Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday told Lucy Koh, a Korean American judicial nominee, that her Korean background reminds him of his daughter-in-law telling him that Koreans have “a hard work ethic” and “can make a lot out of nothing.”
“So I congratulate you and your people,” Grassley told Koh.
He made his comment to Koh, who is President Joe Biden’s nominee to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, at the start of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grassley is the ranking Republican on the panel.
Koh simply replied, “Thank you.”
Watch the exchange in the video above.
Koh, who was born in Washington, D.C., had just finished telling a story about her mother’s escape from North Korea in 1946. She also described the poverty she witnessed growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s.
If confirmed, Koh, 53, would be the first Korean American woman to ever serve as a U.S. appeals court judge. She has been a U.S. district judge in California since 2010.
Grassley spokesperson Taylor Foy later told HuffPost the senator’s comment was intended “to be complimentary” to Koh and not meant to insult anyone.
“Chairman Durbin invited Judge Koh to share the inspiring story of her family’s immigration to the United States,” said Foy. “Sen. Grassley shared that he has similarly been inspired by the immigration story of his daughter-in-law, who is also Korean-American.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who is Chinese American and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said Grassley’s comments were inappropriate and harmful.
“Even if you think you’re being complimentary, assigning any character trait to an entire community is the definition of prejudice,” Chu told HuffPost. “Treating all members of a group as the same invites mistreatment when one person can be held accountable for the actions of someone else. It may not be the same incitement to violence seen in other slurs, but it is harmful none the less.”
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.
This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Grassley’s office.