current policies that achieve similar goals through less transparent methods.”

26:37, “We need to aggressively work to counter the ‘model minority’ myth…. The fact that some members of our community have succeeded financially or educationally doesn’t mean that we don’t also have large swathes of our community living in poverty or are unable to access the educational opportunities that we need. We are the largest rising immigrant community, we also have the largest undocumented community… Our community also represents 29 percent of the individuals in poverty and is the most economically divided, racial or ethnic group in the United States.”

Sateesh Nori, 46:06, “We’re outsiders to the system and that effect is still felt to this day when we look at who is on the bench in the courthouses that serve low-income people…. As you know, court officers and court attorneys are the gatekeepers of the system, and it’s not people who look like us, even though many of the litigants are people who look like us, and that’s a significant problem.”

Posted August 3, 2022.