[ADVOCACY] Karen Narasaki - Civil Rights Advocate! / Media Advocate?
- Travis Smiley Interview with Karen Narasaki
Can a legal advocate with limited working knowledge of Hollywood be
an effective advocate of change in the entertainment industry? Look
forward to your comments on this question.
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley. Last
week the four major broadcast networks unveiled their fall schedules
in New York, and despite promises from the networks to bring more
diversity to primetime television, the reality does not match the
rhetoric. The latest study on the lack of inclusion focuses on Asian
Americans. Asian Americans make up 5% of the U.S. population, yet
less than 3% of characters on TV are of Asian decent. Tonight, a
conversation about the new study and the lack of diversity on TV with
Karen Narasaki, president of the National Asian Pacific American
Legal Consortium. Also tonight, talented singer-songwriter Shelby
Lynne is here. The Grammy winning is out this week with a new CD
called "Suit Yourself." Later on, a special performance from Shelby
Lynne. We're glad you joined us. That's all coming up right now.
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Captioning made possible by KCET Public Television and the U.S.
Department of Education
Tavis: Karen Narasaki is the president and executive director of the
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, a nonprofit civil
rights group furthering the cause of Asian Americans. Prior to her
current post, she served as the Washington D.C. representative to the
Japanese-American Citizens League. This month we celebrate the Asian
Pacific American history month. Karen, it's nice to have you here.
Karen Narasaki: Great to be here.
Tavis: This study--first of all, I guess the first thing out of my
mouth is tell me something I don't know. But 'topline' this study for
Narasaki: Well, we're very excited to do this study. It's
called "Lights, Camera, and Too Little Action." We've been working on
the issue of where are the Asian Americans in popular media,
particularly on prime-time television. And one of the most
interesting findings, I thought, was we already knew there weren't
that many Asian Americans who had regular characters in prime-time
shows. But one of the things we found was even when they did get to
be a regular character, they often had the least screen time of any
of the characters that were on that particular show. And I think part
of the reason is because they're usually seen as not having any kind
of family relationship, so they're there as a supporting character,
but you don't get to really see who they are, and they turn out to be
Tavis: No family relationship, though, is absolutely antithetical to
what we think in society, in fact, when we think about Asian
Narasaki: Exactly. That's what's so interesting. I always tell people
my own experience. We have a very dysfunctional family that would be
funny on any sitcom that you could air, but we just don't see writers
writing that yet, and I think that's the big challenge.
Tavis: Speaking of challenge, what's the challenge uniquely for Asian
Americans versus Hispanic Americans versus African-Americans? Because
everybody has the same--I could have done a whole panel of people of
color with this same complaint tonight legitimately.
Narasaki: Exactly. I think it's because Asians have always been
treated as foreigners in America. I'm fourth generation here in
America, and I still get asked regularly where are you from? And if I
say Seattle, they say, no, I meant where are you really from? Because
people don't look at us and think I'm American. So this whole notion
of the stereotype of somehow being exotic, so that if you're going to
write a character for an Asian-American, somehow they have to be a
different kind of character than you would write for any other show,
and that's just not the case. Asian Americans should be able to be
any particular character on any show. We just haven't been able to
break through the writers' mindsets.
Tavis: So what characters in your study have you found that Asian
Americans most often play, in fact?
Narasaki: Well, that's the interesting thing. They often play
doctors. We actually complain when there is a medical show that
doesn't show a doctor, because the reality is in that industry,
Asians are very prevalent as both doctors and nurses. There's been
way too many shows that were set in San Francisco in a hospital and
there was no Asian American in a city that's 30% Asian American. And
we just wonder, you know, what city did they wander into. But what
we're not seeing is Asian Americans who are often in blue-color
positions. There are a lot of Asian Americans who are secretaries.
There are a lot of Asian Americans who drive trucks, who, you know,
play all sorts of roles throughout society. There are Asian Americans
who are attorneys. You don't often see that. "Boston Legal," one of
the most powerful partners in one of the biggest law firms in Boston
is actually Asian-American, but you wouldn't know it if you saw that
show because you see no Asian-Americans in any role there.
Tavis: You know, what's funny about this as I think about it is that
your struggle, the Asian-American struggle is uniquely different in
this regard, I think, from the African-American struggle and even
from the Hispanic struggle with regard to images on television. For
Hispanics and African-Americans, most often when I have these
conversations, it's about wanting to be seen on television in the
complexity of their character and the complexity of who they are, the
same concern that you have. But with black folk and brown folk, it's
wanting to be seen in a better light than they are typically seen.
