Emil Guillermo: On Hawaii's Iam Tongi and his "American Idol" win; plus, Harvard's Asian Americans and my solution to "fair admissions"

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I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather be an American idol than a Harvard matriculate. But we all know it takes skill and luck. So maybe the answer to that affirmative action lawsuit is—a lottery?

In the meantime, let’s all sing our praises to Iam Tongi, the young man who put the “NHPI” in AANHPI Month on Sunday as he became the first Hawaiian-born, Pacific Islander singer to win ABC’s vocal talent contest, “American Idol.”

He’s matriculating into showbiz with a bang.

The 18-year-old Tongi from Kahuku on the North Shore of Oahu was the top vote getter in the 21st year of the show, beating out country singer Megan Danielle, 19, from Georgia.

For several weeks, there appeared no way Tongi could lose.

With his size and soulful sound, Tongi seemed reminiscent of another Hawaiian singer, Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole, a/k/a “Bruddah IZ.” Kamakawiwoʻole, who died in 1997, was known around the world for his ukelele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which made him a legend.

Tongi’s rival, Megan Danielle, had a gritty southern lilt in her voice reminiscent of a young Dolly Parton. But that wasn’t going to top the second coming of Bruddah IZ.

AANHPI singers have come close in the past to being the “American Idol,” with Hawaii’s Filipino American Jasmine Trias finishing in the top three in 2004 and Nepalese American Arthur Gunn finishing second in 2020.

But Tongi broke through in a big way in this year’s competition as he appeared to be the judges’ favorite from the start, delivering emotional renditions of songs like James Blunt’s “Monsters.”

On Sunday, Tongi did that song again. This time he was paired with Blunt himself, in a live performance dedicated to Tongi’s late father that left both Tongi and the audience in tears.

That nearly sealed the deal for Tongi, who at just 18 looks ready with the “American Idol” stamp of approval to make a huge splash.

Last week, Tongi was back on Oahu for the traditional home visit of the finalists. Thousands of people went to Turtle Bay and the North Shore, where Tongi was given an honorary high school diploma from Kahuku High.

A nice gesture. But after winning “American Idol,” Tongi doesn’t even need a diploma from Harvard.

But others do.


I love the word matriculate.

It sounds like it should do more than it does.

But it’s just the easy part after you get admitted—saying if you’re really going to go. Yes or No.

Getting admitted is the hard part.

This year, 56,937 people applied to Harvard and only 1,942 got in. That’s a 3.41 percent acceptance rate.

On Friday, the college announced 84 percent said they would matriculate, or actually enroll this fall, about 1630 students.

And about 486 of them are Asian American.

That’s a freshman class that’s 29.8 percent Asian, two percent higher than the record set last year.

It makes for an odd coincidence. Just as the Supreme Court is set to deliver an opinion by this summer in a lawsuit that claims Harvard’s process discriminates against Asian Americans, the school has produced a class that is more Asian, and more diverse in terms of race and class in its history.

The Black student population is down slightly but is still at 14.1 percent of the new class. Latinx students are down from 11.9 percent to 11.1 percent. Native Americans and Native Hawaiians were at 3.6 percent and are now at 2.3 percent.

White students are up from 42.5 percent to 42.7 percent. That’s still too close to 50 percent for my taste.

It doesn’t exactly look like America, with Asians at 29.8 percent of the class, more than four times the Asian population in the U.S.

But the school has a racial diversity that wasn’t present when I was a student there in the 1970s.

More surprising is the class economic diversity, with Harvard raising the threshold for its zero-cost program. Previously, it was meant for families making $75,000 a year; now, families making less than $85,000 can qualify.

Nearly 24 percent of this incoming class are from families that qualify.

Make no mistake. Harvard’s no public school. But the school now has a much better mix of class and race than ever before. The fourth generation legacy still gets in. And so do the wealthy. That’s the affirmative action that needs to be excised.

But the case before the Supreme Court doesn’t really address that aspect.

So what exactly is the Supreme Court’s ruling trying to fix? My solution to all of this.

Most observers feel that the court’s 6-3 conservative majority will side with the earnest but duped Asian Americans who claim discrimination. The ruling could ban affirmative action and force every college, not just Harvard, into some form of “race-blind admissions.” But how would a race-blind policy improve what Harvard was able to accomplish on its own using race as just one factor among many?

The anti-affirmative action group, Students for Fair Admissions, which claims that Harvard discriminated against Asian Americans, might welcome the race-blind approach, but what if such a change ends up with a school that’s nearly 40 percent Asian, like some University of California campuses? Of course, the Asian number could go down too.

And what of the representation of other groups? What if Black and Latinx admissions decrease even further and white admissions go back over 50 percent?

That appears to be the Republican Party’s goal in a universe where “diversity” is now considered a dirty word by anti-woke Republicans.

SCOTUS could always affirm the lower court’s ruling that sided with Harvard. But the Supremes seem ready to undo real progress, and that would be a shame.

Maybe they should consider “totally blind,” what I would consider an enlightened lottery. That takes care of affirmative action for the W&W (the white and wealthy). And it acknowledges that in life, there’s more to success than merit.

There’s the matter of pure luck.

I have previously been negative toward any kind of lottery-based admissions. But it may be the only way to make things fair.

When dealing with the limited resources doled out in admission to a place like Harvard, how else do you make things “fair”?

Talent wins out most times in life, as in Iam Tongi in “Idol.” But you also need a lot of luck to win.

Let’s see how lucky you are on college choice.

Besides, we know how much AAPIs love to gamble.

Just coming to America was a gamble.

I hope you are one of the 486 Asian Americans planning to enroll in the fall.

But if you’re not matriculating, perhaps because you were rejected, I hope you’re not planning to sue.

Remember, you were not discriminated against.

Try a different perspective. Of the 1,942 who were originally admitted, 312 people among them actually said NO to Harvard. Or maybe Harvard was their backup.

Harvard is not planning to sue them for discriminating against the institution.

But if you got rejected, you may want to see where those 312 naysayers are going and join the “Just say No to Harvard” club.

You’re a natural. You know “No.”

Just don’t sue.

One time-wasting lawsuit forged by conservative zealots—and fronted by Asian Americans–is one too many.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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EMIL IS PERFORMING HERE : Sunday, May 28th from 2pm to 5pm, six professional Asian American storytellers, co- hosted by Eth-Noh-Tec and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, will share their stories of discrimination and the outcomes that can strengthen our own ability to not only survive, but thrive in this continuing era of anti-Asian hate.

A panel will follow facilitated by Russell Jeung, Ph.D., Professor of Ethnic Studies, SF State University and co- founder of StopAAPIHate!

Participants will gather in small groups (and break out rooms for virtual participants via Zoom) with the opportunity to share their own stories with compassionate and supportive listening. Counselors will be present in the room. Two short films will be shared. Finally, we will celebrate who we are by ending with music performed by Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo and a Senior women’s rap group, the Follies!​

JOIN US IN PERSON: Date: Sunday May 28th, 2022 Time: 2-5pm PDT Where: Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 9th St, Oakland, CA 94607 Register to attend this Free live, in-person event:

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Many thanks to the California Arts Council for funding Strong Like Bamboo.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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