Author advocates 'new paradigm' in race issues

by Valerie Silverman | 5/7/03 5:00am

Race is a national obsession, even though we may not realize that it is on our minds. And, Frank Wu stressed in a lecture yesterday, race means more than black or white.

"You will miss the fastest growing demographic groups of this country if you truly think that everyone must be either black or white," Wu said in explaining his motivation for studying, teaching and writing about race, particularly in his book "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White." Wu expressed a wish to introduce a "new paradigm" that includes Asian Americans and other races.

A charismatic and engaging speaker, Wu opened with a story, assuring the audience that "this happens to every Asian American male between the ages of four and 80."

He described the common, seemingly comical occurrence of encountering a seven-year-old boy while walking down a street. Upon spotting Wu, the boy will strike a Kung Fu pose, make some strange noise and say something like, "Hey, what's up, Jackie Chan?"

"If I were to chase this kid down the street and say, 'You're a bigot!' that would accomplish nothing," Wu said.

However, "no matter how fleeting or trivial these moments are, it becomes apparent how salient race is," he said.

The two points of his book are that race is neither "literally" black or white nor "figuratively" black or white.

"Literally" signifies the percentages of other race, the "growing demographic groups" in this country that people frequently ignore and disregard in their studies on and even thoughts relating to race. In college, Wu read many books on Asian Americans but learned very little about race in America.

"If you read these books, you would think that this country is only Asian!" he said.

In further quests to educate himself on race, one that included races beyond black and white, he was stumped. Most books he found on race indicated that Asian Americans were not even an integral part of the racial divisions in this country.

Wu contrasted Andrew Hacker's recent New York Times Bestseller, "Two Nations," which states at the outset of the book that the experiences of Asian Americans and Latino Americans are not important, with the "global" vision of W.E.B. DuBois' 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk."

In "figuratively," Wu is speaking to the stereotypes and insinuations behind all racial references, which are often seemingly harmless.

"It is important to speak more than just about the villains and the victims," he said. "We like to believe that we have eliminated all hardcore forms of bigotry."

He listed different examples and scenarios in which race -- although subconsciously -- does play a part in peoples' decision- making process and does hold more ingrained implications than the mere superficial statements.

When someone says " 'You Asians, you're all so polite,' or 'you're all doing so well,' perhaps people are thinking, 'you're all doing too well,'" said Wu. In comparing other stereotypes to this one, such as "Jews are good at making money" and "Blacks are all naturally good athletes," Wu heightened the significance of his argument, highlighting hidden implications and prejudices in such statements.

In concluding his speech, Wu revalidated his obsession with race, which he is often forced to do in response his friends' and others' questions.

"I've always thought diversity is akin to democracy -- intertwined," Wu said. "I believe it will never end, and I hope it will never end," he stated in reference to an ongoing discussion about race in America.

About 100 students and community members attended the lecture in Filene Auditorium. When asked by a man in the audience what Wu thought about the disproportionate number of minority students at the lecture, Wu reponded that "it is even important to preach to the choir."

Frank Wu is a professor of law at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Professor Wu has testified against legislation that would abolish affirmative action before the United States House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee and Constitution Sub-Committee. He has appeared as a witness before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In 1997, he was counsel of record on an amicus brief filed on behalf of Asian American community groups in the Prop. 209 litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals. Professor Wu has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, MSNBC, Fox Cable, BBC Radio and NPR. His televised debate (C-SPAN "American Perspectives") against Dinesh D'Souza '83 on affirmative action at Brown University in October 1997 attracted attention nationwide. He has been a guest host of the "Asian America" PBS-syndicated television show.

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