BY ADINA LEVINE
In its second offense to the Asian American community, a January 26th e-mail sent from a partner at Dewey Ballantine’s London office contained an Asian American slur. The e-mail was in response to an offer for a free puppy for adoption, and Douglas Getter, a London-based American in charge of Dewey Ballantine’s European mergers and acquisitions practice, sent out a mass e-mail that said, “Please don’t let these puppies go to a Chinese restaurant!”
“My reaction was anger and frustration because this was the second incident at Dewey Ballantine which targeted Asian Americans for ridicule and racist remarks,” asserted Angela Chan, co-Chair of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), a political, academic, community service and social group dedicated to fostering a supportive atmosphere for Asian Pacific American students at Harvard Law School.
The effect of the offensive e-mail is exacerbated by the firm’s recent controversy that hailed the closing of its Hong Kong office with a racially offensive parody song, “So Solly” (to the tune of “Hello Dolly”).
“Dewey Ballantine’s e-mail joke about Chinese restaurants cooking dogs and parody of Asians with badly accented English stem from the pervasive and continuing stereotype that Asian Americans are foreign – not fully American, exotic, and strange,” Chan criticized. “The treatment of Asian Americans as ‘forever foreigners’ has concrete dangerous implications – for example, it fueled the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.”
The firm immediately responded to the offensive e-mail with a statement from the two co-chairs, Sanford Morhouse and Morton Pierce, that Getter’s opinion was “contrary to every tenet of our Firm culture.”
“The firm acted immediately, reiterating to the entire Dewey Ballantine community that the author’s comments are inconsistent with the values of the firm and will not be tolerated,” asserted a press release by Dewey Ballantine. “The firm is committed to diversity. It is working with the newly established Office for Diversity of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York to promote programs to foster diversity in the profession.”
Getter also apologized and the firm pledged to take corrective action.
“Although such matters are confidential, we want to assure you that he is being appropriately sanctioned and, in addition, will attend one-on-one sensitivity training,” claimed the Dewey Ballantine memo sent directly after the event.
APALSA, however, does not believe that this response is adequate. In a letter to Dewey Ballantine authored by Mr. Christopher Chan from the Asian American Bar Association, nine Asian American legal organizations and 36 law student groups urged Dewey Ballantine not to frame the issue “as one of merely convincing an unspecified ‘them’ of the firm’s innocence.” Instead, the letter asserted, Dewey Ballantine should examine the deeper issues in the firm’s culture that are causing this environment.
“Dewey’s response to the e-mail was not adequate,” asserted Angela Chan. “Rather than hoping for the whole thing to blow over quickly with an apology, Dewey Ballantine should take a hard look at what in the structure and culture of the firm led to these incidents and the firm’s subsequent inadequate responses.”
To this end, the letter urges specific actions by the firm in order to eradicate discrimination. These concrete remedial measure include creating a formal mentoring program for minority associates to provide career guidance, supporting the participation of minority associates and partners in events and meetings sponsored by various minority bar associations, sponsoring and/or hosting receptions for minority law students, and creating internships in the firm’s name at minority community service organizations. Chan would also like to see the creation of a formal grievance process for those in the law firm to file complaints about racially offensive incidents.
“This issue is important to me because I want Asian Pacific American law students to be able to enter the workforce focused on developing strong lawyering skills and advancing their career goals rather than being worried about becoming the target of racist remarks, which translates into a firm culture that hinders the development of Asian Pacific American leaders in the lawyering community and is not conducive to Asian Americans becoming partners in law firms,” explained Chan.
According to Chan, the issue is not just dealing with this specific incident or wayward partner, but the overall atmosphere that led a partner to feel comfortable enough to broadly circulate a racial slur.
“While a partner at a law firm may hold this racist sentiment that Asian Americans are ‘foreign’ with exotic and strange habits,” noted Chan, “it is particularly alarming that the partner felt it was acceptable and even humorous to express this view in a company-wide e-mail stating that Chinese Americans eat domesticated animals.”
This feeling of comfort may stem from an overall environment of racial discrimination, suggests Chan. The firm reports that of 572 lawyers at Dewey Ballantine, 41 are Asian-Americans. According to the NALP directory, Dewey Ballantine’s Washington, D.C. office has 18 partners, of which only two are women and none are racial minorities. The firm’s New York office has 93 partners, of which none are African American, two are Latino, and three are Asian American.
However, if there exists a pattern of discrimination, it may not be an exclusive Dewey Ballantine problem, but a greater problem of discrimination at firms.
“In gauging humor that makes light of Asian Americans, we should ask how society would respond if an equally offensive joke were made of African Americans,” explained Professor Jerry Kang, a Visiting Professor of Law from UCLA. “So instead of jokes that make fun of Asian accents or eating dogs, what if Dewey Ballantine lawyers performed a skit with African Americans speaking ebonics or sent a firm-wide e-mail about protecting the fried chicken from Black associates. Would there be greater uproar? Absolutely.”
Kang believed that there needs to be heightened awareness and respect for Asian Americans in order to create change.
“The different treatment reflects differences in power and respect: After all, who fears the wrath of Asian Americans?” questioned Kang. “Nothing will change if we brush away each such incident as unfortunate and idiosyncratic, saying nothing larger about individuals, institutions, and our culture.”