Searching for ‘Practical Equality’

Posted 5/1/19

One Port Townsend High School graduate is on the search for practical equality.

Robert Tsai, who grew up helping his parents run the LightHouse Cafe in Port Townsend, is bringing his new book, called “Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation” back home, and will give a book reading and discussion at 6 p.m. on May 3 at Peninsula College in Fort Worden.

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Searching for ‘Practical Equality’

Posted

One Port Townsend High School graduate is on the search for practical equality.

Robert Tsai, who grew up helping his parents run the Lighthouse Cafe in Port Townsend, is bringing his new book, called “Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation” back home, and will give a book reading and discussion at 6 p.m. on May 3 at Peninsula College in Fort Worden.

Tsai, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan to Canada before moving to Port Townsend when he was in first grade, has fond memories of his hometown.

Though he left the Pacific Northwest to attend college, Tsai remembers joining mock trial in high school, where he began to understand where his life path might take him.

“I thought I would be either a teacher or a businessman,” he said. “As I was finishing high school, I really liked spending time with people who like to learn.”

“He was a strong academic student,” said Bruce Cowan, who taught Tsai in his second grade class and was friends with his family. “I’ve re-connected with him when he has visited town before, and it’s great to see him having his moment. … To be honest, I would not be reading books about constitutional law if Robert wasn’t the one writing them.”

For Tsai, coming back to Port Townsend is always a treat, as he enjoys revisiting his upbringing and the landscape of the Olympic Peninsula. After graduating, Tsai broke out of the small town life in Port Townsend to attend the University of California Los Angeles, and later Yale Law School.

Law degree in hand, he was selected as a clerk for federal judges in New York and Boston, before heading down to Georgia to become a civil rights lawyer.

It was through these experiences that Tsai began to dive deep into researching law and ways in which equality can be brought to America’s judicial system.

“Practical Equality” is Tsai’s third book, and addresses the need for flexibility in tactics to bring equality.

“I show how we tend to run into the same set of problems, and end up kind of in a never-ending cycle, when we look at it as a straight-ahead equality problem,” Tsai said. “Instead we can reframe it as a different kind of problem, like a fairness problem, or a cruelty problem, or a free speech problem.”

An example of this idea, he said, is enforcement of U.S. immigration law.

“One of the problems that judges face with the issue of family separation of migrants seeking refugee status, is if you say the word, ‘equality,’ you run into these problems of people saying, ‘Well they’re not US citizens,’” he said. “Sometimes we can sidestep these conversations if we frame it as something else.”

Separating families, he said, could then be seen not as an equality problem, but as a cruelty problem.

“They are humans,” he said. “And there can be these worldwide, basic human rights and expectations of fairness. Expectations to not be treated with cruelty.”

The issue with the word equality, he added, is that it allows people to question who deserves equality.

“We want to say, ‘Well, everyone deserves equality.’” he said. “But at the same time, we usually assume that children can be treated differently from adults. We also assume that those who have been charged with a crime have different rights from those who have not.”

Maybe instead of searching for equality, which seems like an near-impossible task, we should start with avoiding cruelty, ensuring fair play, and protecting free speech for everyone, Tsai said.

At his book talk on May 3, Tsai will discuss his ideas, ask questions and sign books. He is also giving a talk that same day at Port Townsend High School at 1:45 p.m.

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