The following is a transcript from Wai Wah Chin’s speech at Pacific Legal Foundation’s 50th anniversary gala. National Portrait Gallery, March 23, 2023.
All our lives matter. But what matters in life? Let me speak about one life, that of Roald Hoffman. Roald was a Jewish boy in Poland during the Holocaust. Most of his family, including his father, were killed by the Nazis then. He and his mother escaped the labor camp and, aided by a Ukrainian, hid two years in a schoolhouse attic. Then he wandered several years, as a refugee, from country to country in Europe.
When Roald was 11, he arrived in New York City with no English. Two years later, he took the standardized entrance exam to one of the city’s and nation’s best high schools, Stuyvesant High School, which was then mostly Jewish. He got in. He thrived there. It was his place. He said, when I first met him a decade ago, “I loved every moment there.” Roald went on from Stuyvesant to make fundamental discoveries in how chemical reactions work and to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Thirteen-year-old Roald was one of 14 future Nobel Laureates, all in the sciences, admitted by the merit-based race-blind test.
Imagine if, instead of this Holocaust survivor coming to America and being able to test into a top school, Roald were told, “Sorry, you can’t come to Stuyvesant. We already have too many Jews.” Too many Jews. Imagine the loss, not just for Stuyvesant, but for the country, the world. What would “too many Jews” say about New York as a city, about America as a country, and about our sense of justice? Well, in 2018, New York City educrats and politicians said New York’s top exam schools, especially Stuyvesant, have too many Asians. I’m not exaggerating.
A couple years ago, New York’s Department of Education deputy chancellor, Milady Baez—that is her name, Milady Baez—complained, “I walked into Stuyvesant High School, and I thought I was in Chinatown.” Milady Baez walked into one of the nation’s best high schools, and instead of seeing kids, students with gifts and talents for the world, all she saw was race. She was not unique. The then-mayor, chancellor, and many below them saw the same. So, instead of all students passing a single rigorous test as Roald did, now one out of five students are admitted into Stuyvesant by a special program using factors other than objective merit, factors designed actually to decrease the number of Asians drastically in these top exam schools.
Seeing only race when they’re individual people is the essence of racism. Acting on this racism to curtail the liberty of others is the essence of racist bigotry. It is un-American. It is dehumanizing, divisive, toxic. I am not an activist by nature or training, but I believe that no student should be denied a seat because of race. When New York politicians began agitating over too many Asians at Stuyvesant and the other exam schools, a group of us parents had to push back. In 2016, we formed the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York. We organized rallies, marches, and forums and reached out to politicians. Two years later, we sued New York City.
For representing us splendidly, superbly, at no charge, we are deeply, deeply grateful to our wonderful counsel, PLF. Thank you, Steven, and the Board, and all of the attorneys who’ve worked on our case and all the other cases. Our lawsuit is about more than education. It’s about the government violating America’s promise of liberty, the promise that here in America our destiny belongs to us, to develop ourselves, to test ourselves, to challenge and grow ourselves, to flourish and to celebrate when others do the same.
I was not an activist, but that is worth fighting for. Today, threats to liberty abound. We see the Orwellian hijacking of diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI, into the service of racist collective judgment everywhere, openly. If you haven’t done one of those questionnaires rating your privilege score, you probably know someone who has. You may even know someone bullied and humiliated at school or at work in Maus-style struggle sessions for being born into a privileged race or gender collective. This is not just about hostile environments. Collective judgments based on race and sex also decide hiring and promotions. And our governments, federal, state, and local, now call for collective rewards and punishments based on race and ethnicity.
Opponents of liberty use privilege as a racial smear. Let me tell you about privilege. I am privileged to join this fight, the fight to save liberty. There is no greater privilege than to fight for a cause that matters. And by that measure, this is a room full of extremely privileged people. PLF is litigating several cases like ours across the country, cases where the government denies opportunities to certain students due to race. This includes the Thomas Jefferson High School case in Virginia. For Asian students deny the fruits of their hard work and achievement since DEI mandates equal collective outcomes. But that is not the only battle PLF is fighting. Week after week, PLF files new lawsuits against the government when it violates fundamental liberties, liberties such as building a home on your own property, earning a living, or being protected by non-discriminatory policies. Liberties so essential to building our America.
We do not apologize for our fight for liberty. We do not apologize for the ambition to achieve by determination, our determination and effort to take ownership of our destiny. In America, each person has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This promise was made by our Founding Fathers in our Declaration of Independence in 1776 and is guaranteed by our magnificent Constitution. And now, more than any other country in the world, we’ve made exceptional progress toward achieving this promise. It was this promise that brought my parents here when the land of their birth crushed liberty.
I want to leave you with a thought. When immigrants used to come by boat to Ellis Island in the New York Harbor, they would first sail by the great Statue of Liberty. Every boat would put down on the side of Lady Liberty as the immigrants, many with tears welling up in the eyes, crowded together to see that symbol of liberty. They knew that in America, the right to choose to work hard and achieve belongs to each individual. That’s what liberty meant to them. That’s what mattered in life. That’s why people from around the world came to America and why they continue to come to America. It is a privilege to be in America. It is our privilege to fight and guard for these rights. And with our united fight for this privilege, we will pass down to the future our greatest legacy: liberty.