Performance Anxiety

The tragedy of Asian success


Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, by Frank H. Wu, New York: Basic Books, 399 pages, $26

In 1999, congressional Republicans and the Clinton administration revived the old diplomatic game known as "Who Lost China?" This round—"Who Lost Nuclear Weapon Secrets to China?"—was particularly nasty. Republicans whispered (when not saying openly) that the administration was guilty of treason for its lax treatment of official government secrets. They were not charging Clinton merely with gross incompetence. They alleged and insinuated that illegal campaign donations by Chinese nationals amounted to a quid pro quo, with the president taking money indirectly from the Chinese government and then looking the other way as secrets were passed along.

In response, Clinton and company played the race card, suggesting that Republicans were bigots for pointing out that the Democrats had been unusually chummy with various Asian-American communities and Asian business interests in the 1996 election cycle. But even as they insisted that they had done nothing wrong and that the Republicans were ogres for bringing it up, the Democrats launched a massive effort to staunch the scandal's flow. The Democratic National Committee called every donor it believed to be of Asian descent and demanded, in terms many found insulting, such details as their Social Security numbers, their places of employment, and copies of their credit reports. More than $3 million in donations were returned.

In the third chapter of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, Frank Wu explains that this episode marked "a turning point in [the] political empowerment" of Asian Americans. "We were transformed from invisible to infamous," he writes. He isn't kidding. The head of a later chapter quotes some stunning remarks from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. On a Sunday morning talk show, Shelby stopped just short of invoking Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless: "We've got to remember the Chinese are everywhere, as far as our weapon systems, not only in our labs that make our nuclear weapons and development but also in the technology to deliver them. They're real. They're here. And probably in some ways, very crafty people."

Yellow is meant to be a call for a more accurate understanding of Asians and their future roles in American society; it seeks to "elevate" the racial discussion beyond its "formerly static terms." Those are promising goals, and Wu, a Chinese-American law professor at Howard University, sheds new light on many aspects of the Asian experience in the United States. But his actual policy proposals to address lingering aspects of discrimination are neither particularly new nor useful in reconfiguring discussions of race.

One of those "very crafty people" who so worried Sen. Shelby was Wen Ho Lee. A veteran specialist in the arcane field of hydrodynamics from the nuclear laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Lee was targeted by the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. government as a possible mole. After conducting over 1,000 interviews (including over 20 with Lee and in-depth discussions with all his friends and relatives), doing extensive and comprehensive surveillance, and looking through Lee's trash in the county dump, the government had basically wrapped up its investigation. The consensus was voiced by Los Alamos counterintelligence officer Robert Vrooman: "Everyone was convinced he was not a spy….We figured we'd put this puppy to bed."

Vrooman figured wrong, because he had failed to take the political climate of the day into account. In the wake of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security's "Cox Report," which alleged gross breaches of national security, the Clinton administration needed to prove that it, too, was tough on Chinese Communists. So Lee found himself in a nasty predicament. He faced a 59-count indictment, with the real possibility of life imprisonment. When bail was denied, Lee was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day; he was shackled and granted negligible time for family visitation. Most media outlets, following leaks that were initially given credence by The New York Times, all but assumed Lee's guilt.

In open court, though, the government's case imploded. Lee was charged not with treason but with violating what Wu calls "obscure federal statutes on nuclear data confidentiality." It became apparent that the information Lee had divulged was publicly available. Further, most of the actual violations (e.g., copying data to disks and then destroying them in a fit of worry that he was breaking the law) were of rules in the "the law is an ass" category that most researchers routinely ignore. Lee ultimately pled guilty to one charge and settled for time served. The trial judge, James A. Parker, closed the case by apologizing to Lee and chastising his own government, calling the prosecution "an embarrassment to the nation."

The Wen Ho Lee case was certainly a miscarriage of justice. It suspended the rights of a man who is, by most accounts, a loyal American and a decent human being. It also left him with about $1 million in legal expenses and a tarnished name that will never recover its full luster. Nor was the government terribly apologetic about its behavior. One FBI agent had the audacity to suggest that, even though the government couldn't prove its case, Lee shouldn't be released because the nuclear scientist might "take revenge on the United States for removing his liberty."

But as Wu points out, the Lee case also took on broader significance because of Lee's ethnic identity, which was, after all, one of the government's reasons for going after him. The trial took two popular but somewhat contradictory views about Asian Americans—the high-achieving "model minority" and the wily, untrustworthy foreigner—and ran them down opposite ends of the same narrow tunnel. It became clear, from fellow scientists and agents associated with the case, that the unprecedented scrutiny placed on Lee was due in large part to his race: As a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan, he had fit the profile the government was looking for.

The manifest injustice of Lee's treatment led to protests by many groups of Asian Americans and scientists. Wu explains that, next to Chinese immigrants, it was Japanese Americans, with memories of World War II?era internment camps still reverberating, who were the most sympathetic and vocal. The case also produced unanticipated costs for the government. Since many American university departments of science and engineering are dominated by Asians of various extractions (some white students have disparagingly nicknamed MIT "Made In Taiwan"), the U.S. government is somewhat dependent on the goodwill of Asians to keeps its laboratories running.

