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Updated 2:30 PM April 12, 2006
 

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  Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lecturer
Affirmative action question requires reframing

The dean of the Wayne State University Law School says he will offer a new paradigm on affirmative action as he presents the fourth annual Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lecture at 10 a.m. April 12 in Rackham Auditorium.
(Photo courtesy Frank Wu)

Frank H. Wu says affirmative action often is discussed as a black-and-white issue, and one that is a means to an end, but "no one says it's an end in and of itself."

"What I would argue is that we need to talk about what affirmative action is intended to address," Wu says of the premise he will explore in his talk, "Toward a Diverse Democracy: Affirmative Action and Higher Education."

"What sort of society do we want to have, what do we want our institutions to look like, who do we want to belong there, and then how do we get there, are some of the questions we need to answer," Wu says.

"That dialogue should begin with race," says the author of the book "Yellow—Race in American Beyond Black and White," in which he argues that race is not predominantly an issue between whites and African Americans, but is one involving the growing U.S. population of Asian Americans and Latinos, as well as other groups.

"If we want to talk seriously about race, we should have an accurate picture of the world," he says. "If we are to understand these issues as a society, it requires that every member of society is recognized as a stakeholder."

In "Yellow" Wu uses stories from his life growing up as an Asian American in nearby Canton, and then attending The Johns Hopkins University and U-M, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts and a J.D., respectively.

In what reviewers have called a candid illumination of the issues that often go unspoken in the mainstream discussions of race, Wu's book and other writings address subtle forms of bigotry that he says nearly are as toxic as more overt expressions in which there are clear victims and villains.

"I don't want to slight victims in the least—I want to fight for them and celebrate their heroism—but it (race) is more complex."

For example, Asian Americans on a college campus automatically are assumed to be math and science majors who will become engineers, researcher scientists or medical professionals—what he calls model minorities: well-educated, affluent and successful. This stereotypical representation often leads to backlash against Asian Americans when they are pitted against other less-educated, poorer groups, he contends, and creates the notion that Asians in the United States are "perpetual foreigners."

Wu uses a contemporary illustration of how unintended bigotry creeps in. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina one photo depicted a Black man struggling through floodwaters carrying a loaf of bread, and the headline read something about looters after the hurricane, he says. A similar photo of two white people bore the headline "Lucky Survivors."

"I'll bet it was not a bigot writing those headlines. It probably was some innocent person who'd be embarrassed if you pointed out the error," Wu says, adding, "It's harder to address the subtle stuff."

Wu became the ninth dean of the WSU Law School in 2004 and previously served as a member of the law faculty of Howard University, including two years as clinical director. During his tenure at Howard he testified in the U-M Law School affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger.

He has been an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a visiting professor at U-M. He is coauthor of another book, "Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment," and his writing has appeared in such periodicals as the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Chronicle of Higher Education, Legal Times and Asian Week.

"Frank Wu brings a unique perspective on diversity as he shares personally and professionally the impact of often subtle forms of racial and ethnic discrimination," says Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs. "His testimony in the lawsuit challenging affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School was most critical in creating understanding of the importance of diversity as an issue of inclusiveness for all groups."

The annual distinguished lectureship honors Nancy Cantor, former U-M provost and current chancellor and president of Syracuse University, for her unflagging commitment to diversity and her outstanding contributions to the University community, Monts says.

The lecture is sponsored by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

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