Last Tuesday, nearly 100 students heard author, lawyer, activist, and professor, Frank Wu speak about his examinations of race identity and politics in his new book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu, the Dean of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, was named as one of the top 20 scholars in the nation by BlackIssues in Higher Education in its 20th anniversary issue.
Wu told personal stories about racist experiences that Asian-Americans could relate to,such as the person who complimented him by saying, you speak English so well and the little kid doing karate moves as he walked down the street towards him. According to Wu, these are instances that he has “grown accustomed to.”
Stories like these brought laughter from the crowd, but Wu’s speech focused mainly around two serious issues plaguing civil rights today.
“The first is that race is not literally black and white,” he said. “Second, that race is notfiguratively, symbolically, metaphorically black and white.”
Wu was able to conclude that “If we’re going to talk about civil rights, we shouldhave a picture of the world around us that matches the reality.” He added, “The reality inthis nation is that it always had people of many different backgrounds. We don’t fitneatly into black or white.”
Another problem preventing full civil rights, Wu said, is not recognizing real racistissues plaguing societies today.
“If you surveyed 100 people who live in an all-white neighborhood, only about one or two of them will say ‘I don’t live here because there aren’t any black folks in this area,” Wu said. “99 of them will give you perfectly plausible reasons for their decisions-it’s a good investment, they grew up around the corner, it’s an easy commute, they like the floor plan, there’s a pool in the backyard and so on and so forth.
“I believe them,” Wu continued. “But you have 100 individual decisions not motivated by race and yet the pattern that emerges is racial. Everyone knows what neighborhoodsare white, what neighborhoods are black, what neighborhoods are Hispanic, what neighborhoods are safe, and what neighborhoods are unsafe,” he explained. “That is how race works in the modern world of ours; it isn’t the n-word.”
His speech was followed by a question-and- answer period where he joked that “it isthe rare opportunity to ask a lawyer questions and not receive a bill.”
Students asked what they could do to help inform others about the race problem in thecountry today, and Wu, who served as an expert witness in the landmark Grutter v.Bollinger case, discussed with students his view on affirmative action. Wu ended the lecture by noting, “Working together, but only working together, we, all of us, each of us, will make good on the promise of a diverse democracy.”