A big step. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A big step. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the Ferguson tragedy and uproar, "Jeopardy" champion Arthur Chu published a heartbreaking piece about belonging in America. Despite assimilating into American culture, he feels like his non-whiteness still makes him an outsider:

I swallowed it all. As much as I could. I swallowed things that tasted foul and struggled to keep them down, but I did the best I could, to prove I could, to prove that I could swallow anything. I stomached the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Riots of 1871. The gold miners and the borax miners and the railroad workers. I held my nose and I ate Jack London and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. I swallowed H.S. Tsien's deportation and Cold War paranoia and Joe McCarthy and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. I choked down Wen Ho Lee’s arrest and Vincent Chin’s murder and Iris Chang’s suicide and Andrew Breitbart and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. ...

Sum Ting Wong. ... Accent jokes. Chinese restaurant jokes. The mute Chinese nerd in the background of the movie. The Chinese lead character being played by a white guy in makeup.

Most of these things will hopefully go away as time goes on. But one ominous item stands out in Chu’s list, and it’s important enough to be repeated three times. The “coming war with China” feels like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Chinese-Americans.

Everyone knows that China has grown at an incredible pace. For a while, most of us hoped that China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led international system, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. In the past few years, China has mostly discarded its peaceful-rise strategy in favor of a steady creeping territorial expansion to its south and east. In 2012, China seized a disputed shoal from the Philippines. In 2013, China attempted to exert control over some Japanese islands in the East China Sea, bringing it perilously close to direct conflict with the Japan and the U.S. Over the past year, China has been engaged in a standoff with Vietnam over some islands in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, on land, Chinese troops continue to make regular incursions into Indian territory. To top it all off, China has invoked a so-called Nine-Dash Line that claims almost the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory, flying directly in the face of long-established international norms and United Nations conventions.

In other words, China isn't going to play by our rules. As a rising superpower, it is going to do what rising superpowers do, which is to write its own rules, and this is going to bring it into conflict with the U.S. Let's hope that conflict won't be a military one. But because China’s economy is slowing, many suspect that the conflict may come soon, as the Chinese government seeks to find some new way of shoring up domestic support. For example, here is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman:

If authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China's rulers will face if and when that nation's economic miracle comes to an end - something many economists believe will happen soon.

I hope Krugman is wrong. But whatever form the conflict takes, perhaps the biggest danger to American freedom will be the domestic racism that could be unleashed against Chinese-Americans.

Arthur Chu is right to worry. The U.S. has a bad record when it comes to this sort of thing. The most famous and shameful example, of course, is the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- just read "Star Trek" actor George Takei’s account of growing up in a U.S. concentration camp. But it isn't the only example. In World Wars I and II, thousands of German-Americans and German permanent residents were interned, and hundreds of thousands forced to register with the government. Instances of anti-German sentiment were common.

More recently, the so-called war on terror has resulted in a spate of hate crimes against Muslim-Americans that continues to this day. The Department of Justice estimates that thousands of these occur in the U.S. every year.

This is, of course, unacceptable. Politicians and other leaders should start making a much bigger effort to speak out -- not just to condemn hate crimes, but to forcefully assert that Muslim-Americans are our fellow countrymen and need to be treated as such, not as outsiders. And if it comes to a conflict with China, they need to say the same things about Chinese-Americans.

In fact, why wait? Now is a good time to start. Our leaders haven't been vocal enough or persistent enough in saying that this is a multiracial country, and we need to treat each other every day as if we’re all on the same team. If we don’t do that, we risk losing our reputation as a nation that upholds human rights and welcomes immigrants -- as a nation where anyone, from any background, can come and succeed and fit in. Rhetoric matters, and it doesn’t cost much, especially when America’s soul is on the line.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.