Good Friday? Thanks goodness Easter is just a rolling rock away
April 18, 2014 9:03 AM

First, the good news of Good Friday, at least in terms of Asian American firsts.

In a small town in California, the first Hmong American judge in the nation will be sworn in. Paul Lo will take the bench as a Superior Court judge in Merced County in California's Central Valley, where more than a third of the nearly 300,000 Hmong Americans live. Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Lo, 45, a UC Davis and UCLA Law School grad, was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1994, and a solo practitioner since 2003. 


As a firster myself, (the first Asian American to host NPR's "All Things Considered," see page 35 of the Encyclopedia of American Journalism), I appreciate the firsts of our community, big or small. It's also a nice coincidence that Lo's swearing in comes on the week we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the man who broke baseball's color lines 67 years ago. 

It's the reason everyone in all of baseball on Wednesday wore No. 42, Robinson's actual number for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even the San Francisco Giants No. 55, Tim Lincecum, an Asian American of Filipino descent and the first player ever to win a Cy Young Award for best pitcher in his first two full seasons. 


In honor of Robinson in San Francisco, Lincecum wore No. 42, as did Dodger Hispanic stars Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig. 


Robinson's entering into the starting lineup of America's game actually pre-dated the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law 50 years ago this July.

It's part of the continuing story of diversity in America that color lines can still be broken in our society today with the swearing in of Paul Lo in Merced, California at 4 p.m. PDT.

As I said, that's the good news of Good Friday.

But it's still Good Friday, a solemn day, as always.

For those of us who chronicle society's identity politics, is there a year that has been more absurdly ironic?

This is also the week in which an anti-Semitic former KKK leader was accused of a hate crime after fatally shooting three people at a Jewish community center near Kansas City. All Christian.

Today, at the funerals of two of the victims, Dr.William Corporon and his grandson, 14-year-old Reat Underwood, the extreme Christian group, the Westboro Baptist Church, will be picketing the services at a Kansas City Lutheran church. They will be calling the victims "faux Christians."

Only in America does freedom truly exist to test our tolerance.

And yet throughout the religious world, the misguided anti-Semitism in Kansas City isn't really surprising when one considers the language of the Passion that will be read today. Too often the language used in the scourging and crucifixion of Christ has been used to justify anti-Semitism for over 2000 years.

Indeed, it is a strange twist of identity politics, where Jesus, King of the Jews, is put to death by the Jews, which in turn has been seen historically provoked some Christians to anti-Semitic violence. Theologians over the years have suggested reading the gospel texts and then, in the words of the biblical scholar John Raymond Brown, provide the antidote by "preaching forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity."

This year, the urgency of that message comes not just from a pulpit, but in the very tragic and real images of Kansas City.

If that message of understanding and tolerance were heeded, it would certainly make for a much better Sunday.

And in the event you're a secular non-believer, as of course is your right, consider Paul Lo, first Hmong American Superior Court judge in the nation, representing another step toward a new and better world.

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From San Francisco to New York, FBI's Leland Yee operation is a stinging "model minority" buster
April 7, 2014 4:11 PM

Tired of that old positive stereotype? You know, the "Model Minority"?

If you are, then the FBI sting operation involving California State Senator Leland Yee and 28 others is something of a godsend.

The case is an all-encompassing model minority buster.

Don't care much for the "good at math" stereotype? Then how about replacing it with a "good at crime" stereotype just to balance things out?

Why should Whitey Bulger have all the fun?

And while campaign cash seems to be the main focus of the Yee story, this four-year FBI operation has just about everything: Stolen cognac and contraband cigarettes sitting in a Jersey port; marijuana for sale in Flushing, Queens; a California dentist with connections to weapons from Muslim rebels in the Philippines; murder for hire; undercover FBI guys identified only by numbers like "4559"; confidential sources; an African American political consultant whose associates include Yee, but also marijuana growers in Northern California and an ex-con named "Shrimp Boy," who is associated with a 165-year old Chinatown organization with ties to a tong that dates back to mid-17th century China; a Chinese laundress who cleans criminal money and is referred to as "Dragon Lady"; and lastly, the man you turn to if you want your ankle monitoring device removed, the politician who, perhaps unfairly, has become the real public face of this entire mess, the man "Shrimp Boy" sometimes called "Uncle Leland."