With Asian-Americans, given what you've just said with regard to them
not being seen in enough blue collar jobs, one can almost take from
that that because you guys are always seen as doctors, and for lack
of a better word, "brainiacs," that you don't see the complexities of
the Asian-American experience, but that would be coming top down as
opposed to bottom up.
Narasaki: Right. I get asked that question a lot. Asian Americans do
get seen in very unsavory roles on television. It's usually the guest
roles, just as other minorities were. In the smaller roles, we're
seen as the thugs, the gang members, the people who are the lowest of
the low in society. But again, it's a question of the richness of who
we are. And when you're just seen in the model minority light, you
miss the fact that in fact a high degree of Asian Americans are under
poverty levels. Many families are struggling. And so then those
people, the most vulnerable in our community get forgotten. The kids
in schools--I was just talking to someone who I met at General
Electric, and he said to me, you know, I came from a broken home, my
father was an alcoholic. He said I've been afraid to even share that
part of who I am because I didn't think anybody would believe me. I
feel like I have to live up to this picture of who I am, and now I
realize that I need to tell people that in fact I've had this
background so that people will understand that there are others like
me who need help.
Tavis: Who are not altogether a model minority.
Tavis: Tell me what the greatest challenge for Asian Americans is
when Hollywood doesn't represent Asian Americans in their true light.
As an African-American, I certainly understand, being a black male,
what happens when the image gets promulgated that we so often think
of when we think of black men. I know that struggle. Tell me, though,
what the struggle is uniquely for Asian Americans to the extent that
Hollywood doesn't show Asian Americans in their full light.
Narasaki: Right. Well, the challenge for Asian Americans is, first of
all, we're not seen enough, period, so the existing stereotypes just
perpetuate themselves because there's nothing to counter that. And
then when we are, if it's a stereotype, that's a problem. We do civil
rights and people often ask me, you're a legal group. You do civil
rights. Why are you talking about television? Because we see how it
manifests itself in employment discrimination. We see how it
manifests itself in a hate crime. Everybody thinks that all Asian-
Americans are martial artists, and I've seen too many times when
there's a victim of a hate crime, and the person who did it is
raising the defense of, well, of course, 10 of us beat him up because
we were assuming that he was a martial artist, and so we felt
threatened for our lives, when that's not the reality of who we are.
It is often the case, and when you look at employment discrimination
of, well, you're a foreigner. And after 9/11, for example, too few
people knew who Indians and Pakistanis were. So the only image you
see is what was flashed after 9/11, and the result of that was a rise
of hate crimes targeting them. You know, everybody being racially
profiled. You're suspected of being a terrorist until you've been
proved otherwise. And that's because people don't know who we are.
They don't know that we have families. They don't know that we love
people. They don't know that we have sorrows and that we have the
same challenges that they do.
Tavis: Anybody on TV doing anything right where Asian Americans are
concerned? I ask that because I think of Sandra Oh on "Grey's
Narasaki: Yeah, I actually think that's one of our successes. We've
been working with the networks for several years and I've been
raising Sandra Oh because she's an accomplished actress. She was
great on HBO, and I kept saying--
Tavis: And "Sideways."
Narasaki: Also she's been doing movies, and I said why--because, you
know, the standard reply you get when you say why aren't you hiring
more Asian Americans is we don't have any qualified ones. I say she's
doing movies. She's doing well, She's clearly qualified. And her role
is an example of a network getting it right. She's a well-rounded
individual. She has a love interest. She's flawed as a character.
People are getting to know her, both positive and negative, and
that's what we're looking at. I think the character of Bug
on "Crossing Jordan." He's one of the scientists, and people get
concerned because, you know, he's sort of a scientific nerd, but he's
been allowed to date, he's been able to bring up his immigrant
background and the fact he's Asian, but he's done it in a way that it
doesn't define who he is. He's not there just to be the Asian, but
that's part of the richness of his character.
Tavis: So maybe in time, Hollywood will get it right.
Narasaki: I hope so. One of the things we've been working on is
getting more writers, because that's the only way we think our
stories are really going to get told, is to get more Asian-Americans,
or at least people who know Asian Americans to be on the writing
teams that are doing these shows.
Tavis: Well, we'll keep talking about it till they make it right.
Karen, nice to see you.
Narasaki: Great. Thank you.
By Janna Chan for AsianAvenue.com
Seattle, Washington 1966. An eight-year-old Karen Narasaki
accidentally overhears the pained voices of her parents discussing
where their family would live next. Seattle was no longer an option.
