It's time to puncture an old American bigotry

September 03, 2001|By Douglas Pike

PHILADELPHIA - Any American kid can grow up to be president, or so the story goes. But children of Asian ancestry better not hold their breath.

One out of every four Americans would feel "uncomfortable" voting for an Asian-American for president, says a recent poll. The same number of bigots also said they'd disapprove if an Asian-American married into the family or if more than a few moved into the neighborhood.

In other words, the ugly prejudice of this land of opportunity isn't just toward blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. While Asian-Americans generally outperform white Americans from grade school to college, they still face real obstacles.

This national poll was done for a Chinese-American group, the Committee of 100, in the wake of the Justice Department's jihad against an American citizen and nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee. Indeed, frenzied reporting and radio chatter on a trifecta - Mr. Lee plus U.S.-Chinese espionage plus fund-raising excesses - has probably made bias against Asian-Americans worse.

Yet anti-Asian bigotry is as old as baseball and as American as apple pie. Herding Japanese-Americans into U.S. concentration camps during World War II was just part of a shameful history that includes the Yellow Peril hysteria, racist rules on immigration, anti-citizenship laws and exploitation behind locked doors at sweatshops and fleshshops.

At two national conventions of Asian-American professionals this summer, I heard experts give the news and entertainment industries much of the blame for the persistence of this prejudice - and urge communicators to shape up. The news media were rightly blasted for prejudging Mr. Lee (who plea-bargained for one relatively minor offense) and for stoking paranoia about Asian-Americans' patriotism. Hollywood got a deserved beating for pigeonholing Asians and Asian-Americans as killers, kung-fu types, goofs and geishas.

These cartoonish depictions fuel the impression of Asian-Americans as "permanent aliens." Time and again, for example, Asian-Americans at these conferences told of meeting someone and cringing at the asinine compliment: "You speak English very well."

"It is time for Asian-Americans to stand up and speak out," said law professor Frank Wu in his keynote address to the recent National Association of Asian American Professionals in New York. He lamented that the Asian-American community has no brand-name voice such as Jesse Jackson. Yet if CNN or C-Span had carried his speech, a national audience would have witnessed an unforgettable call to justice. Somehow the soaring voices of Frank Wu, Angela Oh and others haven't grabbed the attention they deserve.

Let's circle back to the one in four Americans who don't want an Asian-American in the White House, in their family or in their neighborhood. There's one person in American politics who could put a dramatic dent in that bigotry: Democratic Gov. Gary Locke of Washington. He's an Asian-American who has won good marks for running a state twice as big as Bill Clinton's old one.

The unofficial field for 2004 is made up of white guys who run their mouths (senators), a bearded ex-vice president and a black rabble-rouser first known for defaming a prosecutor. By daring to run for president, Gary Locke could chip away at prejudice, inspire 10 million Asian-Americans and stretch America toward its ideals.

Douglas Pike is a member of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa., 19101, or by e-mail at dpike@phillynews.com

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