Two new books, one by a progressive professor at Howard University, the other by a literary bête brune of liberals, suggest that an elemental—not to say scatological—muddying of America’s racial waters is under way. In the last decade, the Asian American population grew by 48 percent, second only to Latinos, notes legal scholar Frank Wu in Yellow, while memoirist Richard Rodriguez, in Brown, adds that “by the year 2040, one in three Americans will declare herself Hispanic.” Are yellow and brown the colors of America’s future?
Of course, one of multiculturalism’s lessons is that America has always been multi-hued. When W.E.B. DuBois famously prophesied that “the problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color-line,” he added an expansive definition: “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Not long after Teddy Roosevelt thundered that “no greater calamity could now befall the United States than to have the Pacific slope fill up with a Mongolian population.” Yellow, as its slightly discomfiting title suggests, is not so much about Asian Americans as it is about the roles Asians have been assigned in America’s racial regime.
Frank Wu begins his earnest, occasionally plodding book with one of several catalogs: “I was given many masks to wear. I could be . . . a saboteur before the day of infamy at Pearl Harbor . . . a calculus graduate student with thick glasses . . . an illegal alien crowded into the cargo hold of a smuggler’s ship . . . ”
The sense of disappearance behind America’s racial shadows haunts many Asian American narratives, particularly those of second-generation folks like Wu, who grew up isolated in white America. Wu provides a lengthy demonstration of how the model-minority myth is a form of white “racist love,” smothering Asian Americans in its embrace—and a backhanded way of keeping blacks and Latinos out of the family. Wu’s attention to the uses of Asians in U.S. color wars produces a notably unsentimental sense of race for a self-professed “professional Asian American.”
Wu’s spirited defense of affirmative action, for example, is not based in Asian American claims, but instead tracks the way narrowly defined Asian American “interests” are used to undermine racial justice. California’s Proposition 209, for example, billed to Asians as an attack on black and Latino preferences, was essentially an affirmative action plan for whites, leading to, among other things, the zeroing-out of Filipinos as well as blacks from Berkeley’s Law School.
But if Wu is an anti-romantic race man, he’s got nothing on Richard Rodriguez. Brown purports to be a celebration of the browning of America—not only the Latinization that is turning the U.S. historic axis from east-west to north-south, but the mestizo culture that is the essence of mixed America. This despite Rodriguez’s insistence that “I do not have a race.” That protest stems both from Rodriguez’s view of Hispanicity as interracial culture and from his prickly individualism. Indeed, while Wu’s scholasticism is leavened by modesty—wait, isn’t that a stereotype?—Rodriguez’s I has grown so large it appears to encompass all. “Of every hue and caste am I,” sings R., channeling Whitman, and to be sure, Brown flows through Malcolm X, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and the 38 Geary municipal bus line in San Francisco.
Brown is surely Rodriguez’s most protean pomo prose poem, a confessional that, nonetheless, keeps the reader at bay through irony and complexity. But Rodriguez can’t quite live with his own beautiful paradoxes—lashing out like a schoolmarm in the midst of the most spaced-out riffs. He continues to be bedeviled by familiar bugaboos: Affirmative action, bilingual ed, and the “minority student” all return for chastisement, as do the ’60s, or “the puritan revival,” when “unshaved legs, bra burnings,” and “campus witch trials. . . ruled the day.”
In this counter-counterculture history, Richard Nixon emerges as the godfather of brown, the reason “several million Americans were baptized Hispanic” through the offices of his administration’s Statistical Directive 15, which in 1973 “redefined America as an idea in five colors: White. Black. Yellow. Red. Brown.” Interestingly, Wu also narrates this moment, but for him Directive 15 was the flower child of radicals. For Rodriguez, the creation of the ethno-racial pentagon was a step down the staircase that has produced multiculti minions, subgroups that amount to “evasions of citizenship.”
One might insist that Rodriguez has it exactly upside down. “One day in the 1980s,” he writes by way of analogy, “my mother became a senior citizen because it got her on the bus for a nickel” as if affirmative action created people of color—and not centuries of racism. (And could it be that America lent Mrs. R. a hand because she, er, grew old?) Elsewhere, Rodriguez seems to sense this. A “friend,” Darrell, who “says he is black,” sounds a rare counterargument in Brown, responding to the complaint that he perpetuates racism by claiming his blackness: “Come on! I don’t make this stuff up, you know.”
But the real rub of it—and perhaps the true meaning of yellow and brown—is that Rodriguez is also right: We do make this stuff up, at least in part. The very quality of race that exercises Rodriguez is what energizes Wu, namely, its artificiality. By embracing the common American history of folks who, granted, were not even Asian let alone APAs before arriving here—Asian Americans are creating communities out of catalogs of stereotypes. Which is what existed, and what will exist, if we leave it to white America. Same goes for Latino U.S.A., naturally.
And the great secret is that the browning (or the yellowing) of America happened a long time ago, except we’ve always called it “black”—the name of the most diverse people on earth, and the most American. Rodriguez writes that “what I want for black America is white freedom,” or “freedom from color.” But is that what white Americans have? Consider that in the last quarter-century, as whites have increasingly promoted the idea of color blindness, they have hurriedly relocated en masse to white places, away from black (and brown and yellow). Not exactly a picture of unfettered freedom. Yellow and Brown are letting the secret out. We can’t work through race till we take responsibility for our own. What we need are more books called White.