Of course, that's just the FBI's side of the story. It's taken from that 137-page affidavit released more than a week ago that often reads like a movie treatment to rival such Asian American cultural disasters as the 1986 Hollywood box-office failure, "Big Trouble in Little China."

Remember that bag of badass Asian stereotypes? Nearly 30 years and we're still fighting the same identity issues in media, movies, and politics.

And the Leland Yee story still has many more bumps ahead.

This past weekend, the headline came up anew when the federal grand jury issued the formal indictments, including Yee's charges of six counts of public corruption and conspiracy to deal in illegal weapons. Yee faces 125 years in federal prison and fines up to $1.75 million.

This is a story with a long arc. In less than two weeks, we've had the FBI affidavit, the perp walk, the indictment, and this week, Yee enters his plea.

But here's the other reason we need to watch how this story spreads. Catch the error in this headline in the McClatchy-owned Modesto Bee: "Sen. Lee, 28 others indicted." 

Yee headline-small.JPG
Sen. Lee? Yeland Lee?

Oops. They meant Sen. Yee. Honest mistake, right?

The wrong name AND a misspelling? It's a cardinal sin in journalism, but maybe we're at the point where there's no one left to fire in American newsrooms. 

That's the problem with this "seen-one-seen-them-all" mentality that still seems to exist these days for Asian Americans.

Yee, Lee, Wee, us. We all get branded by the bad news.

Asian Americans are still a minority in this country, and a massive sting operation that highlights a veteran pol like Yee is sure to both reinforce and update old stereotypes. And maybe even create new ones.

So here's the Chinese laundress who does money.

And the Chinese American politician forced to creatively raise money to stay competitive.

In the New York ethnic media, Jimmy Cheng, co-chair of the United Fujianese American Association, is quoted as saying, "The mainstream shouldn't generalize about Chinese politicians, and, more importantly, we Chinese shouldn't look down on ourselves."

Easier said than done. But even pols who knew Yee from his New York fundraising activities wanted a little distance between Yee and themselves. Former New York City Councilmember and City Comptroller John Liu was especially quick to stay above it all.

"It is shocking and difficult to believe that Sen. Yee is now facing this. But if the charges are true, it is a massive betrayal of the public trust," said Liu. "The standards for elected officials are high and getting higher. And that's the way it should be. The public deserves it. That is true for Chinese-American elected officials as it is for others."

But then the Sing Tao Daily reporter asked Liu about his own problems in the campaign finance arena, including being turned down for $3.25 million in public matching funds due to campaign fundraising irregularities. He got pretty defensive.

Asked Liu: "How do you use his case and my case in the same sentence?"

Easy. The denial of public funds came after two Liu aides were convicted on charges connected to a federal sting last year. A key witness was Liu's former press secretary, who testified that she offered to reimburse friends and family who contributed to the campaign--making them "straw donors."

Liu was never indicted, so his situation is different from Yee's. But the common thread seems to be they were both ambitious politicians forced into servicing an insatiable appetite for campaign donations.

Most Asian American pols lean on friends and family for fundraising, not big corporate donors. Yee especially leaned on Filipino Americans. But what do you do when two-thirds of the community are immigrants, with a few doctors and lawyers among the elites. They are  wealthy, but not with the heft of a billionaire who can carry a campaign.

How much power can you wield in this kind of capital-driven politics--without money?

This is the problem when our community sees Yee and Liu, pioneer Asian American pols, struggle to stay in the game.

