MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Back in 1998, writing in the New Yorker Magazine, author Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton America's first black president. The title has been repeated many times since. It's been said in jest, it's been said with resentment, but the context has been all but forgotten, the fact that the U.S. was approaching the 21st century without a real prospect of a non-white candidate ever getting a shot at the White House.
Well, obviously, things have changed in a decade. Democrat Barack Obama has a very real chance of becoming the nation's first black president. We've been exploring that possibility in a series of conversations with artists and writers and thinkers, about what it would mean to have a black president.
Now, Jeff Yang is turning that idea on its head. Author of the "Asian Pop" column for San Francisco Chronicle, Jeff Yang wrote a column asking if Obama could be the first Asian-American president. He's with us now. OK, Jeff Yang, you have some explaining to do.
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MARTIN: What made you think of this?
Mr. JEFF YANG ("Asian Pop," San Francisco Chronicle): I think part of it was really just looking at the same context that we're looking at here, that you mentioned actually, regarding the invocation of blackness for Bill Clinton. This notion that somehow race has transmigrated into a new space in our dialogue, and it's no longer solely limited to a discussion around genetics, or blood, or even necessarily, kind of, culture of upbringing. That there's a, kind of, transcendent-natured race, and if that's the case, if we can use race as almost a metaphor in some ways, maybe that metaphor can be applied differently. Maybe it can be applied in a bigger sense, given the incredible proximity of Obama's arrival on this political scene, and potentially as leader of our nation.
MARTIN: So, what qualities does he have that make him a candidate for first Asian-American president?
Mr. YANG: When you look at what makes up Asian-American identity, there are some really, sort of, strong themes that define us. And many of those themes, really, are applicable, in a lot ways, to Obama's personality, to his makeup, to his mind set. You talk about the, sort of, notion of being an outsider, a foreigner, somebody who's come from a different shore. That's a slur that Asian-Americans have experienced pretty frequently. And Obama, one of the central, kind of, conceits that political enemies have been using to attack him is this notion that he is somehow not truly from America, that he's not from our America, in any case. And you know, part of that wouldn't be entirely correct - incorrect, that is.
He is somebody who has spent a considerable amount of time abroad. He spent years abroad in Indonesia, with his stepfather, who was, himself, Indonesian. He was brought up in and around communities of Asian-Americans and immigrants in Hawaii, the only state in the nation which is actually majority Asian-American. And within his own family, he has a half-sister and a brother-in-law who are themselves Asian-American, and very strongly proud of that fact. And he's proud of that fact as well. So, he has, sort of, a mantle of Asian-American-ness surrounding him. But I think it, sort of, speaks to a larger issue around what he thinks about identity, and how he's spoken about it in his books and in public.
MARTIN: There is the obvious thing that you mentioned, the fact that he's born and raised in Hawaii, which is the only majority Asian state. The fact that he spent formative years in Indonesia but there's a - I don't know, I thought of it as a slightly lighter side to the piece. It isn't all kind of deep sociology. You mentioned that his father's outsized academic expectations for him, and of course, I'm stepping - trying to step light here, but that you talk about his mother's use of guilt as leverage.
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MARTIN: Tell me about that. Why would that make him a candidate for Asian-American status?
Mr. YANG: It's funny because, you know, all of us, in our various communities, have ways of lightening the suffering in some ways by making jokes. And for us, upbringing within our families, you know, for Asian-Americans, the two big things that we hear constantly are education is everything. We have to excel in grades in order to excel in society, in the world. And that's something that Obama, from all of his parents, from his mother, from his father, from his stepfather, heard repeatedly. He had to excel in academics. And he did. I mean, he went to an Ivy League school. He was a great Asian-American son.
At the same time, the tools with which many Asian-Americans really get leveraged, if you will, to work harder and study more, is one that is not limited to us. It's kind of universal. But for us there's a certain kind of guilt that Asians, and Asian mothers in particular, can use that - that's particularly bittersweet. It is something which is hard to describe in any way except for, maybe, poetry.
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Mr. YANG: Or stand up.
MARTIN: And I think for the sake of both of us, we should probably leave it right there, since my mother's listening, and probably so is yours, all right? I think we should probably leave it right there. You know, do you think that Asian-Americans identify with the Obama narrative? Do you think Asian-Americans identify with him?
Mr. YANG: You know, it's a great question, and I think that what we're seeing is that Asian-Americans are breaking towards him. They're warming towards him as they understand more and find out more about his background, his ideas. And I think especially his openness to a larger sense of what identity means. We're seeing, for instance, that he is actually speaking to Asian-American audiences, and he's speaking about his relationship with Asian-Americans. And it's - in some sort of frames, for other people perhaps, other politicians with a different background, one could say, oh, this is pandering. He is sort of trying to connect with the community by finding any fragile thread. But the reality is his background really does lend itself to that kind of talk. It sounds from him like sincerity and it sounds like a real bridge, as opposed to simply, you know, wearing a funny hat, or eating your food and trying to smile.
