Trish DeBerry’s ‘Dr. No’ slur for rival condemned as racist by San Antonio Asian American groups

DeBerry referred to her opponent, Judge Peter Sakai, who is Japanese American, as 'Dr. No' during a forum — even after Sakai registered his offense.

click to enlarge Trish DeBerry (left) and Peter Sakai are both running for Bexar County judge. - Facebook / Trish DeBerry (left) | Facebook / Peter Sakai (right)
Facebook / Trish DeBerry (left) | Facebook / Peter Sakai (right)
Trish DeBerry (left) and Peter Sakai are both running for Bexar County judge.
Bexar County Judge contenders Trish DeBerry and Judge Peter Sakai have engaged in so many candidate forums ahead of the midterms that it might be difficult to keep track.

But Asian American and Pacific Islander groups haven’t lost sight of video of an Oct. 10 debate in which DeBerry, a former Precinct 3 county commissioner, twice referred to Sakai — who is Japanese American — as "Dr. No."

Dr. No was the titular half-Chinese, half-German character from a 1958 James Bond book and 1962 movie. Present-day cultural critics have described the freakish mad scientist with origins in a Chinese criminal secret society as a racist caricature.  

"From our perspective, [DeBerry's use of the nickname] was unequivocally deplorable and a racist statement," said Genaline Escalante, president of the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio (AAASA), an umbrella group representing 28 local AAPI organizations.

During the debate, sponsored by the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County, DeBerry, 57, said she bestowed the nickname on Sakai because he'd said "no" to moving the Bexar County Jail and developing a downtown baseball stadium. 

Even so, AAPI groups said the racial implications of the mid-20th century pop-culture reference are impossible to miss. In video of the event, some members of the audience can be heard booing and gasping the first time DeBerry uses the slam.

"I really believe that Commissioner DeBerry owes Judge Sakai an apology," Escalante said. "We're very disappointed."

AAASA is a nonpartisan organization and hasn't endorsed either candidate in the high-profile race. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association endorsed Sakai on Thursday but made no mention of DeBerry’s comments in its online statement. 

Sakai's campaign did not respond to a request seeking comment on DeBerry's comments. 

However, DeBerry campaign advisor Greg Brockhouse, a former city councilman and two-time mayoral candidate, said the remarks weren't based on Sakai's race. He described the Dr. No moniker as a "well-worn political phrase" frequently applied to describe officeholders' voting records.

"It hasn't got anything to do with anything racist or anything of the sort," Brockhouse said.

"I don't think anyone on this campaign or Trish herself sees Peter in terms of race," he added.

Dignity and respect

During the Oct. 10 forum, Sakai didn't call out DeBerry's remarks as racist. Just the same, the 67-year-old judge registered his offense, asking her, "The reference to 'Dr. No' means what?"

During DeBerry’s explanation about Sakai’s opposition to moving the jail, he cut her off: “So, why can’t you call me ‘Peter’ or ‘Judge Sakai?’”

“Let me finish,” DeBerry said. “Because, Judge Sakai, this isn’t a judicial position that you’re running for. It is a CEO position managing a $2.8 billion budget. That’s what this is about."

“But this is about dignity and respect,” Sakai interjects. “And this is what I bring: dignity and respect to the conversation, not name calling. I take offense to ‘Dr. No.’”

“You’re not respecting people who live in poverty on the West Side and have for 40 years," DeBerry continued, raising her voice. "You say ‘no’ to economic development, you say ‘no’ to pulling people out of poverty and you say ‘no’ to bridging the wage gap, so that’s why I’ll refer to you as Dr. No. It’s unacceptable.”

Myra Dumapias, founder and community advisor for grassroots group Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Justice, said DeBerry's willingness to invoke the nickname in a public forum shows how normalized racist language remains in the United States.

"Her calling Judge Sakai 'Dr. No' twice ... recalls for me a novel by John Okada called No-No Boy, the title of which is based on two questions incarcerees in the Japanese American incarceration camps had to answer to proclaim their loyalty to the U.S.," she said. "DeBerry's use of 'Dr. No' sends a message that it should be normal to use this racist language."

Although Dumapias said she doesn’t endorse either candidate, she called DeBerry's use of the “Dr. No” insult "absolutely a racist comment."

'We want to listen'

Republican DeBerry, a longtime public relations professional and political operative, is considered the underdog candidate to fill the role being vacated by County Judge Nelson Wolff, who's held the role for more than two decades.

Her Democratic opponent, Sakai, is a former state district judge who pioneered the county's Children’s Court.

When the Current asked Brockhouse why DeBerry continued to call Sakai "Dr. No" after the judge expressed his offense, Brockhouse denied that the blowup had anything to do with race. Indeed, Brockhouse said the former commissioner’s use of the phrase "glazed right over" him as he watched from the crowd.

"I think Peter gets upset when you don't refer to him by a title," Brockhouse said. "He wants to be referred to as ‘Judge Sakai.’"

Even though Brockhouse repeatedly denied any racist intent from DeBerry's use of the phrase, he said her campaign welcomes critiques from the groups she wants to serve. 

"Obviously, if someone gives feedback, we want to listen," he added.

While Brockhouse said the “Dr. No” reference didn’t grab his attention while he watched the debate, it infuriated Nicolette Ardiente, San Antonio regional lead for Asian Texans for Justice, who attended the forum in person.

"It almost felt like she said it because she knew she could get away with it," Ardiente said. "As a young Asian woman, it makes me upset to be reminded that folks are running for office who don't care about serving the constituents they're being elected to represent."

She called Brockhouse's claim that the campaign is willing to listen to criticism "privileged" and "performative."

"It's almost like saying, 'Well, if nobody complains, we'll just keep doing the same thing,'" she said. "That's no way to run for office."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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