The Lee case, and some of the ridiculous ideas that were floated as a result of it (the Energy Department proposed a badge system that would have required employees to identify their country of origin), may have "imperiled" many U.S. defense programs, Wu writes, as many Asian and Asian-American scientists "left government jobs or declined to take them in the wake of Lee's travails."

In Wu's opinion, and that of much of the Asian community, the trial of Wen Ho Lee was the yellow—that is, Asian—equivalent of being arrested for "driving while black." "Privately," Wu explains, "Asian Americans were indignant that Lee was a Ph.D. scientist being treated worse than drug dealers."

One of Yellow's better lines, which nicely sums up Wu's view of the history of various Asian groups in America, is that "Asian Americans cannot win by winning." In the 19th century, Chinese workers were encouraged to come to the U.S. territories by American employers, who used them to drive down the price of labor on the railroads. The rail bosses played the Chinese off against the Irish and blacks, and then refused them entry at the ceremony that joined the transcontinental lines. Those who settled in the West were subjected to gross discrimination and the occasional pogrom.

In the Japanese internment during World War II, Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and placed in prison camps, even as German Americans and Italian Americans faced no such restrictions. To avoid the anti-yellow backlash, other Asians scrambled to distance themselves from the Japanese; Korean Americans, in a perverse kind of solidarity (borne, to be sure, partly of Korea's brutal colonial subjugation by Japan), took to wearing pins that said, "I hate the Japs more than you do."

The history of Asian immigrants to the U.S. should make their recent successes all the more surprising and encouraging. Elite science and engineering departments are packed with Asians—naturalized citizens, native Asian Americans, and students on overseas visas. Asians start small businesses in disproportionate numbers. Many of Silicon Valley's greatest successes (Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang, for example) are Asian. Even more striking is the fact that in 1997, as Wu reports, "Asian Americans made $18,569 per person; white Americans, $20,093," a difference of only $1,524.

That's not bad for an ethnic group that was widely feared and hated until a few decades ago. How did it happen? Federal, state, and local governments played a role by removing legal barriers to owning property and gaining citizenship, along with the other forms of institutionalized discrimination they once faced. But most of the Asians' success is attributable to their cultural practices, including their insistence on the importance of education, their close-knit family structures, and their sheer persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

I have just flirted with what Wu and others have dubbed the "model minority myth" by, arguably, idealizing Asians. But the picture that Wu decries as caricature in Yellow is consistent with the experiences of many people—for example, most of my Cambodian, Korean, and East Indian friends. Their families really did buck the odds to come to the U.S. and Canada and continue to do so, relying on luck, brains, hard work, religious commitments, a mania for

education, and close family connections to see them through.

Yet Wu doesn't just decry the model minority myth as misleading. He presents even the inarguable signs of Asian success in a negative light. Thus, he notes that the incomes of whites and Asians are not yet equal and that the latter seem to get less bang for their doctorate buck (but more for their master's degrees). The fact that many Asians open small family-run businesses can put a damper on wages, he says, as small businesses nearly always have to struggle against red tape and bigger competitors.

Even as he stresses that Asians do not yet have absolute parity with whites, Wu emphasizes that Asians' successes can generate violent envy while at the same time distracting authorities from the fact that they are still, to some, a hated minority. Wu documents several cases in which American whites attacked Asian Americans, often killing them, yet the authorities resolutely insisted that the crimes had nothing to do with race. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, many Korean stores were looted, and several owners perished defending their businesses against mostly black and Hispanic mobs.

As Wu's discussion of the Wen Ho Lee case underscores, old stereotypes can quickly reassert themselves to disastrous effect. Wu argues that the shift from overachieving striver to inscrutable slant-eyed foreigner—from one stereotypical extreme to the other—is still far too easily made. For Wu, those two identities leave Asians in a bind, in relation both to whites and to other minorities.

As a result, Wu frets over future relations between, say, Asians and African Americans; over the movement to dynamite the old monolithic racial categories in favor of a new "multiracial" regime; and over Asian opposition to affirmative action in college admissions, where their high math scores give them an edge. His solutions are of a piece with his left-leaning politics of solidarity. He argues for racial quotas across the board, noting that while these might hurt Asians in education, preferences can help them shatter glass ceilings in businesses where they are still underrepresented. He also passionately makes the case against any type of racial profiling—even by private actors such as taxi cab drivers—as a mechanism that generates criminality by unfairly stigmatizing a given group.

In terms of pushing discussions of race beyond "static" terms, then, the book is a disappointment. Given the data Wu presents, Yellow should be, on balance, a success story. Instead, most of it reads like a funeral dirge for a healthy patient. Most readers will readily agree with Wu that the undue scrutiny visited upon Asian scientists was an outrage. But the fact that they were able to make their displeasure felt in a way that deterred further crackdowns is a testament not to their foreignness but to their newfound political clout.

Jeremy Lott is Reason's 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern.