My Friend Sherry Chen

I have become friends with Sherry Chen. I have watched her become famous. The New York Times has written about her plight, facing trumped up charges of spying for China, being cleared of any offense but being fired from her civil service job nonetheless. The CBS News television program 60 Minutes has done a segment about "collateral damage" in the hunt for Chinese agents, featuring Sherry and Professor Xiaoxing Xi, another victim of wrongful prosecution, pointing out that there are several others as well, Chinese-Americans suspected of the worst treason -- it seems to many because of the color of their skin.

I have helped Sherry, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, a bit behind the scenes because I identify with her. I will tell you the reason I am sympathetic to Sherry. I am calling her by her first name, because she chose it. As far as I'm concerned, it is her "real" name, though she -- like me -- has a "Chinese" name too. To say she is "Sherry" is to make her human, an individual, and an ordinary one at that.

She could be an older sister or cousin, maybe a young aunt. She resembles the people who visited our house when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s in Detroit, related to us yet a bit awkward in their Asian origins. Very rarely, another Asian immigrant family would show up to stay -- this was before mainland China opened up and the current Asian influx made Asian Americans the fastest-growing minority group -- and they would began a struggle to assimilate that I knew well from my parents' doing everything they could to realize the American Dream only to be regarded as strangers, made fun of for their accents, treated with disrespect for no reason other than race.

I'm able to relate to her because her actions were normal to her -- and me -- but nefarious to others. She traveled to China. She visited elderly parents. She communicated with a college classmate.

Framed in that manner, neutrally, there is nothing sinister happening. Since she is of Chinese descent, she has family in China. As an immigrant, she left behind colleagues in another country.

It is only by adding the destination "China" or the adjective "Chinese," in an era of anxiety about both competition from overseas and demographic transformation here at home, that any of this becomes threatening, possibly villainous. That is what is so unsettling to anyone who remembers roots in China. It is dangerous even to those of us who have no real recollection of China.

The worst transgression on Sherry's part was sharing a password with a co-worker. That violated the rules, but was common practice as in many offices. She initially forgot but then admitted it. Even that breach should augur in her favor. The reason is that the other party, "guilty" in a mirror image, was not disciplined at all. An expert in dams, she logged into a database. Seeing it was restricted, she did not disseminate its secrets.

For anyone who looks like Sherry, there is an important warning in her example. Your travel, your closeness to parents, your outreach to someone from school days, all of it can be misinterpreted. In the context of China-bashing, there is a risk in all these activities. Some are negligent in their unconscious bias; others are intentional in their open bigotry.

There is another aspect of all these investigations that should trouble us -- it certainly has been noticed by scientists. The proceedings reflect a closing of society, of the mind. They are counter to a spirit of open inquiry. Human progress has depended on the creation, then the dissemination, of ideas. The former is catalyzed by the latter.

Sherry's woes were brought upon her by a suspicious co-worker. She had enjoyed a distinguished career, even winning an award for saving Cairo, Illinois, from being flooded over a few years back. But someone else in the office reported her as a foreign national. Although Sherry cannot hide -- and ought not need to mask -- that she is of Chinese extraction, she naturalized as an American a generation ago. That should make all the difference, not only because of its literal, legal meaning but also since it indicates an intention to join our nation -- through deliberate action, more than those of us who are native-born can say of our own membership in the community.

As Sherry, Xi and others have advocated for themselves, they have become all the more American. (They have started an online petition for their cause.) They did not set out to be activists. They are scientists who previously shied away from publicity for anything other than technical achievements.

They have found themselves at the forefront of a protest. The framing of its argument is paramount. They are fighting injustice, not as Chinese but as Americans. They are not embarrassed to be of Chinese heritage. But their claim to equality is based on their American citizenship. That is why it is crucial that they -- and I -- be principled. We must care about instances of the problem when the subject could not be our kin.

Many observers who learn about Sherry's case, with the Xi case and the others, come to the conclusion that it is at least plausible that there is racial profiling occurring. What is almost worse than the mistreatment of Sherry, however, is that there are those who deny even the possibility that the government made a mistake. They dismiss her outright without looking beyond her face.

I am proud of Sherry Chen.

An addendum. It has been brought to my attention that The National Inventory of Dams, the database in contention, is now publicly accessible. Browse if you are confident you will not come under a cloud.