During his childhood, Frank Wu planned on being an architect. His parents even bought him a drafting table at a garage sale. But as a teenager, a local hate crime and homicide in Detroit changed his mind.
With Detroit being known as the “motor city,” residents depended on the larger automobile companies for employment. After the United States faced a recession in the 1970s and ‘80s, the industry quickly deteriorated. On the other side of the world, however, Japan’s business was booming.
Wu, the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, says that, during the time, people were looking for someone to blame.
“If you were Asian, people wanted to know which side you were on,” he adds. “Were you one of them or one of us? And generally, they thought you were one of them.”
In 1982, a man named Vincent Chin was killed by two autoworkers with a baseball bat. The murderers blamed him for the success of the Japanese car companies. Chin was not Japanese; he was Chinese and American.
“Before that, I’ll be honest, if you had said anything to me about race or ethnicity, I just wanted to be normal and fit in, I just wanted to be a kid,” says Wu. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with these issues.”
However, despite not personally knowing Chin, this case hit home for Wu. As an Asian American, Wu remembers being called “chink” and “Jap.” He was asked if he ate dogs, if his parents were communists and told to go back to where he came from.
“I knew that it was just like what I had experienced but everyone told me it was just in your head,” he says. “They would say, lighten up, it’s a joke.”
From that point forward, Wu became interested in the “power of words to bring about change.” He decided to pursue a law career.
“I always wanted to be an advocate after the Chin case,” he says. “Being a lawyer is the most effective way to be an advocate because it gives you both the skills and the credentials.”
Wu went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University and soon after earned his juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School.
“Law school was interesting and challenging in a way that nothing else was,” he says.
While in law school, Wu says he knew he wanted to eventually teach.
However, Wu started his career in the early 1990s working as a clerk with the late U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti in Ohio. He also practiced law at Morrison & Foerster in California.
In 1994, Wu participated in a fellowship program at Stanford University Law School. While there, he received an interview and eventual teaching offer from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
For almost 10 years, Wu worked at Howard, becoming the institution’s first Asian American law professor.
“Howard was utterly lifechanging,” says Wu. “It was great. I am so appreciative of the opportunity and if I were doing it all over again, I would absolutely do it that way again.”
Wu says though he was always interested in civil rights and studying historical movements for Black equality, being fully immersed at Howard increased his knowledge and understanding surrounding various Black identities and issues.
“I learned about race in a way that I couldn’t have from studying books,” he says. “I just learned from experience, from my colleagues and from my students. I learned as much as I applied.”
While at Howard, Wu also received a call from Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C.-based school for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“I’ve always gone places where people think I wouldn’t go,” he says.
An employee at the university had seen Wu speak on television about diversity and invited him to speak on campus. After multiple speaking engagements, Wu joined Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees where he served for 10 years. During that time, Wu also was the vice chairman for four years on the board.
The board meetings were bilingual and Wu relied on sign language interpreters to communicate.
His experience on the board at Gallaudet made him eventually consider an administrative role.
“When I was there, I saw how the institution could transform people’s lives and wasn’t just a school,” says Wu. “It was a community; it was part of a civil rights movement for disability rights. It was just so eye-opening.”
After leaving Howard, Wu went back to Detroit to serve as dean of Wayne State University Law School. Throughout the years, he has also served as a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, George Washington University Law School and Johns Hopkins.
In 2018, Wu was named to his current posting at UC’s Hastings College of the Law.
In his personal life, Wu discovered his love of running. After his cousin’s husband planned to run the San Francisco marathon, Wu was encouraged to try running. He decided to sign up for his first half marathon.
“Before I ran, I thought, ‘Wow, this is impossible,’” he says. “‘How can anyone finish 13.1 miles?’ But I finished it and I was stiff and sore and was in bad shape for the next three days, but I enjoyed it.”
For the last five years, Wu has been a run commuter. He runs 4.5 miles every day to his current job. Additionally, in 2016, he participated in 36 half marathons and has run more than 100 half marathons within the last six years.
Since Wu enjoys teaching, he doesn’t see himself pursuing a higher-level administrative position unless it’s for an institution that has a “mission.”
“[A school that] has identity, doing something other than just competing to go up in the rankings,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to just some school just to run something. I want to help change the world.”
Despite switching to academia, Wu continues to practice law through pro bono work. He mostly works on cases where Asian Americans have been racially profiled.
In addition to academia, Wu considers himself a writer with a day job. Through research, he noticed that there was a lack of books that covered race. He decided to write his own in 2002, titled Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.
“I wrote the book that I wanted to read,” he says.
He also co-authored Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. Additionally, Wu regularly blogs and has had articles featured in the Daily Journal, Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Detroit Free Press.
Wu has also received a number of accolades including the Chang-Lin Tien Award by the Asia Pacific Foundation in 2008. In 2012, he was named one of the Top 100 Lawyers in California by the Daily Journal and the Most Influential Dean in Legal Education by the National Jurist. Additionally, he received the Keith Aoki Award by the Conference of Asian Pacific American Law Faculty in 2013.
This year, Wu has been named a 2020 recipient of the Diverse: Issues In Higher Education Dr. John Hope Franklin Award.
This article originally appeared in the March 19, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here. After this article was published, Frank Wu was named president of the City University of New York’s Queen’s College.