Asian American college students were protesting in San Francisco about the rise in Asian American hate over the weekend. #StopAsianHate, #StopAsianAmericanHate, hashtag it whatever you will. But the answer to their prayers—at least in California—may have come earlier in the week when Rob Bonta was nominated to be the state’s attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the nation’s most as Asian American state.
Bonta said it himself. He knows hate and discrimination. We don’t have to worry about any shortage of empathy.
An Asian American of Filipino descent, Bonta is expected to hit the ground running to address not just hate crimes toward the Asian American community, but the unfairness in the criminal justice system itself among all people of color.
Bonta has been a state assemblyman from Oakland and Alameda county in the Bay Area, and knows how to represent all people.
If inclusiveness sounds like it’s part of his mindset, it’s possibly due to his rich life story. He’s been adept at overcoming most of the obstacles a reasonable person of color can face.
It’s what I call Bonta’s golden story.
Born in the Philippines, he immigrated with his family to California. But they didn’t go to the cities. They went to rural Keene, outside of Bakersfield, where his parents worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and Bonta grew up in a trailer.
A good student, Bonta gained admission to Yale, then Yale Law school. Even Governor Gavin Newsom couldn’t help but be impressed by the higher ed cred as he introduced Bonta last week.
“You sense the overachiever in him. I didn’t even mention the year in Oxford, uh, not my path to this podium, his is very different but a remarkable journey,” said Newsom, the career politician, whose business experience was in the wine trade. Newsom didn’t necessarily grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. But he didn’t grow up in a grape field either. And he was, after all, still white.
Bonta excelled, worked in a good private firm after Yale Law; then the San Francisco City Attorney’s office; then ran for the state assembly from Alameda county 12 years ago.
And that is what you call diversity in action. It’s the golden story—what happens when the trail is cleared and you’ve given right to pass.
Of course, you’ve got to be good. Maybe even twice as good. Bonta was all that, and made it happen.
Now at 48, he’s seasoned to take on the story of the hour, Asian American hate crimes, plus all things illegal.
His nomination is assured, but he’ll have to get reelected in a year.
Good thing he knows the power of diversity.
“As we see the tragic and horrific rise in hate crimes against our API siblings throughout the nation, I can’t help but think about a photograph of a sign from a hotel lobby in 1920s Stockton that I have in my office,” Bonta said at his nomination announcement. “It says, ‘Positively No Filipinos Allowed.’ Throughout California history so many of us have felt the sting of hate and discrimination. I have. I know many of you have as well. Too many of you, Asian, Latino, Black, Native American, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, so many of us have been targeted and attacked because of who we are, where we’re from, and who we love. But that hate has not defined who we are or what we can achieve.”
If it sounds like he’s revving up his golden story for a campaign, it’s because the next election is around the corner.
But as California’s AG, he’s in the political sweet spot of the day. The gig people want to get the better gig.
It reminded me a little of 2010, when then San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris chose to run for attorney general. Look what’s happened 11 years later.
In 11 years, Bonta will be only 59. Having been born in the Philippines may limit his options, but his future seems bright. And if he continues as he’s done in his no-nonsense way, who knows how far he could go.
That you need to be good and qualified and all that, goes without saying. It helps to have that golden story. And a little bit of luck too.
We shall see what happens. What I noticed is that he understands that being the first Filipino American nominated to the Attorney General’s post isn’t just an isolated accomplishment.
He may have been able to thread the needle, but he also knows there were countless others, who were denied, but who kept fighting for social justice all throughout society.
They are the ones who paved the way, to make his moment, so that he could be standing to fight for all of us.
At his announcement, Bonta showed he got that, saying, “I stand here because of so many people who come before me.”
Look out for Rob Bonta. For as long as the humility holds, his is diversity’s golden story.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok