JULY 6, 2019


The First Asian American President?


The Democratic Debates have come and gone and there’s a real chance of having an Asian American president.

Sorry Tulsi Gabbard. It’s not going to be you. Not in 2020.

Andrew Yang? No, it’s not going to be him. Are you ready for Sen. Kamala Harris?

As Harris reinvents herself for a national audience, I can’t help but think of when I wrote a column for “Asian Week,” based in the San Francisco, and at one point the largest English-language Asian American publication in the nation. I wrote about how young Asian Americans were being beaten up by white hooligans in the traditionally white Sunset district.

The District Attorney chose not to prosecute.

The DA was Kamala Harris. Half-African American on her father’s side. Half-Asian Indian on her mother’s side.

It was a story made for Asian America and diversity. The city’s chief law enforcement officer was one of us.

I talked with her office a few times about the incident. But the office was adamant. There would be no prosecution of the white bullies.

I talked to Harris in person about it, and later I bumped into her at an event. Our eyes met. Briefly, she turned white. She recognized me from my column photo, and then walked away cordially.

She was just a young DA then, not even Attorney General of the entire state. But now she’s running for president.

I thought of that story when Harris jumped on Joe Biden at that second Democratic Debate last week.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said, and then she launched into the recent story of Biden’s past support of segregationist U.S. senators. You may recall Biden said the senators were at least “civil.”

Harris was civil here, too. But she slammed Biden: “It was actually very hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two U.S. senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said.

Then Harris told the story about a little girl waiting for a bus that would take her to an integrated public school in Berkeley, California.

“That little girl was me.”

It was the mic drop moment at the two-hour debate.

Harris has lived the African American experience. She identifies as black, but it’s only part of her story.

I asked my Gen Z daughter, who watched the debates from Washington, D.C., what she thought of Harris.

“She boohoos about being black and oppressed, but she put all the black people in jail that she could,” my daughter said. Harsh, I thought. But she was referring to when Harris touted her “progressive” record as a prosecutor, which got the attention of people like University of San Francisco associate law professor Lara Bazelon.

“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” said Bazelon, the former director of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent in reports about Harris’ story. “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”

That story broke earlier this year. Now we’re into the summer, when the reinvention is in high gear.

When I told my daughter Harris was half-Indian, I got a strange reaction.

“She’s half Asian?” she said in disbelief. “Very good at code switching.”

My daughter, half-Filipino, half-Caucasian, knows a little about that herself. She’s like Harris. Diversity’s blend, the best of America. A multiracial American

I wonder when on the national stage Harris will acknowledge that fully.

At the Miami debate, she trumpeted her black story. She even took a stab at speaking Spanish.

A ball of diversity, and there’s even some Asian in there.

She just doesn’t say it much when everyone is watching.

With 21 million Asian Americans in this country now, it is still an ongoing Asian American dream—that one day, there will be an Asian American president. Norm Mineta was close, as a former member of Congress and a cabinet secretary twice. There’s Elaine Chao now. And even Gary Locke. All stuck in the cabinet.

This go round, it really won’t be Tulsi Gabbard. Not judging from how robotic she seemed in the first debate last week. Yes, she served. OK. She’s not ready for prime time on the mainland.

Nor is the be outsider tech-dude Andrew Yang, the so-called “Casual Rich Asian,” the no-tie guy with the “$1,000 dollars for your thoughts/Universal Income idea.”

These ten person debates are visceral affairs. There’s just enough time to swipe left or right. Yang is not the one.

But Harris does have a chance, as she deftly creates a story to endear herself to the country.

Her story is black. But it’s also Asian. And everyone needs to know, because people start leaving it out of the bio. And then it’s a surprise, and people like my daughter say, “She’s half-Asian?”

I just want to know: when will she see and recognize us–her fellow Asian Americans–on the national stage?

The sooner the better, because otherwise, it looks like she’s taking Asian American support for granted with a manufactured story, buffed for maximum campaign advantage. How authentic!.

But maybe this is the way of modern diversity. Things are so diverse, your race really doesn’t matter.

Unless, as Harris did on debate night, you want it to.

The rest of them

After these first two debates, I’d say Castro, Booker, and Warren topped the first one. Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg the second. Biden? I think he was exposed. He’s ready to be the statesman, not president. I liked Marianne Williamson too. She’s the real anti-Trump, the true outsider. And what a fight. Williamson’s love vs. Trump’s hate and divisiveness. My Reikiness felt Williamson’s energy. But not for president. The wonks would rebel. They already think she’s an alien. Like space alien.

So the sooner we get to the six I mentioned, we’ll get to candidates that can appeal to both the wonks and the casual voters who will decide this election. And to more thoughtful debates.

The six are pretty solid. Diverse across age, race, gender. Booker’s a vegan too. Rest assured, There’s even some Asianness amongst the six , somewhere

Obama always mentioned Hawaii, but rarely mentioned his whiteness. Was it understood?

Not so obvious with Harris that the Asian is there. But if last week catapulted her as a person who can take on Biden and subsequently Trump, we have a game-changer.

The First Asian American president? Could happen.


EMIL GUILLERMO is a veteran journalist and commentator. He was on the editorial board of the Honolulu Advertiser, and a columnist for the Starr-Bulletin. Twitter @emilamo

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