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Obama’s Minority Dream

And Our Doubts

AsianWeek, Commentary, Emil Guillermo Posted: Aug 28, 2008

DENVER — There’s nothing quite like the hot air inside the arena of a political convention. Despite the frigid air conditioning, the rhetoric is so thick and duplicitous, after four days, it’s hard to know what’s true anymore.

But the truth of the Mile High Democrats in 2008 is obvious when you go back to real-life, away from the world-wide TV studio that is the Pepsi Center.

That’s when you get a sense of the achievement we are witnessing when a person of color goes to the mountain tops and becomes the presidential nominee of a major American political party.

If you’re too young to grasp the historical significance, the Democrats have underscored the legacy, scheduling Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

When Obama accepts the nomination, it will be his time to soar. The pundits will no doubt want to hear more about his $1,000 emergency rebates for the middle class, and how or why he’ll tax greedy oil companies’ outrageous profits. But those are the quotidian details that muck up the moment’s greatness.

Obama may not have a chance to soak it all in. He’ll be too busy trying to make sure it all sticks, to assure that it’s not just a dream. And that won’t be easy.

The Bradley effect
One of the open questions between now and November is how America’s racism will find cover in other excuses to not vote for Obama: His experience? Your love of Hillary? Your distrust of his political ambition?

But the central question is: Can America embrace the first real opportunity to send a person of color to the White House? How racist will America be this election?

Norm Mineta, the former secretary of commerce under Clinton, as well as the former secretary of transportation under Bush II, said the race issue is a real one.

Mineta, one of the first and most ardent Obama supporters, mentioned the so-called “Bradley Effect,” where in 1982 Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American running for governor had an 8-point lead in the polls, then lost by a 2 point margin to Republican George Deukmejian. Voters obviously lied to pollsters, saying they could vote for a black man. But in the voting booth, they just couldn’t muster the ethics to do it.

Mineta said he knows of at least one Caucasian woman, a lifelong Democrat, who admitted she’d have a hard time voting for a black man.

“And I thought, in this day and age, people are still saying that,” Mineta said.

Could Asian Americans be prone to the “Bradley Effect”?

“I think there was black/yellow conflict,” Mineta said. “But I think we’re past it. We’ve worked too closely with the Hispanic and African American communities. APIs aren’t that large, just 4 percent of the population. We have to work with others.”

Time to get off the fence

Asian Americans helped Hillary win the California primary overwhelmingly. But despite some July polls that say Asian Americans now solidly back Obama over John McCain, I was surprised by the number of Asian American women who are still wavering.

“It’s hard for me to embrace Barack,” said Lusianna Ro, 36, a Chinese American Clinton supporter.

Then came Clinton’s do-the-right-thing speech, which gave us all a taste of what could have been. But then she gave the sign to her followers of what is, “Barack Obama is my candidate. And he must be our President.”

The next day, Ro was set. “She reminded everyone of the goals and ideals of the Democratic Party, and that the Democrats need to get behind Obama,” Ro told me. “I’m not sure she convinced me he’s the right person, but he’s the only candidate at this point.”

There still may be room for the Bradley effect. But even before Hillary’s speech, some Asian American women at the convention were already coming around.

“I’m a 100 percent behind Obama,” said Yvonne Lee, a San Francisco police commisioner attending the convention.

Women’s choice is her concern since a president appoints Supreme Court justices and Roe v. Wade could be at stake in the future. Affirmative action is also a concern. “We need someone who can balance the continuing challenges we face as minorities,” said Lee, concerned for her family and friends. “McCain is not going to get us there.”

Bringing it home

The best bit of rhetoric I heard all week was in a Denver Walgreens with other weary convention goers, some of whom held Obama signs and campaign gear. As we lined up at the cash register, an African American Denverite who appeared hard on his luck walked by and observed, “What a beautiful thing — when in America have you seen this kind of love for a black man?”

The man’s statement is the one truth that remains with me after a week of rah-rah.

When has America shown the love? When Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” went gold? When Michael Jordan three-peated? Maybe in the arts, or in sports, where race isn’t questioned, but never in America in something so real, so vital as presidential politics.

Now comes the trust part. Will Asian Americans help make it all stick?

E-mail: emil@amok.com

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