THE BLOG
05/14/2016 01:25 am ET | Updated May 14, 2017

Racial Profiling: Doing Science While Asian American

May happens to be Asian American Heritage Month. Even as we celebrate the contributions of the fastest growing racial minority in the nation, we are witnessing history repeat itself. The dominant theme of the Asian American experience has been -- and seems to remain -- the perpetual foreigner syndrome. From the earliest arrival of Asians on these shores, we have been characterized as sojourners who were unwilling or even unable to assimilate, always loyal to a foreign sovereignty. By this standard, "Asian American" is an oxymoron. Yet we continue to insist that we are here to stay, belonging as equals.

In the past two years, the federal government has twice targeted Asian immigrants for prosecution with sensational allegations that they were spies, only to be embarrassed by the cases turning out to have no basis whatsoever. The federal government rarely sees its criminal cases disintegrate in such absolute terms, but it possesses the power to ruin the lives of naturalized citizens. Both Xiaoxing Xi, chair of the physics department at Temple University, and Sherry Chen, a mid-level civil servant with the National Weather Service, vindicated themselves through exhaustive struggles. The CBS News program Sixty Minutes has produced a segment about their fight for justice.

Xi was allowed to keep his job by college administrators who recognized his accomplishments as a scientist. Chen was fired from hers even after she had been cleared.

Both victims continue to wait for someone to say sorry. The word "victim" is dangerous. It should be invoked only if appropriate. It is here. These look like instances of law-abiding Americans being subjected to what observers criticize China for: arbitrary, capricious, baseless, reckless official actions contrary to the rule of law.

They have been encouraged to stand up and speak out. Scientists are alarmed at the misunderstanding of their methods. Xi and Chen have done what Americans are supposed to do: protest. Xi's daughter has started a national campaign to address these issues. Chen plans to file a civil lawsuit. Neither set out to be a martyr. They only want their lives back.

What the federal government did to Xi and Chen is worse than wrong. It is an outrage. 

If it were only one case, it might be possible to dismiss it as an aberration. But there is precedent as well as a pattern. (There is even a third case of dropped charges, slightly earlier and less publicized, involving researchers at a pharmaceutical company.)

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted to keep out Chinese, urged by unabashed racists who feared the Yellow Peril. Ironically, many of the agitators who organized against Asian laborers, even resorting to violence in mass purges up and down the Pacific Coast, were themselves newcomers from Europe. The successful effort, which eventually prohibited all Asian migrants, with limited exceptions subject to strict quotas, initiated federal control of the borders, and the Supreme Court decisions acquiescing to it are to this day the law of the land.

During World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans was premised on the suspicion they had remained beholden to an enemy Emperor. Even the two thirds of the community who were native born to this nation were not exempt, because they were declared to be inscrutable. When Asians were assimilated, having converted to Christianity, playing baseball, and succeeding as entrepreneurs, they were said to be especially tricky, some sort of sleeper agents disguised as economic competition. 

The killing of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American apparently assumed to be a Japanese foreigner, exemplified the phenomenon. In Detroit, the "Motor City," during the 1980s recession, two white autoworkers bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. According to witnesses, they used racial slurs and obscenities, insinuating that he was to blame for their being out of work. 

The new set of cases resemble that of Wen Ho Lee. Before the tragedy of 9-11, the Los Alamos physicist was said to be the most significant threat to national security. Accused of passing on nuclear secrets to China, the naturalized citizen from Taiwan was held in solitary confinement. The matter ended not with his confessing, since he had done nothing wrong, but with the government giving up, only to be admonished in open court by a conservative federal judge who apologized on behalf of the United States. (The august New York Times issued just short of a retraction for its role in promoting lurid coverage.)

To all but Asian Americans, and even to Asian Americans who are not taught about the past any more than any other Americans, these episodes are all but forgotten. Taken together, they should be regarded as significant even to those who are willing to excuse the single mistake.

Asian Americans do not often complain about mistreatment, even when they should. While Asian Americans face disparities even in high-tech fields where they are reputed to be overachievers, we report employment discrimination at unusually low rates. We have heard more than once that heckler's jeer that if we don't like it here, then we can go back to where we came from. 

That is how the perpetual foreigner syndrome works at its worst. It allows bigots to rationalize their actions and others to shrug off the resulting problem. In the appeal of the Vincent Chin case, the lawyers argued "Orientals" were not covered by civil rights laws. The court was not persuaded by that preposterous suggestion.

There is a real threat of espionage from China and elsewhere. That is an argument for, not against, solid investigation techniques and smart exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Chinese Americans, some of whom are sixth-generation at this point, are vital to basic science in academic labs, research and development for major corporations, and technological progress in Silicon Valley. The United States could not compete in the global marketplace without that talent it can attract from overseas. It depends on Asian immigrants. It cannot afford to alienate us.

It will be said, as it has been said of other civil rights claims, that there are instances of wrongdoers who have an identical background to this defendant or that. No doubt that is true. The facts should not be glossed over. 

Yet the response should be, with the same strength of principle as with other groups, that the handful of people who have violated the law should not compromise the full citizenship of the millions who are no different than coworkers and neighbors. They deserve due process. The guilt of strangers who happen to be of similar ancestry does not impugn their innocence. Saying otherwise is the essence of racial profiling. 

That is why we do not -- or ought not -- stereotype all African Americans as criminals or all Arab Americans as terrorists. That is the social contract we have made with one another. Such commitments are what binds us together despite our differences. 

There is an additional possibility. As an American, I reject it. That other possibility is we are hypocrites. When we say we are against racial profiling, we are only for self-interest.

What makes America great is its openness. Compared to any other nation, including for example China, America has welcomed people of more colors, ethnicities, languages, faiths and walks of life than any other civilization, likely since society organized into nations. There is no single American race. Instead, we have celebrated a unique proposition that anyone can embrace this experiment of democracy. 

We have not at all times lived up to our profound ideals. But we continue to make progress, with the capacity to correct ourselves thanks to self-governance and civic engagement. Congress has recently expressed regret for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, in a resolution sponsored by a Chinese American, Representative Judy Chu. Although the Justice Department just announced a new policy intended to avoid further errors such as in the Xi and Chen cases, the guidelines are partial measures that likely would not have prevented the pursuit of charges against them.

I have to admit that as a native born citizen, I have been taken aback by the enthusiasm that immigrants (no different than my own parents) display for the values of this nation. Their belief in the American Dream surpasses mine. I should not be surprised. They sacrificed to come here as I did not have to. I have seen Xi and Chen each tell their story to packed rooms, receiving standing ovations, because their yearning to be accepted is so understandable, so compelling. Xi reflected on his case as he jogged by monuments in Washington, D.C.; Chen enjoyed the blue skies of Ohio, where she had settled. (I've been inspired to help them.)

We have made this nation, and we continue to remake it. It was not inherited from the Old World. It is ours, truly ours, to make the best of. I have confidence that when people learn about what has happened to Chen and Xi, they will rally to their cause -- because it is our cause, all of us.