And now after last week's Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, removing aggregate limits on individual donations to federal campaigns, a clear message comes through about our democracy.

The divide is likely to be even wider now between the well-funded and the poorly-funded.

Does it make you want to run for office? Does it even make you want to vote? Or does it make you want to recede even more into the margins, throw up your hands, and wonder if it's possible to really count in this society.

It's not easy when our democracy's for oligarchs and plutocrats.

Now that's a very real model minority buster.
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Asian American Hustle? With CA Senator Leland Yee's arrest, Asian American empowerment takes a hit
March 27, 2014 11:31 AM

Here's when I last saw California State Senator Leland Yee.

I was the emcee of a community event at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco last October, and Yee was the featured speaker. The event honored the day the U.S. landed on Leyte during World War II, when General Douglas MacArthur and Filipinos retook the Philippines and changed the course of the war. Yee was there to present a Senate resolution honoring the day.

I remember Yee to be all business that day, not any different from normal. He was there for the community, as always. 

And yet, after losing the San Francisco mayoral race and gaining a new $70,000 debt, he had the pressure of being term limited and forced to seek a new job. (Was Secretary of State, the overseer of elections, really all that appealing?) I should have sensed the musical chairs game of politics was beginning to get old.

If I had, then Wednesday's sordid tale of a bizarre and surreal FBI sting that includes drugs, convicted gang members nicknamed "Shrimp Boy," and talk of illegal firearms from Muslim groups in the Philippines would not have been such a big surprise.

But with the key figure in all of that being Yee, I have to admit to being flabbergasted.

This is a case that rocks the Bay Area's Asian American political scene hard.

In the FBI special agent's affidavit supporting the criminal complaint, Yee was accused of defrauding the "public's right to honest services," conspiracy to deal firearms without a license, and illegally importing firearms.

The sting includes a list of suspects ranging from convicted gang members, a political consultant, and a local Filipino dentist accused of being an arms dealer.

But the shocker was Yee.

As a veteran observer of Asian American empowerment in the Bay Area and the nation, I was absolutely astonished to see images of Yee, 65, driven into custody at the Federal building.

The local guy who made good was going down.

Yee, who represents the west side of the city in the Sunset district, extending south to the part of San Mateo that includes Daly City, was essentially the key Asian American state legislator representing the Bay Area's Chinese and Filipino populations.

I've known Yee as a guy from my old neighborhood around Dolores Park in the city. He went to Mission High--like Carlos Santana. Often revered as one of the folks who made it, Yee was seen as the go-to guy in politics, who rose through the ranks from President of the Board of Education to City and County supervisor, to the State Assembly, where he was the first Asian American to be Speaker Pro Tem, and then the first Chinese American elected to the State Senate in 2006.

Yee's resume is like a mini-history of Asian American empowerment.

And if the charges against him are true, this becomes the tragic tale of an Asian American in politics.

You'll likely hear a lot in the news about the Triad member nicknamed "Shrimp Boy." But I was more surprised to see two other names: Filipino dentist Wilson Lim and restaurant owner Hon Keung So.

H.K. So, the owner of the New Asia restaurant on Pacific Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown, is named in the affidavit as allegedly buying a stolen liquor license. So's restaurant is a well-known site for political events in the city. Hundreds of people can fit in the space, and the food is cheap. One of the last events I attended there was a surprise party for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But Lim's name is more critical. The affidavit cites Lim, a well-known dentist in the Filipino community, as the alleged gun dealer that Yee is attempting to connect to the FBI undercover agent.

I've met Dr. Lim on a few occasions, but never would have suspected him of being connected to Muslim gun dealers.

The affidavit says Yee suggested the undercover agent should try small deals with Lim first.

It's not clear if there was any video in the case to back up the agent's claims. If there is, the whole thing would have similarities to the FBI's ABSCAM sting of the '70s.