Although her father was a second generation Japanese American, World
War II veteran and an engineer at Boeing, the possibility of buying
his family a house in Seattle was out of the question due to racial
covenants at the time. Fast-forward 38 years and this moment is still
one of Karen's earliest memories. This is the moment she realized
that the American dream might always be just thata dream.
Today, Karen Narasaki is the president and executive director of the
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC), a non-
profit, non-partisan civil rights organization. Even though racial
covenants are a now a thing of the past, she continues to fight for
Asian American rights and works with NAPALC to advance the rights of
all minorities through public policy, education, litigation and
advocacy. Boasting a long history of civil rights activism through
her work with the Japanese American Citizen's League, Lawyer's
Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Asian Pacific American
Media Coalition, Karen has always opted for the road less traveled in
order to pave a better one of her own.
After not being able to buy a house in Seattle Karen's parents moved
her, her twin brother and two sisters to Renton, a blue collar
suburb. Trying to make the best out of their situation, the Narasakis
regularly encouraged their children to work harder and to not let
society dictate their roles. Karen and her brother eventually
enrolled at Renton High School where, according to Karen, there were
only 20 Asian Americans in a class of roughly 500 students. Right off
the bat Karen got involved with school leadership programs. She
became president of her sophomore class and became a finalist for the
National Merit Scholarship along with her brother. "My father was
very excited," said Karen over the phone from her Washington D.C.
office. "His dream was for one of his kids to attend an Ivy League
school and this scholarship signaled a step closer to that. He told
me once that he would have proved himself in America if this
Growing up, Karen's father was fairly open about talking about race
with his children. Both of her parents were sent to internment camps
after the Pearl Harbor bombing during WWII yet her father still chose
to join the military. He was part of the famous 442 all Japanese
American battalion that fought in Europe. The struggles that both her
parents endured laid the groundwork for Karen's self-confidence and
ignited a desire to make sure that her parents' experience in the
camps would never happen to anyone else. "I think he [her father] was
a little bitter," says Karen. "He, like many other Japanese
Americans, was born herehe was not an immigrant and his mom was born
here also. In many ways he still felt very grateful for the
opportunities America presented that he felt would not be available
in Japan. The message he gave to us growing up was to be a real
patriot. That being an American really meant being willing to stand
up and try to make America bettermake it live up to its ideals."
After high school, Karen fulfilled her father's dream of an Ivy
League child when she was accepted to Yale. A stellar 4.0 student
with an impressive extra curricular résumé, Karen's road to Yale was
still not an easy one. She came from a less-than-desirable public
high school and had a guidance counselor that didn't know the first
thing about Ivy League schools. When Karen was finally accepted to
Yale it was mainly because of its progressive affirmative action
policies. "I think that I am an example of how affirmative action is
supposed to work," says Karen. "The reality is that at a school like
Yale there are thousands of students that apply that can do the work.
They weren't just looking at your grades or your test scores, but
whether you showed evidence that you were going to be a leader. I
felt that because I took full advantage of this opportunity that Yale
did the right thing. They weren't `wasting the slot' because I proved
that I could do the work."
Karen graduated magna cum laude with an economics and political
science degree at Yale and went on to attend the UCLA law school. She
graduated third in her class and although her college career was
superb job offers weren't exactly flying through her door. She was
later told that her applications for summer jobs were overlooked
mainly because firms weren't keen on hiring women or minorities. She
eventually landed a coveted position as a corporate attorney at
Seattle's largest law firm, Perkins Coie. Karen spent six years at
the firm and proved, without a doubt, her qualifications as an
attorney. She remained active while at the firm moonlighting at Asian
American and women's rights groups, and was allowed to do so because
she was one of the top billing associates in terms of hours logged.
Literally months away from making partner at her firm, a case she was
working on with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association
(NAPABA) suddenly made her rethink her career goals. The case, Wards
Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio, was a class action suit brought upon by
the predominantly Filipino and native Alaskan employees who had been
discriminated against at an Alaskan cannery. Karen was set to speak
at a press conference in support of the employees but was stopped
after she found out that one of her clients at Perkins Coie, an
Alaskan fish cannery, had taken out an op-ed piece in the local paper
in defense of Wards Cove. "I felt that it was getting harder and
harder to be a conservative corporate attorney by day and a civil
rights activist by night," says Karen. "I knew that I would have to
make a decision about my career, but it was very difficult because
that summer I would be up for partner But in the end, I knew that I
needed to make a decision."
