Facing likely defeat of his nomination for the nation’s top civil rights post, Bill Lann Lee reflected Wednesday about what his father, a poor immigrant from China, would have said about Republican efforts against him.
Speaking in a gentle, soft voice, Lee said his now-deceased father, who had operated a small hand laundry and routinely endured slurs like “dumb Chinaman,” would try to look for the positive side.
“He lived in a time when it was rough to be different,” said Lee, 48, a civil rights lawyer from Los Angeles nominated by President Clinton to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.
“He always felt that it was not he who was at fault, but it was those who didn’t realize what the country was all about. He always felt the country was about equal opportunity and fairness.
“He would say: ‘Well, look, you’ve gotten very far. It’s an honor to be where you are.’ And that’s how I see things,” Lee said. He told his story during one of a series of interviews with news organizations to help build public support in the hours before a crucial Senate vote.
Lee’s nomination is to be considered today by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, calls the nomination “dead” because Lee supports affirmative action and opposes the California initiative barring the use of race and gender as criteria in state contracting, hiring and college admission. Those are the same positions Clinton has taken.
Hatch believes he has the votes, but over the past week, intensive lobbying has focused on persuading a couple of key Republican senators to support Lee.
The dismal prospects have prompted civil rights and religious organizations to rally to try to save Lee’s nomination. It is a sharp break from established practice for the White House to allow a nominee to speak to reporters before the vote on his nomination.
The intensive lobbying campaign is a sign of how difficult the Clinton administration thinks Lee’s chances are.
“Knowing my father, he would say to hang in there and persevere,” said Lee, who is the Western regional counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Conceding the last few weeks have been “pressured,” Lee said he is drawing strength from the lessons learned from his father, Lee Wei-lim.
After coming to this country, Lee’s father volunteered for the Army Air Force during World War II and served in a mostly white unit, where he developed friendships and felt accepted.
When the war was over, Lee’s parents opened a hand laundry in a poor neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Lee said his parents taught him the values of hard work, honesty and trying to serve others. He also learned how painful discrimination is.
Lee said his father often was subjected to racial epithets because he was a poor Chinese American who spoke broken English.
“It was very wounding to him,” Lee said.
Confrontations occurred especially with taxi drivers.
Every Sunday, Lee said he and his parents went to Chinatown in lower Manhattan, often staying late and taking a cab home instead of the subway.
“My father would get very angry, and we would end up stranded a lot,” Lee said. “We would get thrown out of cabs, and my mother, my brother and I would be standing out there in the streets in the dark. And my father would be yelling at the cab driver and he would be yelling back.”
Lee’s father never wanted his two sons to go into the laundry business. Eventually, Lee graduated from Yale magna cum laude, with a degree in history, then earned a law degree from Columbia University.
Lee has spent his career working on civil rights cases, such as employment discrimination, access to health care and education, and equity in public transportation.
“Had the civil rights laws been in effect and enforced during the time my father and mother had their laundry, their lives might very well have been different,” Lee said.
“I believe that is something that many Americans feel. The story of my father is not unique. It is something that many of us have lived through.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE NOMINEE A look at Bill Lann Lee, President Clinton’s nominee for Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights. Age: 48 Born: New York City, 1949 Education: Bachelor’s degree, Yale University, 1971 J.D. degree, Columbia University, 1974. Career highlights: Western regional counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, 1989-present. Supervising attorney for civil rights litigation, Center for Law in the Public Interest, 1983-1989. Assistant counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1974-1982. Family: Married, three children.