Emil Guillermo: Tuesday’s vote, our Asian American racial identity, and the Harvard case

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This is the most racially charged election I’ve experienced in nearly a generation.

It was 1994—24 years ago– that California voted overwhelmingly for Prop.187, a ballot initiative to deny public services to the undocumented. The law was later ruled unconstitutional. But it proved that even in the bluest and most Asian state in the union by population, hate and fear can win elections.

It’s the anti-immigrant script that Trump and his ilk are following to the letter in the 2018 midterms.

Trumpism? Be as blunt as the man himself and call it what it is.

Flat-out racism.

If the racist fearmongering works on Election Day, diversity be damned. It won’t be far-fetched to say a nouveau white supremacy, modernized and sanitized to appear ‘Mercan enough, will become the Republican playbook for the immediate future.

So the big question on Tuesday is whether America will repel that notion, flip from red to blue, and work toward a more perfect union.

As an Asian American of Filipino descent, I sure hope so.

As I like to say, I am an exiled San Franciscan who lives in the red part of a blue state, the Central Valley of California.

I’m in an imminently “flippable” district, one that was won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, but retained a GOP House member. It’s deadlocked in CA District 10 as I write, but the Democrats have knocked on my door three times in two days to remind me to vote. I’m in one of the toss-up districts that could make the difference between the Democrats winning just enough (at least 23 seats) to gain control of the House. Or turning the entire political map blue.

It all depends on a turnout already fueled by more than 34 million early voters. The more the merrier? It sure could set off a seismic shift that gives Democrats double the minimum they need to win the House, and maybe even tip a stunning 1 to 2 vote majority in the Senate.

Could happen if the Dems win in Texas, Tennessee, and defend Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in North Dakota.

If you’re Asian American and have heard the rhetoric, you may be angered by the racist tone of this campaign, one that harkens back to the days that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

That makes this no time to be apathetic.

Given the anti-immigrant statements made by the Republicans, this could be the election that defines the identity of our nation for at least a generation or longer.

That makes these midterms more than a referendum on Trump, but one on race and diversity, where Americans figure out who we are as a people and what we are as a country.

In the coming years, racial issues will only become more central in the political conversation, and even more testy.

On Monday, the Commerce Department was in Federal Court in New York fighting over the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census. It could result in an undercount of people of color and immigrants.

The census numbers are fueling the identity crisis in the first place. Minorities becoming the majority? Whites feeling the competition from hordes of foreigners?

As demographics become more threatening to those in power, the things we thought were settled will be under attack. Gerrymandering? Voter suppression? Who gets to participate and take part. Who gets excluded. It’s all being reassessed as the new numbers become real.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the advocates in the Shelby County v. Alabama voting rights case was Ed Blum, the very same person who spearheaded the case to end affirmative action at Harvard.


The Harvard case, in which Asian Americans sued Harvard for discrimination, is far more important than you might think. It could determine access to higher education for all people of color for decades to come.

It also easily defines where Asian Americans stand on diversity. And just who the good guys are, isn’t exactly clear at first.

Do we back the aggrieved Asian students, our kids, as some prominent pro-Asian groups advocate? Tiger Moms and their kids with the perfect scores who didn’t get in—we’re for them, right?

Well, not so fast.

Over the last three weeks, the trial in Boston came down to a battle of statistical models, with expert witnesses tweaking the numbers to prove their perspective.

But let’s go with the kids who took the stand.

And notice who didn’t.

Ed Blum’s group, Students for Fair Admissions—the anti-Harvard, anti-diversity, anti-affirmative action side claiming that Asian American students were discriminated–sent zero students to the witness stand.


Maybe they were too busy with midterms at their second and third choice schools like Yale or UC Berkeley, the places they wound up after being rejected from Harvard.

So for me, the real difference in this case are the Harvard students, past and present, who bravely testified under oath.

African American, Latino, as well as Asian American students and alums spoke of the power of diversity and the holistic admissions policy at Harvard.

The most important student may have been Sally Chen.

She was one of those less than perfect Asian Americans.

And we both had a lot in common.

We were both from San Francisco, from a family where the father was a cook in a restaurant and the mother was a homemaker. We were working class, not “poor.” But not rich.

Both of us went to the same all-academic magnet school, Lowell High.

And we both didn’t have the best SATs and GPAs.

What we had was a story. We overcame our parents’ immigrant past. And we both got into Harvard.

Chen testified that if Harvard couldn’t consider race, she wouldn’t be at Harvard now. “There’s no way in which my flat numbers and resume could’ve gotten across how much of a whole person that I am,” Chen said.

But life’s more than test scores. Chen was a student leader in high school. A community advocate. Her application reviewer said she had a balanced approach to life. A sense of humor. She was a whole person.

Was the kid with the perfect scores better than Chen?

That’s a judgment call. But Harvard says race is just one factor. And this holistic approach has been upheld as constitutional, and has admitted freshman classes that are over 20 percent Asian in recent years.

The U.S. Asian population is around six percent. Hard to prove discrimination given that record.

Yet, Blum found his Asian victims, mostly Chinese Americans, who felt their top scores merited admission, and sued Harvard. They argued Harvard could be more than 40 percent Asian if some kind of illegal quota weren’t in play.

Who wins this case depends on how you define discrimination and whether you believe the highest score MUST win.

Maybe in basketball.

At the start of the case years ago, I called the case our “civil war,” as it both threatens to define and tear apart our Asian American community. I first saw it happen in California when state legislators tried to restore affirmative action in college admissions in 2012 and a group of Asian Americans loudly protested.

But it also alienated Asian Americans from other beneficiaries of affirmative action, namely blacks and Latinos.

It’s interesting how in the Harvard case, the students who testified came from all racial groups, and didn’t defend Harvard so much as it extolled the virtues of diversity and equal opportunity.

That’s how those who wore the blue Defend Diversity shirts defined the case.

But other Asian Americans may see it only as “my kid, my scores, my Harvard.”

That’s why where you stand in the Harvard case may do more to define where Asian American identity is in 2018 and beyond.

Do we stand for each other, all people of color?

Or just for ourselves? (Sounds kind of Trumpy, no?)

In the meantime, the election results may or may not show where Asian Americans stand on identity politics.

Mainstream exit polls don’t normally sample enough Asian Americans to make a difference.

But AALDEF is targeting Asian Americans in exit polling in 14 states including D.C on Election Day.

That might give a better sense of the Asian American community.

Did we stand for ourselves? Or did we stand united and reject Trumpism and help drive some kind of blue wave?

These are the most significant midterm elections in a generation.

Make sure that your voice is heard on Election Day. Vote.

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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