In ABSCAM, the basis of the movie "American Hustle," the FBI used a man posing as a rich Arab sheikh whose sole existence was to bait the hook and see who would bite at the possibility of big money for big influence.

In the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, the offer was too tempting for political officials from city hall, the state house, and the U.S. Congress.

Much of it was on videotape. And seeing is believing.

That brings us to this week's update: Was this sting the Asian American Hustle of Sen. Leland Yee?

Hard to say. The question could be raised that creating a fictional buyer (the undercover agent) might be entrapment.

In ABSCAM, the sheikh wasn't real. But if it's proven that the dentist Lim was really an arms dealer and Yee was his middleman, it would be hard for Yee to maintain his innocence.

The ABSCAM convictions were all upheld on appeal, thus establishing the rule book for future stings.

The FBI knew what it was doing. But what about Leland Yee?

We'll have to wait and see. Yee, free on $500,000 bail, is set to appear in court on Monday.

His Senate colleagues are calling for him to resign. But I think Yee deserves his day in court.

As I write, I am in New York City, where I just saw the play, "All the Way," featuring the "Breaking Bad" actor Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The play is about how the Civil Rights Act was passed and how it affected the race between LBJ and Barry Goldwater in 1964.

It shows "how the sausage is made," which doesn't particularly make politics so appealing.

But it doesn't show how the sausage is paid for. That's where the story about the FBI sting of Yee picks up, and why money is everything in politics.

It's to the point where one can easily imagine a politician "breaking bad." Still, many Asian Americans are surely hoping for a different outcome for Leland Yee.
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Grace Lee Boggs coming to big screen near you? Let's hope so.
March 23, 2014 2:14 PM

Grace Lee Boggs rolls onto the big screen with the aid of her senior hybrid (a walker with wheels!), gazing at an old ruin of a Detroit auto plant--a relic of America's failed industrial past.

But next to all that historical doom, Grace stands alive and well, a triumph of her humanistic vision. 


Grace Lee Boggs at CAAMFest 2014 in San Francisco (photo by Emil Guillermo)

This is the opening image of the new documentary "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," which began a commercial run at the AMC Loews on 19th and Broadway this weekend in New York City.

It's a long way from the Chin Lee restaurant that her father ran on Broadway in New York City in the '30s.

Boggs, who will be 99 in June, has come a long way from her Chinese American roots. But some of us are just catching up to her now.

I'm ashamed I didn't know much about Grace Lee Boggs when I first met her nearly three years ago and wrote this blog post about her book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century

But it was the same time younger Asian Americans were beginning to discover the power of the Grace Lee Boggs story: Chinese American, goes to Barnard among the privileged, gets her doctorate, but can only find a job in Chicago, where she meets an African American community organizer and intellectual, Jimmy Lee Boggs. She marries him and moves to Detroit, where she stays 55 years to fight for civil rights, workers' rights and human rights.

The film covers all that bio stuff.

But the documentary's jewels are the intimate moments that go beyond the bio, such as when the filmmaker Grace Lee, related only by common name, early in the movie gives Grace Lee Boggs a haircut in her kitchen. All vanity is stripped here. We're getting something real. 

The project actually started as an exploration of the people with the common name Grace Lee. Fortunately, filmmaker Lee had the good sense to know that focusing on Grace Lee Boggs was where the gold was.



Filmmaker Grace Lee with Grace Lee Boggs at CAAMFest (photo by Emil Guillermo)

I still have some questions I would have liked the film to explore more, such as how the Asian/Black relationship worked. Was the black movement so all-consuming that it dwarfed an Asian American consciousness? Even when Vincent Chin was killed in Detroit? Were we all just people of color in a class war that brought us all together? 

The film does show some great home movies of Jimmy Lee Boggs and Grace with friends. But it doesn't quite explore why they never had children. 

Grace does admit that she never talked about personal things with Jimmy. 

