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Exploring Race in America

Frank H. Wu is the first Asian American to serve as a law professor at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. He has written for a range of publications including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Nation, is a columnist for A. Magazine, and writes a regular column for Asian Week. Wu participated in a major debate against Dinesh D’Souza on affirmative action that was televised on C-SPAN and was the host of the nationally syndicated PBS talk show “Asian America”. His new book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White has been called a "sobering, astute and compelling investigation" by Publishers Weekly.

Asia Society spoke with the writer via phone from his office in Washington, D.C. in anticipation of a February 13 panel entitled "Race and Reconciliation" at the Asia Society in New York.

You have said on NPR that you see the September 11 terrorist attacks as hate crimes and that “we must take aggressive action, even military action, against hate crimes on a massive scale.” However, many critics would argue that the subsequent “war on terror” justifies systematic racial profiling. Can you comment on this?

Our war against terrorism need not and should not become a war on a particular racial group or faith. If we focus on individuals who have done wrong and threaten to do wrong without making assumptions about entire groups of people by their identity, then we will be fighting a just war. There is a significant risk of racial profiling. I think it is both compatible and necessary to stand up for civil liberties on the domestic front even as we wage war overseas. We must remember the principles that we fight for. Our patriotism need not be tainted by prejudice of any form. It’s possible to fight a war without having racial overtones. Certainly the President, the Attorney General and others have done much to emphasize that this is a diverse nation and that [diversity] is one of our strengths. There have been some unfortunate instances and actions which haven’t always matched that rhetoric.

In your book, you talk about how the model minority myth sometimes has more to do with white perceptions of African Americans than that of Asian Americans in that the myth holds out the economic success of Asian Americans as a way to blame African Americans for their own poverty. Can you explain how even a positive racial stereotype, namely that of the overachieving Asian American, can be hurtful?

It’s hurtful first because it’s a generalization on the basis of race. You can’t believe the model minority myth and also claim to be colorblind. It’s an image based on color. It can also be negative toward Asian Americans because it generates a backlash. Every positive trait is correlated to its negative counterpart. After all, to be good at math and science is to be a nerd, a geek, to be good only at math and science. To be hardworking is to be unfair competition. To be polite is to know your place. It’s detrimental to its very subjects and suggests there is a particular role that Asian Americans must play. It also whitewashes bias. People sometimes say, “What are you complaining about? You can’t possibly have faced racial discrimination. You Asians are all doing so well, everyone knows that.” So that even when Asian Americans do face actual discrimination, they are not considered to have suffered any grievance. It’s sort of the price to be paid. It is their just comeuppance for being overachievers. And finally, [the model minority myth] is sometimes meant to send an invidious message to African Americans. Sometimes it has nothing to do with Asian Americans. It’s just a not-so-subtle way to say to African Americans, “They made it. Why can’t you?”

You have also written that affirmative action is a partial answer to the question: “What will we do to address racial discrimination?” Can you suggest some other answers to that question?

We have anti-bias laws. Those are a very important part. We have efforts by leaders ranging from politicians and teachers to clergy and parents trying to change attitudes. The corporate sector is recognizing that in order to do business in certain markets it needs to understand those markets. There are many methods and what I encourage in the book is considering every possible method and being practical, recognizing that all of us, individuals and institutions, have a responsibility even if we are not at fault.