By Frank H. Wu
Basic Books -- 397pp -- $26
Frank Wu, the Chinese-American author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, teaches law at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically black institution. In social encounters, writes Wu, "on more than one occasion, a person has looked me over carefully, paused, and then stammered, are you actually black?" (He's not.) Wu is asked so often why he teaches at Howard that he's tempted to respond with a printed handout. But the incidents illustrate a lesson: Although few Americans believe they are racists, race underlies our daily perceptions. We're "racial without being racist," writes Wu. Few would likely think twice if Wu taught at a predominantly white school, because an upwardly mobile Asian American is expected to want to be in the mainstream.
Wu joins a growing group of Asian-American essayists, including former Clinton White House speechwriter Eric Liu and journalist/activist Helen Zia, who are building a body of literature reflecting on Asian Americans' place in the U.S. All bring the tools of their own trades. Wu's book lacks the poetry of Liu's writing or Zia's compelling narratives. But with a clear expository style, the law professor excels at using logic to unclothe the inconspicuous manifestations of racial thinking.
It starts with everyday comments encountered by Asian Americans, such as "Where are you really from?" Seemingly innocuous, the question reflects the persistent view of Asian Americans as foreigners. "Discrimination based on race is immoral, but discrimination based on citizenship is not," writes Wu. So, by turning Asian Americans into noncitizens, even those who don't think of themselves as racists feel free to "turn us into a racial threat," says Wu.
One doesn't have to go back far for examples. Just three years ago, Chinese American Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was prosecuted for selling nuclear secrets to China, but in the end the feds dropped almost all of their 59 counts, and Lee pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor. Wu views the event as a "case study in racial profiling." Six years ago, the firestorm over Democratic campaign gifts from Asian nationals uncovered barely disguised racist undercurrents. At the time, Ross Perot said of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, an American: "Mr. Huang is still out there hard at work for the Democrats. Wouldn't you like to have someone out there named O'Reilly?...You know, so far we haven't found an American name."
In addition to exploring these and other examples, Wu writes about the complex politics between black, white, and yellow. He considers affirmative action and examines the negative side of the seemingly benign view of Asian Americans as a model minority. He gets beyond the black-white debate that we're used to and takes us into the 21st century on the race question. Overt bigotry may be less of a problem today, but a racial subtext--sometimes benign, sometimes ugly--still lurks in all of us. It's better to recognize that if we are to improve race relations.
Corrections and Clarifications
In a review of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu (Books, Feb. 25 in some editions), BusinessWeek reproduced an error contained in the book. Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee pleaded guilty to a felony charge, not a misdemeanor. Wu has also acknowledged the mistake.
By Catherine Yang