William Otis, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School and former member of the Bush administration, was announced as one of President Donald Trump’s nominees for the U.S. Sentencing Commission — a bipartisan agency that dictates federal sentencing guidelines — earlier this month. Since then, critics have pointed to Otis’ history of making “racially charged” comments online as a reason to question his fitness for the job.
In a 2013 post he wrote for blog Crime and Consequences, Otis indicated he agreed with a judge’s remarks that “blacks and Hispanics are more violent than whites.” In a follow-up comment, he maintained that racial disparity in the prison system was not due to systemic racism, but “making choices.” Otis held up Asian individuals to bolster his argument, using the derogatory term “Orientals.”
“The reason Orientals stay out of jail more than either whites or blacks,” he wrote, “is that family life, work, education and tradition are honored more in Oriental culture than in others.”
Among the problematic views on display in Otis’ argument, his last comment perpetuates a false representation of Asian-Americans as “model minorities.”
Aarti Kohli, executive director of Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, told HuffPost in an email that Otis’ comments essentially paint a broad picture of the Asian-American community, ignoring the complexities within the minority group.
While little data exists on the Asian-American prison population, the research available shows that it has not been exempt from contact with the criminal justice system.
“In the California prison system, APIs [Asian-Pacific Islanders] are officially categorized as ‘Others,’ a fitting description for a population so often overlooked,” Kohli said. “There is plenty of evidence that shows that the criminal justice system is a form of social control [that] is biased against people of color.”
In the 1990s, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community saw its prisoner population balloon, increasing by 250 percent. A significant portion of these Asian-Americans came from refugee groups who fled from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War ― a fact that was particularly evident in areas with high concentrations of this group. Laotian and Vietnamese individuals, for example, were among the top four most arrested groups in 1990 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Kohli noted that the Trump appointee’s comments allude to the “good immigrant” and “perpetual foreigner” stereotypes, denying Asian-Americans of their “Americanness.”
John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC, said that Otis’ comments pit racial minorities against each other.
“Otis’ statement is racist because it stereotypes and suggests others do not value family, work and education,” he told HuffPost.
Otis told HuffPost in an email that he is “honored to have been selected by the President for this nomination” but declined to comment on criticisms regarding his previous comments.
Yang also added that Otis’ use of the term “Oriental,” — which former President Barack Obama had formally removed from federal law in 2016 — speaks volumes.
Ultimately, such beliefs would impede Otis’ ability to effectively serve on the commission, Yang said.
“Someone who holds such biases and predispositions should not be allowed to hold an important position on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which requires that criminal sentences be determined based on facts and evidence, not prejudices and biases,” he said.