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Asian stereotypes: Furtive, sneaky, dishonest and trying to one-up Americans

Wednesday, May 23, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Recently, a client sent us a link to a political ad run by Texan US Senate candidate David Dewhurst. The ad essentially attacks Dewhurst’s opponent (Ted Cruz, an attorney) for representing a Chinese company in an intellectual property lawsuit with an American company. Ted Cruz is painted as a “China sympathizer” who is guilty of helping the Chinese steal American jobs. The ad has gotten heavy airplay all over Texas, and the coverage of the dispute related to it has raised the prominence of the controversy even more.

It made us think about several recent projects where bias against Asians was expressed in a joking fashion by various mock jurors. But it was clear that the joking tone was a thin veil for attitudes that were not at all funny. All of the cases involved intellectual property (patents or trade secrets) and the accusations that the Asian entity had reverse-engineered the American IP unfairly. The merits of the cases are one level of analysis, but more prominent was the readiness of most jurors to find guilty conduct in these Asian parties in a way that speaks of confirmation bias.

As many readers of our blog are aware, confirmation bias is the tendency we all have of seeing the world as we believe it to be. People remember evidence that confirms their attitudes and biases, and have weaker recall for contradictory points. Someone with such a bias may say “Because of [X fact], I think the Defendant should pay the Plaintiff”, but you are able to rebut their reliance on [X fact] absolutely. They reply not by changing their conclusion, but by changing their justifying argument. Often, this pattern is an indication of confirmation bias, not of the power of the evidence itself. When I was in graduate school, we referred to this as “drawing the curve before you plot the data”.

In one project, the plaintiff was a very successful American businessman with a Middle Eastern last name, and was suing a major retailer, alleging that they knowingly purchasing and sold black market counterfeit products manufactured in Asia. Given the last name of the plaintiff, we were expecting racism. And we saw it. Interestingly, the racist comments were directed at Asian countries who were (in the minds of jurors) counterfeiting the [American] products and profiting off the backs of a good [American] product name. Slurs were directed (all in a seemingly joking fashion) at China, Korea and Asian countries in general. When questioned about these comments and the basis for them, our mock jurors denied the importance of the comments and then made additional racist comments–again, veiled as jokes.

In another case, a Chinese scientist invited himself to an American university to ‘study’ with an established inventor. While there, the Chinese scientist copied documents and beat the American inventor to the US patent office by filing a patent through his Chinese company with stolen documents. The Chinese scientist later wrote a letter to the American inventor apologizing for his own poor manners and ethics. Again, we heard slurs and stereotypes about Asians being not trustworthy, sneaky, ethically challenged and more. And again, there was no explanation for this from the mock jurors other than additional “joking” comments.

Since we are based in Texas, it might be tempting to say “Wow, those Texas rednecks are pretty closed-minded”.  [We would then encourage you to consider the bias implicit in that belief…]  But in fact, we conduct research all over the country, and IP cases from coast to coast. The same pattern applies all over. Ethnocentrism is thriving in every community, as it has forever. Globalization is only a good thing if you, your family, and your friends all have the jobs they want.

As we have discussed in other posts about racism and ethnocentrism, people usually deny racial bias, but if the question becomes one of “What do you think your neighbors and co-workers would think about this [racially  loaded] issue?”, the jurors often warn us that the minority party is facing a difficult burden due to race. Obviously, such a person doesn’t want to be seen as racist, but doesn’t mind us knowing that their best friends are racist. Not too wily.

Despite recent surveys depicting a positive sense of each other by American and Chinese citizens, we have been seeing a different picture from our American mock jurors for the past few years.

Perhaps it’s due to the flagging economy and perceptions of China overtaking the US as a global superpower.

Perhaps it’s fear of the Asian intelligence that apparently leads to discrimination against Asians in our educational institutions.

Perhaps it’s the leftover stereotypes from 1960’s James Bond movies portraying Asian men as super-villains.

Perhaps it is a combination of all those factors.

Whatever the reason, we are regularly reminded of the need to carefully prepare Asian and Asian-American witnesses for testimony in American courtrooms, and to carefully prepare trial teams on strategies for dealing with overt and covert anti-Asian bias. Just as we carefully prepare other “different” witnesses–whether they be atheists, homosexuals, powerful women, African Americans or Muslims. We focus on clarity of communication (using translators if necessary) and how to introduce the witnesses to the jury so they are seen as trustworthy and credible. Without making that connection, their testimony is corrupted by bias that can creep in and define the witness.

It appears that when bias against Asians is used in high-profile political campaigns, it has achieved mainstream acceptance, and we should all be paying close attention. Running the anti-Ted Cruz ad is estimated to have cost more than $600,000 and we’re guessing money like that isn’t thrown around “just in case” there are a few voters out there who are biased against Asians.

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