Pretty startling, but not when you consider Jimmy Lee Boggs was also a prolific author and intellectual in his own right. On seeing the film, one can imagine orgiastic discussions of Hegel and Marx as enough to sustain the two of them. 

That makes this a real grassroots intellectual's movie. There are no car chases, nor does Lena Dunham pop out in the nude anywhere in the movie. 

Hitler does walk backward. 

Some of my favorite moments come toward the end, when Grace is mano y mano in conversation, her greatest medium. When Grace Lee Boggs talks to actor/activist Danny Glover, she completely dresses him down in a discussion about education by saying: "First of all, everybody who talks about quality education is really talking about how our people can become more like white people and advance in the system." 

Glover gets tongue tied and disagrees. Eventually, he leaves Grace's house with six books.

She's made him think. 

But turnabout is fair play. When the filmmaker Lee decides to challenge back, Grace Lee Boggs admits to not having any regrets or even feeling frustrated at any point in her life. 

The filmmaker, as our surrogate, asks how can she be so confident in her positions and ideas. And Boggs delivers this unscripted line: "If I had undertaken the challenges other people have undertaken, if I had decided to become a mother, for example...I could imagine a lot of frustrations." The audience where I saw the film breaks out in laughter. 

But then Boggs follows up: "So in that sense I've lived more a life of a man than as a woman." It's a kind of reality check statement that can anger and empower all at the same time. 

The filmmaker presses on about how the positive sense of Boggs seems to lack that "internal struggle," maybe a sense of the Hegelian dialectic that Boggs likes to talk about. 

It stumps her, and even Boggs has to admit she'll have to take the criticism and "internalize" it. 

In San Francisco last week at the Center for Asian American Media's special screening, I greeted Boggs, who was wheelchair bound. 

I was flattered she remembered me from three years ago. She's still astonished that the Asian American movement has discovered her. But there I was with so many young Asian Americans who see her as the mother of all their revolutionary thoughts about life. 

One of the young under-30s was Marissa Louie, a granddaughter of one of San Francisco Chinatown's founding families. Louie, a graduate of UC-Berkeley and now a socially conscious high-tech entrepreneur, knows how being a woman still makes you a rebel in society. She recognized a bit of herself in Boggs and even tweeted during the screening. Afterward, she handed Boggs a bouquet. 

As I approached Grace Lee Boggs after the screening, I just had to ask her about Grace Lee's probing questions about Boggs' uncompromising certainty and self-assuredness. Had she thought about it further? 

She looked at me and said: "Not really." 

And then we both laughed as she rolled away into the loud and adoring crowd.

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In California, SCA 5 may be DOA due to Asian Americans against affirmative action
March 14, 2014 1:06 PM

For a change, there's a movement to restore affirmative action, and not to end it.

Unfortunately, because of some short-sighted Asian Americans, SCA 5 may die before it can get to the electorate.

SCA 5 is Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, which seeks to overturn Proposition 209 in California. That was the initiative that won a simple majority at the ballot in 1996 and ended the use of race in all educational admissions, public hiring, and public contracting.

Since then, Prop. 209 has been replicated like a bad seed to thwart affirmative action, but not without legal challenges along the way, including in Michigan, where its version is now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In California, Prop. 209 has survived all challenges at both the state Supreme Court and at the legislative level. Meanwhile, the state's black, Latino, and segments of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, most notably the Filipino, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander groups, remain woefully underrepresented.

Still, to overturn 209 is practically herculean. Having passed an initiative process, Prop. 209 became a constitutional amendment. And to overturn that requires amending the amendment--no small feat.

It hasn't stopped State Senator Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina) from trying. After three attempts to pass a measure to reverse Prop. 209, his latest, SCA 5, was approved in the Senate this year.

Now it goes before the State Assembly for a vote, and if it's passed by a super-majority there, it goes before the voters in a referendum as early as Nov. 4 this year.

Climbing Mount Everest might be easier.

