It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Yale. I am attending one of the accompanying lectures when a graduate student comes up to me, an Asian American, and asks what I am majoring in. I do not have a chance to reply before the graduate student answers his own question: Biology?
Racial stereotyping is not dead. The above situation is a relatively mild example of unintentional stereotyping, like saying “American” when really meaning “white,” yet it is further evidence that our society is not yet color-blind. Although overt racism may have lessened in certain contexts, commentators such as Frank H. Wu suggest that prejudice remains in covert form. In Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, Wu writes that, “As a nation, we have become so seemingly triumphant at vilifying racists that we have induced denial about racism.” He cites a recent major survey conducted by the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan Chinese-American group, showed that one-quarter of respondents believed that “Chinese Americans were taking too many jobs from other Americans,” one-third believed that Chinese Americans are “more loyal to China than the United States,” and about half believed that “Chinese Americans passing secret information to China was a problem.” A surprisingly large number of respondents also expressed wariness about an “Asian American president, corporate CEO, or boss.” The public’s reaction to this survey was largely one of huge surprise, which, Wu states, “showed that even though many non-Asian Americans were themselves being prejudiced, they still believed that Asian Americans don’t face prejudice.”
In Yellow, Wu, a law professor at Howard University Law School (the first Asian American law professor at the historically black university) reasserts the urgent need to discuss race; he attempts to explain “why and how race matters, because it shapes every aspect of my life—and everyone else’s.” Wu laments the dearth of Asian American public intellectuals, declaring that, “Although Asian Americans are often stereotyped as intellectuals, we are not expected to be public intellectuals… we have no Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, much less a [Henry Louis] Gates, [Cornel] West, or [William Julius] Wilson.” Instead, he states that, “Asian Americans are at once highly visible in popular culture and virtually invisible in serious discourse, allowing popular culture to define serious discourse.” A “serious discourse” co-opted by figure skaters and martial arts actors is distressing. With Yellow, Wu attempts to assert himself within this discourse. Although Yellow opens with W.E.B. Du Bois’s declaration that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line…” comparison between Yellow and The Souls of Black Folk reveals the inadequacies of Wu’s approach.
While Wu has conducted exhaustive research, the book largely covers familiar topics, leading to a plodding “Asian American Issues 101” feel to the book. His account lacks much of the narrative force of other recent works on Asian American issues, such as Helen Zia’s more journalistic Asian American Dreams. Yet, while the topics he writes about are common (affirmative action, the model minority, racial profiling, intermarriage), Wu adds his lawyerly analysis to these issues and usually provides compelling and substantive reasons for his views.
Wu chooses to first dispel the model minority myth, which while appearing “complimentary on its face… is disingenuous at its heart.” According to Wu, “‘You Asians are all doing well anyway’ summarizes the model minority myth.” This myth assumes that most, if not all, Asian Americans have become highly educated and successful through their own hard work and effort: a Horatio Alger tale “updated for the new millennium with an ‘Oriental’ face and imbued with Asian values.” With a disproportionate amount of Asian Americans enrolled in selective universities, according to the myth, Asian Americans are the “New Jews.” However, the model minority myth, according to Wu, was “neither created by nor is it controlled by Asian Americans. It is applied to but not by Asian Americans.” Thus, Asian Americans become “pawns” to politicians, often conservative, who use the model minority myth to taunt African-Americans (it “serves a purpose in reinforcing racial hierarchies”) and to deny that Asian Americans are subject to racial discrimination and other civil rights abuses.
In extolling Asian Americans as the inheritors of the American Dream, the model minority myth ignores the glass ceiling which they face as the result of the “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” Wu describes the way in which, “We [Asian Americans] are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.” As Wu notes, all Asian Americans know that the answer to the question, “Where are you from?” (often followed by “Where are you really from?”) is far more ambiguous than it would seem. Like the model minority myth, to Wu, the “perpetual foreigner syndrome works to deprive Asian Americans of civil rights and transform us into a racial threat.” Wu’s examples of the syndrome are the usual ones: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the 1996 “Asian Connection” campaign finance scandal. Although the case of Wen Ho Lee could also fit in this category, Wu saves it for his later thorough discussion of racial profiling. While his response to the syndrome is, like most aspects of this book, largely predictable, Wu’s views on immigration, which he ties to the perpetual foreigner syndrome, are more compelling. Wu argues that, “For some liberals, their most fervently held progressive ideals seem to stop at the border.” He believes that “virtually all arguments about immigration are arguments over race” and argues that immigration control is based on “inherited privilege” in which the politicians who set the control policies rely on a “we were here first” mentality. Wu recalls Thomas Jefferson who believed that all contracts and laws should expire with each generation; if immigration policy truly reflected the views of contemporary America, Wu predicts the borders would be much more fluid.
Wu also battles against “inherited privilege” in his argument for affirmative action. Wu is perhaps best known for his televised C-SPAN debate with conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza over affirmative action. Wu’s argument for affirmative action is, again, fairly predictable. He critiques the concepts of a “color blind” society and a “meritocracy,” and argues that, “Affirmative action represents equality and integration… [it] ‘implements’ and ‘operationalizes’ our dreams and objectives.” Affirmative action is a particularly contentious issue for some Asian Americans who feel that they are being unfairly discriminated against in the college admissions process, yet, Wu argues that Asian Americans benefit from affirmative action in other ways, from increased access to federal government contracts to entry-level corporate hiring. Wu believes this Asian American ambiguity and “in-between” status towards affirmative action can help play a crucial role in affirming affirmative action.
Wu’s arguments are less convincing in the last portion of Yellow, when he begins to tackle more “cultural” questions. Wu is at his best when discussing policy; in the more vague cultural areas, he tends towards rehashed inanity. He first frames cultural questions using the practice of dog-eating as an example (the important question being: “What is the point of asking whether I eat dogs?”) and then concludes with the easy answer: “Both assimilation and multiculturalism have their merits, but neither is wholly satisfactory. Each has significant flaws which can be remedied only by blending the approaches.” His discussions of assimilation and multiculturalism add little of interest to the debate; instead, they are punctuated by unnecessarily lengthy explorations of what Crevecoeur and Randolph Bourne, among others, thought about the issues. Wu’s stance on assimilation (“At their most desperate, Asian Americans turned to assimilation”) lacks the necessary amount of nuance needed for this topic. For a more successful approach, read Yale graduate Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian. Wu also largely neglects and should have explored the issue of racial self-segregation. In regards to diversity, Wu argues that diversity of opinion, as well as race, should be tolerated. He also wants to move beyond superficial gestures (such as serving Thai Curried Tofu in the Yale Dining Halls) to emphasize more far-reaching achievements: “Mere diversity is not enough. Substance matters.” Of course, this is no solution, since defining “substance” itself is highly contentious.
It is fitting, then, that Wu’s conclusive remarks about the need for coalition building are to be expected. However, Wu begins this section with a brief account of his experiences as the only Asian American law school professor at Howard. This passage could have been one of the more fascinating parts of the book if Wu had only explored this unique personal experience a bit more. Instead, he quickly moves on to his more predictable political statements. In regards to coalitions, he makes the unsurprising argument that Asian Americans will be more effective in their goals by joining with other groups across racial lines (and even beyond race, since he asserts that, “The disability rights movement may be the future of the civil rights movement”). Wu ends by making the obligatory exhortation to the young: “It is the young, however, who will lead. Youth culture should be applauded for its gift for overcoming the faults of earlier generations.” While Yellow is a worthy contribution to the movement, there is still plenty more for future Asian American writers to add.