Wen Ho Lee is as close as it gets in contemporary Asian Pacific American history to a mythic victim of racism in our nation.
Unlike a symbol of injustice like a Rosa Parks, Lee was no activist and did not seek to challenge society. He was merely an ordinary Asian American scientist doing his life’s work. And solely because of his race was he wrongly suspected of being the most heinous kind of criminal to democracy — a spy.
For his ordeal, Lee rarely receives the respect he deserves and now lives in quiet obscurity after being stripped of his livelihood as a nuclear scientist. To add insult to injury, some still don’t think Lee is innocent.
Meanwhile, Bill Richardson, secretary of energy in the late 1990s and the man who fingered Lee and presided over his public flogging, remains in the limelight and is now being honored as President-elect Obama’s new secretary of commerce.
That may be the ultimate injustice to Wen Ho Lee.
Simply for his lead role in the Lee case, Richardson should have a karma deficit so huge that he should be happy to remain ensconced as the popular governor of New Mexico, far from the national stage.
But politics and ambition being what they are, Richardson has apparently rehabilitated himself to glory in the last eight years. His recent unsuccessful run for president seemed to be waged on the basis that someone who was Latino had to do it. Yet it’s likely he never saw himself with a real shot to win, and instead used the campaign to position himself to fail upwards.
Sure enough, at this year’s Democratic National Convention, the also-ran spoke on that last memorable night at Invesco Field and achieved what his failed presidential run could not — a real shot at national prominence and a place in Obama’s inner circle. I mean, there’s got to be a Latino in there somewhere, right?
Too bad it’s someone responsible for what is arguably the most prominent case of racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Richardson, the charming politician, would love for us all to forget Wen Ho Lee. But we must insist that APAs and all Americans go back to the memory vault and re-experience the pain of that episode, which caused a ripple effect from the white towers of academia to the dim sum houses of Chinatown and everywhere in between where Asian Americans were.
For a time in our country, every Chinese American was seen as a suspect. Whether student or professor, Asian or Asian American, just enough doubt was cast to impact all working relationships.
Wen Ho Lee’s pain suddenly became all our pain. We were all suspects. Before Sept.11 and the terrorist fear, the profiling standard was not a man with a turban, but a brainy Chinese or Asian American scientist or student with access to some form of technology, top secret or not. It really didn’t matter. All that mattered was your Asian heritage.
Richardson’s disgusting role
These days, the modern memory vault seems to be YouTube (check out this short recap of the Lee saga at: tiny.cc/BGHDZ). It’s a painful reminder of Richardson’s adamant defense of his role in the Lee case. The clip includes Richardson being grilled on 60 Minutes, as well as Lee being interviewed on NBC. There’s a shot of the cell where Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, waiting for the trial that would exonerate him from espionage charges.
The broadcast clips unfortunately do not represent the overall media coverage, which was as close as it gets to a modern “yellow journalism.” The media and the government were in lockstep, feeding on each other. There were so many leaks to the media from federal sources that it could not have been done without some orchestration from the top of the Department of Energy. The New York Times was so gung-ho about being leaked upon, it lost its sense of ethics.
But even The Times was able to see its error. It ran a massive apology to Lee for its failure to present a fair human portrait of Lee and admitted to an over reliance on a few government sources.
The Times had no choice but to apologize. Even Judge James Parker, the presiding judge in the Lee case, issued an apology to Lee upon his release for how badly government prosecutors had bungled the case.
One man should have had the moral courage to change all of that history: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. But he didn’t.
Now he hopes we’ve forgotten all about it. It would be quite the norm to forget what happens to Asian Americans; we have constantly been ignored, overlooked. How many Asian Americans do you see mentioned in the Obama transition? So why should we expect anything different now? Because America cannot afford to forget what happened to Lee.
President-elect Obama should not give in to Richardson’s charm or to the large Latino vote he claims. Latino activists have propped Richardson up as the “Latino guy.” But how many people outside a small circle even know Richardson is Latino? Besides, his race is irrelevant; ours isn’t.
A Richardson selection is purely a matter of ambition and political payback, not the public good. Surely there is someone better for the commerce job who doesn’t have a history of trading in xenophobia?
President-elect Obama shouldn’t dismiss concerns of Asian Americans who overwhelming supported his campaign. The choice sends a negative message to APAs everywhere. Richardson represents a regression. He is simply unfit to be part of any “cabinet of change.”
On-line petitions are being circulated at http://www.wenholee.org/ and petitiononline.com/GovBillR/petition.html. For updates and other musings on the Obama transition, David Chiu and more, check out amok.asianweek.com.