And I think that one of the things that is most potent about that narrative, that sort of I'm connected to your community, is that a lot of what he talks about politically does, in fact, connect with Asian-American priorities, politically. You talk about education. Well, he lists education as part of his top three priorities consistently. You talk about a sense of responsibility, of meaning to, kind of, take ownership of your life yourself, not so much bootstrapping, but certainly being connected with the implications of what you do. And that's something which is very much a core part of Asian-American identity and teaching from a very young age.
MARTIN: Sometimes people will identify with someone when they are being attacked for the same reasons that you're being attacked as a group. And one of the things you point out in your piece is that some of Senator Obama's message about the importance of education, hard work, personal responsibility - that some of these remarks have been attacked as elitist. And is that something that Asian-Americans feel that they have to struggle with? That the very thing that they're proud of, in accomplishments, are then sort of viewed skeptically by others?
Mr. YANG: Oh, there's no question. I mean, I think most Asian-Americans, especially Asian-American parents, interestingly, and my parents happen to be Republican, but they are seriously considering voting for Barack Obama. At least, I hope they are. But the reason why, in our conversations, is because when he talks about these things, when he says, oh, I went to Harvard Law School. You know, and I pulled myself up, and I studied, and I worked hard to become somebody who could excel in these ways, you know, and people call him elitist. My parents say, that's where we want all of you to be. That's the way we all should be. And it's surprising to them that it can be cast as a term of aspersion.
And at the same time, I think that, when you look at that notion of being, kind of, criticized or attacked for things that yourself have experienced. Well, that notion of foreignness, of outsider-ness, is something that, immigrants especially, have just consistently seen - you know, funny names, funny accents, you know, funny upbringings and cultures, what you eat or what you wear. All these things are things that are consistently used to frame something around us as Asian-Americans. And you know what? A lot of those things are actually being cast around Obama. So, there's definitely a sense in which we have that, kind of, shared connection point, and I think more Asian-Americans are just trying to recognize and understand that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jeff Yang, author of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Asian Pop" column about a column he wrote called "Could Obama Be the First Asian-American President?"
On the other hand, though, Jeff, I think it is clear that there aren't that many polls taken of inter-ethnic relations and inter-ethnic group attitudes. I mean, our conversations, as you know, and you've heard about, tend to be, sort of, black, white, or even, you know, to some degree, brown and white. But there was a poll taken earlier this year by a consortium of newspaper editors, publishers of ethnic newspapers in San Francisco, after there was some ugliness there involving a column, a very racist column written by a young Asian man about blacks, going "Why I Hate Blacks."
And in the wake of this, they commissioned a poll to, sort of, assess the relations among the different groups and the opinions that each group had. In that poll, and I know that you are familiar with it, it's just that, of all the groups that Asians had among the most negative attitudes about blacks.
Mr. YANG: Yeah. As Asian-Americans have become more prominent, more numerous in the United States, I think that there have been political factions and there have been attempts by the media to, sort of, cast Asian-Americans in that role of, kind of, the wedge minority. And Asian-Americans culturally, I think, you know, because as immigrants, there is a tendency towards, kind of, mutual co-dependence that tends to look at people outside of the group as being maybe dangerous, and you know, in some cases not entirely without merit. But you know, these things...
MARTIN: What are you referring to? Are you referring to the fact that a lot of, say perhaps, Asian American small businesses are located in so-called transitional neighborhoods where they're, kind of, on the frontlines of urban change. Do you think that's part of it?
Mr. YANG: I think it's a big part of it. And I think a big part of it, too is the way the, kind of, mean of the model minority. You know, that Asian-Americans somehow, they are the ones doing it right and other minorities should learn from them. It's something that creates hostility. It's something that, in turn, you know, for Asian Americans who actually believe that hype, and they do exist, you know, it's something which does in fact create further distance.
MARTIN: Why do you think that his Asian influences have not been more discussed as part of his narrative? There was this whole discussion really early in the campaign, by a number of black commentators, suggesting that is he really black because his parents, his father did not have the, sort of, the slave experience. He'd be the first president born in Hawaii, for example. Except in the context of, sort of, trying to sort of tie him to saying that he went to school in a madras, and stuff like that. I mean, why do you think that is, that his international-ness is not more discussed, except it really comes down to being black, the first black president.
