CEPEDA: America's racial wounds

One thing I've learned about the catastrophe in Japan is that not only are the Japanese in for a long period of economic and emotional recovery, but some emotional healing needs to occur in the U.S. as well.

About the same time that civil rights activists were condemning the tone of Rep. Peter King's congressional hearings on Muslim radicalization by comparing the spectacle to other ugly episodes in U.S. history — such as when Japanese-Americans were rounded up in internment camps during World War II — a 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami that destroyed the northeast coast of Japan.

The wall-to-wall coverage of the quake, floods and subsequent nuclear meltdowns yielded a near-constant stream of the kind of news that made most people take a moment to empathize with the plight of those whose lives were shattered.

Not everyone reacted that way, though.

As if "ugly Americans" weren't already internationally reviled for their self-centered pomposity, several diverse specimens stepped into the spotlight to ensure the American ideal of free speech was put on display.

We'll leave aside Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian who'd previously joked tastelessly about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though he lost his job as the voice of the Aflac insurance duck after making light of the catastrophe in Japan, raunchy stupidity is how the man makes his living.

And women's NBA star Cappie Pondexter who, the Saturday after the tsunami, tweeted "What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country!" and "u just never know! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less." She eventually tweeted a feeble apology.

But take Alexandra Wallace — a political science major at UCLA who was so earthquake/tsunami fatigued mere hours after the story broke that she took the time to post a video about her frustration on YouTube.

She ranted that "these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year" were disturbing her pursuit of knowledge in the university library by using their cell phones to check in with family in their "ching chong ling long ting tong" language about "the tsunami thing."

After Wallace insulted Asians' close-knit-family culture and their language, she — referring to herself as "the polite nice American girl that my momma raised me to be" — suggested Asians use "American manners" when in the library. Wallace eventually apologized and quit UCLA even though the university decided not to formally punish her.

The people of Japan have more important concerns than what a bunch of tasteless celebrity wannabes have to say about their travails, but consider that it is 2011 and our Asian-American friends, families and neighbors still hear this sort of thing.

I wish Wallace hadn't gotten death-threatening phone calls and emails — it's ultimately ineffective to counter hatred with more hate — but her words and the outrage over them underscore that we continue to be a nation with serious racial wounds.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. E-mail her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.