American of Japanese descent advances racial equity from White House

TAKING INITIATIVE — Erika L. Moritsugu, Deputy Assistant to the President and AAPI Senior Liaison reads a statement from President Joe Biden to members from the Sikh community May 1, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. photo by Grace Hollars/The Indianapolis Star via AP

WASHINGTON — Erika Moritsugu, 49, is among the many Asian Americans in the United States who have experienced hate crimes since the coronavirus pandemic began two years ago.

She was waiting at a bus stop with her son after school when a man screamed threatening racist abuse and spat at her. Since the incident in March 2020, she has avoided using public transport, fearful of exposing her children to such incidents again.

But she appears to have emerged from the horrifying experience stronger for it, determined more than ever to fulfill her role at the White House as senior liaison to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a new post she was assigned by President Joe Biden last April.

“It really does give some power to the voices that have not been heard before,” said California-born Moritsugu, who is of Japanese and Chinese descent and has spent her career in government and politics fighting for social justice and the empowerment of marginalized communities.

While Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the most rapidly growing racial group in the United States, they have been viewed as underrepresented in U.S. politics. They have also often been the target of hate crimes, particularly since the spread of the coronavirus, which was first detected in China.

Under the Biden administration, Moritsugu’s tasks include reaching out to communities to hear about their needs, reporting back to decision-makers in the U.S. capital, and making sure the community benefits of government policies are communicated and made accessible.

The administration has already made “accomplishments” during its first year, the deputy assistant to the president said, touching on Biden’s signing into law in May last year a bill aimed at beefing up law enforcement’s response to hate crimes.

Moritsugu was also involved in the launch of a White House initiative in December that will help expand opportunities for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as many hold frontline jobs in the health crisis as essential workers or are small-business owners.

The initiative, among other aims, will work to make government services more accessible by improving language assistance and address data collection practices that fail to reflect the diversity of the communities. Critics say inadequate knowledge contributes to the “model minority” myth that Asian Americans are generally successful and are in less need of government support than other people of color.

Expectations are high that Moritsugu’s experience, which includes serving as aides to Asian American and Pacific Island senators, and relationship-building skills will benefit the administration, in which Kamala Harris serves as the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president.

But having mostly grown up in Hawai‘i, which is a richly diverse community involving Asians, whites, and Pacific Islanders, Moritsugu, who now lives in Washington, said racism “was not part of our dinnertime conversation” during her childhood.

As she moved to the East Coast, she noticed that she was “often the only Asian, or the only woman, sometimes the only woman of color in my classes during college or meetings when I began my career” and said she experienced racism, sexism and anti-Asian and anti-woman bigotry “throughout” her life.

“But I kind of took it in stride,” she said, adding, “I’m a little embarrassed to say, because it was a part of my own family’s long history here in America.”

Moritsugu’s relatives were among around 120,000 residents of Japanese descent — a majority of them U.S. citizens — sent to concentration camps soon after Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor and drew the United States into World War II, under the rationale they might spy for Japan or sabotage the war effort.

Despite having many family members stripped of their freedom, second-generation Japanese Americans, born to immigrant parents, fought in the war not just to defeat the enemy but in the hope that strong combat performance would help tackle the prejudice in their own country.

“Our country has a longstanding history of prejudice and violence against the Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. It’s a history that includes harmful policies and actions,” said Moritsugu, whose relatives also fought in World War II.

But despite the difficulties of tackling challenges deep-rooted in history, Moritsugu struck a positive note about the future.

“It may have been out of the tragedy that opportunities and powers are born, but I think that more and more Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are responding to the call to service, who are maybe not in government, but working to fight the systemic racism that we’ve seen for so long, that has been not understood, not measured, not appreciated.”

She also called for the importance of cooperating internationally to root out an issue that knows no borders.

“We know that addressing the poison of racism and hate crimes can’t be done by any one group or leader or governance or country,” she said.

As a message to Japan, where hate crimes against ethnic Korean communities persist, the official said what is essential to achieve a “real change” is “to acknowledge and confront racism head-on.”

“Sometimes, the first step can be the hardest,” she added.

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