Mr. YANG: I think in part, you know, because that early discussion around, what would otherwise be his core, his deepest base, not by any means his sole foundation for election, but you know, the African American community obviously singularly supports him and needs to be singularly supportive of him if he's going to win. And I think that the early discussion in the community about whether or not his connection to the community was strong enough, his self-identity was, if you will, black enough, probably led people around him, some of his maybe more cautious advisers, to suggest, you know, let's demystify this. Let's unwind and clean up the narrative around your identity.
We look at, for instance, earlier examples of people with more complex cultural and racial identities. Notably, I'd say Tiger Woods. And kind of the big explosion that emerged around when he declared he was neither black nor white nor Asian, he was Cablanasian, and you know, people thought that that was kind of a strange and pandering or buck passing statement to make.
Well, you know, Obama certainly at the beginning of this campaign probably was in a position where he couldn't afford to risk that sort of dialogue. Especially with people pointing to him and saying, you're a foreigner, you're an outsider, you're somebody outside of our safe space. So, you know, I'll give him a pass on that, but I think that as he's built up his credibility as a frontrunner, or certainly as an equitable candidate, he has been much more close to what people who know him well.
And here he has surrounded himself, you know, truly with people of all backgrounds and races, including many Asian-Americans. And one of the things I have noted is that two of his most prominent staffers - his chief of staff, his legislative director - are Asian-American. You know, so it's not like he's afraid to talk about it in private or even amongst his closer friends. I think that he's been told not complicate the narrative publicly and I think now he is. I think he is increasingly willing to talk about not just his sort of Asian roots, his black roots, his white roots, but his global roots.
MARTIN: What do you think it would mean to all these issues around identity that we've been talking about, to have Barack Obama elected as president? And conversely, what do you think it would mean if he's not?
Mr. YANG: It's hard to predict what the results of him not getting elected would be, but I think at this point, you can easily say that there will be a great deal of disappointment, resentment maybe, you know, maybe even rage. But if he is elected, and I think this is where things get very interesting.
I want to point to a really interesting feature that the Economist actually put out there, what they call the Global Electoral College tracker. And this is sort of positing what would happen if the entire world had a vote, you know, for the American president. And it showed that, of the entire world, some 8,600 electoral votes would be cast today for Obama and 16 electoral votes for McCain. I think what this is actually showing is that, no, there really is a sense that Obama is a candidate, not just for our time or for our nation, but for the world. And breaking out of that dialogue of race being somehow a purely American possession, a purely American pathology, breaking out of this notion that race is so dominant in how we think of ourselves is critical, I think, for us engaging the rest of the world, and they certainly think so.
MARTIN: When do you think we'll get a - forgive me for using this term - a real Asian-American president, a for-real Asian-American president? I don't know, I mean, after your argument - and your argument is so persuasive - I don't even know if I can ask that question. But somebody who most people think of as an Asian-American president? When are we going to have one of those?
Mr. YANG: This is one of those fascinating discussions that pulls on so many different aspects of the social condition. And I think the biggest one really is this, and it's one which I think we're talking about a lot in the community, which is, will we even be in a situation 50, 100, 200 years from now, where the term Asian-American is even meaningful, maybe sooner than that. And Asian-Americans have such a complex identity now. A larger percentage of Asian-Americans out marry than any other ethnic group in the nation.
And we have things like transracial adoption, which has certainly changed the idea of what Asian American means. And there are so many multiracial, biracial, like Obama, people with multiple threads in their tapestries within the Asian-American community, that the notion of who is Asian, who is not, has become both a very interesting discussion but also a less meaningful one in a lot of ways. To a certain extent, being Asian-American is increasingly being about what you believe in, what you believe yourself to be, and what you connect with. And on that notion, it is a little hard to say that Obama isn't in some ways a true pioneer in that regard. So, it will come sooner than later. And I think the big question is really going to be, when it does happen, will it happen when the term Asian-American still means what it does today?
MARTIN: Jeff Yang writes his "Asian Pop" column for the San Francisco Chronicle. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, we'll have a link on our website. The piece is called "Could Obama Be the First Asian American President?" And Jeff Yang was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. YANG: Thank you.
MARTIN: Finally, for months now, you've been listening to coverage of the presidential race. Now we want to hear from you. On Election Day, Tuesday, November 4th, tell us about your trip to the voting booth. We want to know how long you waited in line, what the atmosphere was like. Was it tense between McCain and Obama supporters? Was it a love fest? If your experience was smooth sailing or rough waters, we invite you to tell your story on air. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Once again, that number is 202-842-3522 or you can drop us a line by visiting our blog at npr.org. Go to the Tell Me More page. Blog it out.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.