harold hongju koh: "why diversity matters to me"

Last week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the State Department held a program entitled, "Why Diversity Matters to Me." Several Department principals spoke and shared about diversity, including Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh. Here's the full text from his inspiring remarks reflecting on Dr. King's legacy:
Why Diversity Matters to Me
Harold Hongju Koh

I am Harold Koh; I am the Legal Adviser.

Why does diversity matter to me? Because although my face is yellow, I am a child of Brown, Brown vs. the Board of Education. I first began to understood why diversity mattered by feeling its absence. When I was five, my family moved to Takoma Park. My brother came home from school to tell us that his third grade class was half white and half black. When recess was called, the black kids and the white kids silently divided into different baseball teams and started playing separately. As an Asian, my brother literally did not know what team he was on. So he sat alone for all of recess, isolated by segregation.

During my sixth-grade year, students from an inner city school were bused to our classroom. A short, wiry African-American boy named Richard was seated next to me. For two days, we sat inches apart, eying one another. On the third day, he leaned over and said, "Man, this classroom is much nicer than the one we were in." For the first time, I understood how unequal separate but equal facilities can be, and by the end of the year, we were friends.

One day, Richard asked me who was the greatest baseball player of all time. I told him, "Babe Ruth." He said, "Man, you're wrong!" (For some reason, he always called me "Man," even though I was only 10 years old!). I asked him, "So who do you think is the greatest baseball player of all time?" He answered, "Why, Number 42. Jackie Robinson!" When I asked why, he answered, "Because Jackie did everything the Babe did, but at a time when everyone wanted him to fail." I had never looked at it that way before. Richard's different perspective changed my mind. And ever since, whenever someone asks me who was the greatest, I say "Number 42. Jackie Robinson."

I remembered that story in law school, when I read a book by Richard Kluger called Simple Justice. I read about the stirring partnership between African-American lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Spotswood Robinson and white attorneys like Jack Greenberg and Charles Black. I read about how the lawyers in Brown argued cases in towns where they could not eat at the local restaurants, where they could not sleep at the local hotels, how they typed briefs in the back of their cars, cited cases from memory because they could not use the libraries, but still won case after case, culminating in the unanimous victory in Brown. I decided that like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall must have been the greatest lawyer of all time, because he did everything Daniel Webster did -- and won equality for millions -- at a time when so many wanted him to fail.

As a law clerk, I was thrilled to actually meet Justice Marshall and Judge Spotswood Robinson, and to hear them tell stories of their days litigating Brown. As I traveled the world as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I learned that Brown is viewed globally as America's finest hour. And as a lawyer and law professor, I came to see Brown as a model of how lawyers committed to human rights can do simple justice by pressing for change we can believe in. I learned about the nearly invisible struggle of the Asian American community for equality: the battle by Chinese and Japanese immigrants for basic legal protections, equal treatment, and the right to become naturalized citizens; the tragedy of Korematsu, where thousands of loyal Americans were interned during wartime simply because of their race. Many of our core constitutional protections for foreign nationals resulted from civil rights struggles that arose out of discrimination against Asians in America: a struggle like that experienced by so many other groups, which reminds us -- as Dr. King said -- that though we may have come in different boats, we're all in the same boat now.

Now that I am Legal Adviser, my job is to ensure, as a matter of law, that diversity is respected, as what our Supreme Court has called a "compelling governmental interest." As the Department's lawyer, my job is not simply conducting business as usual, but pressing for even more progress and inclusion.

Is progress really possible? When I was a student, my school had only a handful of Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, and no openly gay and lesbian students. But as a law teacher and dean, I have seen the law school classes of today become strikingly more diverse. So too is today's State Department, which is so much more diverse a place than it was even ten years ago. Because we represent every race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, we as a department are so much better able to understand and communicate with the diverse world in which we live. Fittingly, it was Jackie Robinson who put it best, when he said, "Baseball became a much, much better game, when everyone could play."

Let me close with this story. A few years ago, my mother met a man named Don James. After talking, they realized that they had both graduated from Boston University in 1955. When they looked together at their yearbook, they realized that the man who had marched between them at graduation -- between James and Koh -- was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today.

Picture that day more than fifty years ago, a Korean immigrant woman, an African-American man, and a Scandinavian man, all marching onto an American stage to get their degrees. Dr. King and my mom were both 26. Thirteen years later, he was dead. But in between, he had changed the world. But my mom lived on.

Then flash forward to today. Consider that the son of that woman, an Asian-American lawyer, is now Legal Adviser to a woman Secretary of State who serves in the cabinet of a president who is the first African-American since Dr. King to win the Nobel Prize. And all three of these people hold their jobs in a country where not so long ago, none of them would have had the right to vote.

So progress may not come quickly, but as Dr. King said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome some day. But for that to happen, we must believe -- we must insist -- that diversity matters. And we cannot rest until the dream of diversity, and the aspirations of so many who fought for it, have been fully realized.
Indeed, we're all in the same boat now. (Thanks, Patty.)

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