From San Francisco to New York, FBI’s Leland Yee operation is a stinging “model minority” buster


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.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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