The political fight to kill it has already begun. Some Asian American groups against affirmative action have jumped the gun and gone on the offensive, targeting electeds, including some Asian Americans in both the Senate and the Assembly in Southern California.

It's a different role for Asian Americans, even in the affirmative action debate.

Normally, the fight is over ending affirmative action, and Asian Americans are trotted out by predominantly white anti-affirmative action groups as the poor "aggrieved victims," as in Texas and Michigan.

In this new California fight to reverse the ending of affirmative action, some Chinese Americans, most of them new immigrants, have learned their political role and have been quick to speak out first. And in a state like California, where Asians are the second largest ethnic minority after Latinos, politicians who are prone to ignore Asian Americans can't dismiss such a vocal contingent.

Some public officials reportedly have tempered their support or have begun to hedge on SCA 5.

On, over 100,000 signatures have been collected on a petition drive opposing SCA 5. The comment box shows the standard responses, such as the perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s statement, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

I doubt Dr. King would have supported Prop. 209. He would have supported SCA 5.

Other comments: "SCA 5 is NOT fair to the student who study and work hard. What a JOKE!"

And this: "I believe racial preference in college admission is not the right practice and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Children who study and work hard should deserve equal opportunity in college admission regardless of their race and gender."

And this: "Fairness is important! If a kid work harder and get better grade, no matter what, the kid should have better chance to go to desirable school!"

With that kind of response, or confusion, some Chinese Americans are already proclaiming SCA 5 dead.

Well, only if the politics of fear prevail.

While it's admirable to see Asian Americans in the process, a deeper understanding of what's at stake with 209 beyond one's short-term self interests is important.

The fact is Prop. 209 was written by two white academics who were trying to stem the tide of new competition from diverse groups in public education and employment. All 209 did was preserve the overrepresentation of certain groups, while making it impossible to do anything to remedy the underrepresentation of others.

If you can't use race in admissions or hiring, as 209 has shown, it's hard to adequately address ways to increase the numbers of underrepresented groups.

Thus, Prop. 209 preserved the status quo. And in some cases, it made things worse.

Since the passage of Prop. 209 in California, blacks have seen a 49 percent drop in offers to UC Berkeley, and a 16 percent drop to UCLA.

The Asian American numbers have also dropped. UC Berkeley's offers to Asian Americans before 209 were up by 75 percent, and by 14 percent after.

But that's just the freshman class.

If Asians are starting to sound like whites in this debate, it's no mistake. Asian Americans are the most overrepresented among all students in the UC system. When you look at the overall numbers at all the UCs, ideally, you'd want a public system to mirror the state's population, wouldn't you?

But look at the numbers: 

African Americans, 4 percent in the UC system, 7 percent in the state.
Latinos, 28 percent at UC, 38 percent in the state.
Whites, 24 percent at UC, 39 percent in the state.
American Indians, 1 percent at UC, 2 percent in the state.
Asian Americans, 40 percent at UC, 14 percent in the state.

That's why Prop. 209 needs to be reversed.

The numbers are out-of-whack. 

But the perception among the mostly new immigrant community in California is that race-based policies hurt them, and they adamantly oppose SCA 5.

Some of them are blinded to the fact that as a minority in our democracy, their interests are best served by working in coalition with African American, Latino, Native American, and LGBT communities to fight for greater equity in California's top public entities.

That's real strength in numbers. It's not about fighting to preserve your 40 percent overrepresentation in the UC system.

Ironically, many of the Asian Americans against SCA 5 are in the scientific community, where they see discrimination based on race or accent every day at their labs. For them, the remedy has been simple. They have always relied on working hard, scoring the highest in exams, and displaying their credentials to prove their worth and become successful.

It's what they know, and it can make sense in some contexts. In a true meritocracy, maybe it should.

But even they know, it doesn't always work in fighting the racism that people of color still face in America.

For true equity and fairness, SCA 5 and the repeal of Prop. 209 makes sense for all.
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