Fifty years ago, I began my legal studies as a woman of Japanese American descent. During my student years, I read, for the first time, the text of the Supreme Court decisions upholding the Government’s actions resulting in the internment in 1942 of the Japanese Americans on the West Coast on the grounds of national security. I also remember the strong dissents of the minority Justices and weeping because of what not only my family and other Japanese Americans lost, but also what every citizen in this Nation lost as a result.
Eventually, time and the efforts of individuals—not only the Japanese Americans—led to disclosures of suppressed information by the Government and the racism influencing the decisions made. Over 40 years later, Fred Korematsu’s conviction for refusing to voluntarily report to an Assembly Camp for imprisonment was voided by a court, and the U.S. government acknowledged its mistake. Nevertheless, the internment story must be told over and over as part of our Nation’s history, to warn that even well-intentioned people and a government can be led to do unjust things.
When I began the practice of law in the mid-1960s, things weren’t basically that distanced from the Korematsu years. I experienced discrimination because I was a woman or because I was a minority and looked different. On my better days, I attributed what I felt as discrimination to my personality (“I’m just not a likeable person”). On other days, I couldn’t help but feel that job hunting, for example, was just harder for me, compared to my predominantly male classmates. My six female classmates, I believe, felt the same to some degree. It was simply the way it was at the time. In my case, it became very clear when one interviewer (quite young) just couldn’t stand to see how unenlightened I was. He told me that I was wasting my time and I’d never be considered for work at any of the larger law firms interviewing at the school because I just wasn’t presentable to the clients. I thanked him for being so honest, quit interviewing and took a job with the federal government. When I spoke to one of my supervisors there, I was told that the government benefitted greatly from the private sector’s attitude because it could and would hire women attorneys. Of course, in those days there were no laws forbidding employer discrimination based on gender or race. Even an attempt by the women in my class to obtain reduced tuition since no one expected us to earn as much was pretty much trivialized by the faculty and administration. Subsequently, I found my way into private practice and have enjoyed a rewarding career helping out and advocating on behalf of state and local governmental agencies, consumer oriented groups and smaller private entities in their battles against the larger corporations and government agencies, too, primarily in the energy industry.
Hallelujah for the changes over the past 50 years! We now have the Civil Rights Act, and in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Obama, against pay discrimination. These laws require employers and schools to cease sex discrimination when it comes to public accommodations, jobs and sports. Today—50 years later, I feel optimism about this Nation’s ability to weather and succeed in the 21st Century, now that every American—regardless of sex or race—has the opportunity to contribute to the best of his/her ability and to be treated fairly, regardless of their gender or race.
Frances E. Francis is currently a partner with Spiegel & McDiarmid LLP, a Washington, D.C. law firm specializing in energy, telecommunications, and regulatory matters. She serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.