Plans to merge the Hamline and William Mitchell law schools in the Twin Cities remind us that law student enrollment continues to fall in the United States. The pattern may look different, however, among Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans. These populations have a small but growing presence in the American legal profession. The traditional obsession with careers in science and medicine seems to be shifting, or at least opening up.
What explains the change? A new generation that speaks American English as a mother tongue may be poised to excel in law as their parents were not. But the post-9/11 era is also key. Today, more and more Americans who are Muslim — or who could be mistaken for Muslim by some — understand that their road to civil rights and civic equality begins with legal training. Law may be the new medicine not just for the individual, but also for the group’s collective woes.
My own research alerts me to this new minority involvement with law. In British India, a small but affluent minority known as Parsis was unusually engaged with the legal system. As followers of the Zoroastrian religion, this tiny population migrated to western India after the seventh-century conquest of Persia by Arab Muslims. Minorities have often tried to avoid interaction with state legal systems. But Parsis jumped in, becoming users of colonial law and masters of its mechanics. From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th, they changed the law that governed their community by co-opting the system.
In the same way that post-9/11 conditions have awoken Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans today, the blanket application of English law triggered a legal mobilization among Parsis. In the 1850s, a handful of Parsis worked in the colonial courts of western India. Figures like interpreter Nowrozjee Furdoonjee and lawyer Manockjee Cursetjee brought home the legal know-how acquired in their day jobs. They led the campaign for legislation that de-Anglicized the rules for Parsi life. They started a new legal culture that grew stronger and broader over the next five generations. They created a movement.
This new culture came at a price. Parsi communities ripped each other apart in lawsuits that sometimes stretched across the globe on appeal. Yet collective benefits also emerged from these individuals’ pain. Parsis had an outsized presence among lawyers and judges in Mumbai, the dazzling commercial metropolis of late colonial India. When Parsis sued one another, then, Parsi lawyers and judges were often involved. These legal professionals were shaping the legal narrative about their own community.
You could say that South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans today share little with Parsis in history. The British regarded the Parsi community as a model minority — the opposite, you could say, of the demonized portrayal of Muslim Americans today. As a group, Parsis were never associated with acts of violence like 9/11, for instance. But they did operate in the context of full-blown British imperial racism.
There is also a glass ceiling, many say, that blocks advancement into the zone of American law and politics that really counts. The first elite Parsi lawyers also encountered race-based barriers to entry in the beginning. But the more heads that hit the glass ceiling, the more likely it is to crack. Parsi legal culture was decades in the making. This was a marathon, not a sprint, and the group’s focus and perseverance paid off.
Turning to law can reinforce, not erode, minority rights and control. The ongoing crisis in U.S. law schools threatens to unravel the old assumption that legal careers bring status and income. For Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans, though, there are bigger, longer-term reasons to go into law. As lawyers and eventually judges, these new legal professionals have the skills to safeguard their members’ equal rights in the courts. As community organizers and ultimately legislators, they are helping to shape statutes. Unknowingly, perhaps, they are replicating the Parsi model.
Mitra Sharafi is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is the author of “Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).