The year was 1986 and Karen said goodbye to her old life, and a hefty
salary, to enter the non-profit sector as a tireless advocate for
human and civil rights. A nationally recognized expert on affirmative
action and immigrant, civil and voting rights Karen has appeared
on "The Newshour" with Jim Lehrer, ABC and CBS News, "Hardball" with
Chris Mathews and has been quoted in just about every major American
newspaper. During the Clinton administration, Karen was invited to
the White House on several occasions to advise the president on civil
rights issues. Part of her 12-hour-work-days include leading NAPALC
and serving on the boards of the Leadership Conference Educational
Fund and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Under
Karen's leadership, the 1992 Voting Rights Act extension of the
language rights provision was passed which has helped thousands of
Asian, Latino and American Indian citizens to register and vote in
their native languages. Her latest effort is the Rights Working Group
which is a coalition of civil rights, civil liberties, human and
immigrant rights advocates working together to address the
deterioration of civil and human rights in the aftermath of 9/11.
Karen has come a long way from Renton and even further from the
racial biases that once haunted her parents and threatened her goals.
Through her leadership and actions, she has pioneered a path for
Asian Americans and other minorities to demand a just and equal
America. "One of the things I really believe in is, if at the end of
the day, NAPALC has achieved equality for Asian Americans but not for
Latinos, Jews and other Americans we haven't done our job," says
Karen. "What I'm interested in is helping people understand that
their fates as human beings are linked to each other. If we really
want the America we say we want then that's going to take work and it
isn't about does affirmative action or voting rights directly benefit
me. It's about does it benefit us is the larger picture? Diversity
does make a difference."
Karen K. Narasaki is the President and Executive Director of the
Asian American Justice Center, formerly known as the National Asian
Pacific American Legal Consortium. AAJC is a non-profit, non-partisan
civil rights organization whose mission is to advance the human and
civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans through advocacy, public
policy, public education, and litigation. AAJC is affiliated with the
Asian American Institute in Chicago, the Asian Pacific American Legal
Center in Los Angeles, and the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
Before joining AAJC, Ms. Narasaki was the Washington, DC
Representative for the Japanese American Citizens League. Prior to
that she was a corporate attorney at Perkins Coie in Seattle,
Washington. Before joining Perkins Coie, she served as a Law Clerk to
Judge Harry Pregerson on the United States Court of Appeals for the
Ninth Circuit in Los Angeles.
Ms. Narasaki serves in a number of leadership positions in the civil
rights and immigrant rights communities. She is Vice Chair of the
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation's oldest and
broadest civil rights coalition and Vice President of the Coalition
for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and Chairperson of the Rights
Working Group, a coalition of human rights, civil rights, civil
liberties and immigrant rights groups working to address the erosion
of civil liberties and the basic rights of immigrants since 9/11. She
also serves on the board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights
Under Law, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, and
is a past board member of the Independent Sector.
Ms. Narasaki is a nationally recognized leader in the Asian American
community, where she serves as the immediate past Chair of the
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and Chair of the Asian
Pacific American Media Coalition.
A regular guest on News & Notes with Ed Gordon, Ms. Narasaki has
appeared on ABC and CBS News, Fox News Channel, the Jim Lehrer
Newshour, Hardball with Chris Mathews, America with Dennis Wholey and
several National Public Radio shows, including Talk of the Nation and
Powerpoint. She has also been quoted by The New York Times, The
Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, as well as
numerous regional newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune, The
Houston Chronicle, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The Los
Recognized by The Washingtonian Magazine as one of the 100 most
powerful women in Washington, DC, Ms. Narasaki has received numerous
awards and accolades. She was the 2005 recipient of the American Bar
Association Spirit of Excellence Award, and has received the
Congressional Black Caucus Chair's Award, International Channel We
the People Award, and was named one of the 100 Most Influential Asian
Americans of the Decade by A Magazine, among numerous other awards.
She is a graduate, magna cum laude, of Yale University and Order of
the Coif, of the UCLA School of Law.
Ms. Narasaki's father served in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat
Team of the US Army, the all-Japanese American unit that fought in
Europe during World War II.
Ms. Narasaki graduated 3rd in her class at UCLA Law School.
At Yale, Ms. Narasaki was at Davenport College - "Home of the Gnome"
Ms. Narasaki has a niece named Julia.
Biographical Sketch: Karen K. Naraksaki
Karen K. Narasaki is the Bxecutive Director of the National Asian
Pacific American Legal Consortium, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., its mission is to
advocate the legal and civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans
through litigation, advocacy, public education and public policy
development. Ms. Narasaki also serves on the Bxecutive Committee of
the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights as the Chairperson of its
ComplianceIEnforcement Committee and is Chairperson of the National
Network of Against Anti-Asian Violence. Ms. Narasaki is a graduate of
Yale University and the U.C.L.A. School of Law.
