Exploring Race in America

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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.

How do you feel about class-based notions of affirmative action as a supplement to race-based affirmative action programs?

As a supplement they are good. We have problems with class that we should address that we haven’t addressed. The problem is that sometimes people assume that class can be a substitute for race. It can’t be for the simple reason that there are many more poor people who are white than poor people who are black. It doesn’t matter how you define poor people because African Americans are a racial minority, even though they are disproportionately represented among the poor. In numbers, most poor people are white. Now there’s nothing wrong with helping them; I think we should help them. It’s just that we should recognize that helping them is very different from addressing racial discrimination. It’s a different proposition.

In your book you say that integration and pluralism are “mutually incompatible.” Should we replace integration as our goal and if so, what should our new goal be?

We should consider all of these different goals. One of the great things about the United States is that we can quite often strive for different goals. Here’s an example. We think that liberty is good, we thing that equality is good; we think they’re both good. Well, as many people have pointed out, they conflict. If you let everyone do anything they want and leave people alone, that probably is going to generate inequality. On the other hand, if you want equality you have to do some things that people don’t want you to do because you don’t get equality otherwise. So those are incompatible. Likewise, if we want to have institutions that are racially integrated, i.e. racially mixed, it becomes harder to maintain institutions that have distinctive identities. It’s not impossible, but it becomes harder. One of the ways institutions achieve a distinct identity is by excluding some people or by not having people of all backgrounds.

You also say that mixed-race children “transcend assimilation and multiculturalism.” Is that the ideal for which we should all be striving?

Yellow is a book of questions. It’s not a book of answers. I’m not a preacher; I’m just a law professor. I don’t identify the goals that I think society should have. I try to sketch out the different problems there are in pursuing these goals. So, I’m not sure. I have a very modest goal. My goal is to start dialogue and to get people talking and that’s it. That’s my only goal -- talking as equals.

Is Asian American a useful term given the diversity of ethnicities within that racial designation?

Sure. For one thing, it’s an effort towards building bridges. Anyone who says they are Asian American recognizes that they [now] have a common cause with [other] people [of Asian descent] whose grandparents their own grandparents would have hated, or tried to rebel against, or conquer [in Asia].

What is this common cause?

Responding to racial discrimination is a leading one, but it’s not the only one. Working towards a society that is racially just is another one. I get called “chink” and “jap” and “gook”. I get called “jap” and “gook” as often as I get called “chink”. It really wouldn’t do much good if when someone called me a “jap” I said, “Excuse me I’m actually a chink.” If they said, “Oh, ok, I’m sorry; I’ll call you a chink from now on,” then I have not really helped myself there. In part, that’s what made me realize that these are all related issues.

What are some of the lessons that all Americans can learn from Asian American experiences?

Race is complicated. I really like the cover of my book because it’s bright yellow. I really owe a lot to the graphic designer. But really the title of the book should be Gray and it should have a dull drab gray color because it’s about how this stuff is complicated. There is no easy answer. My answer is there is no single answer. There are many competing answers. If people read the book and think of one thing they haven’t thought of before, I would be happy.

So one of the lessons is that this stuff is complicated. Asian Americans fall half way in between whites and blacks. Some Asian Americans do live in predominantly white neighborhoods. Many Asian Americans face housing bias, but not nearly as bad as what African Americans face. If you look at any social science indicators, we are just about half way in between. So there’s no question, we do face discrimination, but by and large the patterns are that Asian Americans face less bias than African Americans and Hispanics. There may be differences in specific cases, but [this is the] pattern. We also show that you can be simultaneously villains and victims. Perhaps talking about villains and victims is not a helpful way to talk about things. Asian Americans can hold hateful attitudes toward African Americans and mistreat them and be mistreated right back.

It’s easier to see with Asian Americans how things are so unclear. It’s easier to see the gray, at least for whites and blacks. It’s less charged for them.

Can we talk about assimilation? Generally the assumption is that assimilation means assimilation into white culture, that white is somehow the default. But Asian Americans can also assimilate into African American culture.

I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad, but that we should be aware of it. All I’m trying to do is make people aware of things they didn’t notice before, and then we can discuss it. Maybe it’s better to have middle class suburban values, but there are lots of African Americans who have middle class suburban values.

I’m trying to get people to think about who it is that you’re supposed to hang out with. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with Asian Americans, people think you’re self-segregating. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with whites, people think you’re upwardly mobile. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with blacks, people will think either something negative or that you are trying to pose as hip.

Is being conscious of one's own racism enough?

It’s a start; it’s necessary. It’s not sufficient by itself. If you don’t do at least that, you’re not going to get any further. Sometimes people read books about race and they say, “Oh, it’s just people of color complaining and they’re all self-righteous and they make it sound as if whites are just bad.” My goal is to explain, not complain. I confess I’ve done some of this stuff, too. In part because we can’t help it: if what you see on television and in the movies are always the same images over and over again, then of course you are going to think certain things when you encounter different people. It would be odd if you didn’t. Part of what I’m trying to do is confess. I’m not pointing a finger at others. I try to be clear that this isn’t just about white folks changing, it’s about society changing. We have to think more broadly and more deeply about these issues.

Taking action is really what we should be striving for. It’s good to talk about these things. I make a living reading, writing, thinking and talking, so I think these are all good things to do, but it’s not actually getting out there, rolling up your sleeves and doing something. It’s very important to do things too.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.