As President and Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific
American Legal Consortium (NAPALC), Karen Narasaki is one of the
nation's most effective advocates for Asian Pacific Americans and
other minority group members. Her compelling life story demonstrates
how affirmative action programs are needed even for the so-
called "model minorities."
Karen Narasaki's commitment to the ongoing struggle for civil rights
for the nation's Asian Pacific Americans is rooted in a long history
of discrimination. Years before her birth in 1958 in Seattle, her
father and his family were interned in World War II because of their
Japanese descent. Her father, a third-generation Japanese-American,
born in California, went on to serve valiantly with the famed 442nd
Battalion in the later stages of the war.
Although he was a successful engineer with Boeing, he was unable to
make a home for his family in Seattle's middle and upper class areas,
because of property covenants that restricted Asian Pacific Americans
and other minorities from living in those neighborhoods. As a result,
he moved the family to a blue-collar suburb, where young Karen
attended under-resourced public schools. Few of her classmates
attended college, and the Ivy League schools that her father wished
Karen to attend did not send recruiters to her high school.
As a National Merit scholar with an almost perfect 4.0 GPA, Karen
applied to Yale University, where her credentials were discounted
because her high school was hardly considered fertile ground for
students aspiring to Ivy League institutions. Fortunately, for Yale,
and for Karen Narasaki, the university's interest in building a
diverse student body that included African Americans, Latinos, Native
Americans and Asian Pacific Americans led them to advance her
application from waiting list to accepted. Yale's affirmative action
gave Karen Narasaki the opportunity to prove herself academically.
While working part-time throughout her four years at Yale, she
maintained an excellent academic record and graduated magna cum
laude, with distinction in her major. Her outstanding performance at
Yale opened doors for her that were hitherto closed to women and
However, when she attended law school at UCLA, she still encountered
discrimination. For example, her applications for summer jobs were
bypassed, even though she was a top-ranked student, apparently
because firms were reluctant to hire women and minorities.
After graduating from law school third in her class, she served as a
Law Clerk to Judge Harry Pregerson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the 9th Circuit in Los Angeles. Later, affirmative action goals at
Seattle's largest law firm gave her an opportunity to further
demonstrate her qualifications as an attorney. Throughout her six
years at Perkins Coie, Karen Narasaki proved to be one of the top-
billing associates. Before joining NAPALC she was the Washington DC
representative for the nation's largest membership-based Asian
American civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens
Recognizing that only through affirmative action efforts was she
given opportunities, Karen Narasaki continues to advocate for such
programs. Under her leadership, NAPALC has worked with others to
maintain affirmative action on the federal level and to block
attempts to pass English Only legislation in Congress. In her
passionate testimony in 1997 against a bill that would have
effectively ended affirmative action programs, Ms. Narasaki
stated, "Constitutional guarantees and anti-discrimination laws on
their own have not achieved true equality of opportunity for all
She persists in battling inequality and seeks to build collaborative
relationships with other minority group members, including African
Americans and Latinos. For example, she serves as Chairperson of the
Compliance/Enforcement Committee of the Executive Committee of the
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Among her many achievements
was the 1992 Voting Rights Act extension of the language rights
provision, which has helped thousands of Asian, Latino and American
Indian citizens to register and vote in their native languages.
Ms. Narasaki serves on the Board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil
Rights Under Law, Leadership Conference Education Fund and the
Independent Sector. She has also served on the Boards of National
Immigration Law Center, National Asian Pacific American Bar
Association (NAPABA), the Asian Bar Association of Washington, the
Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California and the
Organization of Pam Asian American Women.
Among the many awards Ms. Narasaki has received are the 2001
Washington Magazine 100 Most Powerful Women; the 2000 U.S. Department
of Justice Citizen Volunteer Service Award; the 1999 Asian Pacific
American Labor Alliance Community Award; the 1999 Award for 100 Most
Influential Asian Americans of the Decade; and the 1994 NAPABA
Karen Narasaki suggests that young lawyers help their clients and
communities to achieve their goals, objectives, and even dreams. In
her words, "It is easy to find 100 problems that an idea might solve,
but the true value is to find the path to make the idea work." She
encourages young lawyers to take risks and find work about which they
Karen Narasaki is that kind of lawyer herself. Because of her many
achievements, the ABA is proud to salute her during Asian Pacific
American Heritage Month.