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Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Erika L. Moritsugu

Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Erika L. Moritsugu

MR. NAKAMURA: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Nakamura, a reporter here at The Post covering the Justice Department and civil rights.


Today in our “Race in America” series, we’re joined by Erika Moritsugu, a deputy assistant to President Biden and a senior liaison for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. So welcome to Washington Post Live, Erika.

MS. MORITSUGU: Thanks, David. It’s an honor to be here with you.

MR. NAKAMURA: Great to talk to you again.

Let’s jump right in. Today marks the opening of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander History Month, and that’s quite a mouthful. And I think it kind of goes to the idea that this community that you represent in the White House is quite diverse. It’s not just one monolithic entity, and I wanted to start with a little bit about your background because you were raised mostly in Hawaii to a paternal side of the family that is of Japanese descent, a maternal side of Chinese descent. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit to our viewers about your upbringing and how that sort of contributed to you going into sort of advocacy and some of your public service work.

MS. MORITSUGU: Thanks for the question, David, and again, it’s just an honor to share this space with you today.

I was–I was very lucky–I didn’t know it at the time–to grow up in Hawaii in a pluralistic majority/minority community, in a multigenerational household, and with all of those experiences, it’s really informed what brings me to this work, even though it wasn’t necessarily a linear pathway. But–and it is a privilege to have grown up in a community where nothing seemed impossible. There were so many examples in Hawaii of successful national leaders and local leaders in politics and in governments, local government and academia and in business, that it never seemed like such a stretch to me to be as what my mom and dad would have taught me to be, as useful and helpful as possible, even without fanfare or, you know, prestige but just to, you know, make a pathway that was fulfilling and impactful.

And, you know, part of that is being–an awakening that I had when I graduated from high school and moved to the continent to work for the federal government in the Department of Justice’s typing pool and then staying on the East Coast for college where I suddenly found myself not only that I was a minority, but I would walk into a room, a classroom, or a conference room and find myself being the only Asian American woman and sometimes the only woman and sometimes the only person of color in the room. And, you know, David, I mean, like this was an experience that is not unique to me. It was just a little bit later in my life, and you grew up biracial in the Heartland of America, and now it was my turn to have that eye-opening experience.

I also had more examples than most of public service because of my family. My mom and my dad in both of their very different ways taught me the value of–with their own examples of being useful and helpful. My mom is a small business owner, used that as a platform for community organizing, and my dad, who was the first-ever Asian American deputy surgeon general actually served as acting surgeon general under two presidents, a Republican and a Democrat, as the first Asian American surgeon general, first and obviously not the last, right?

And I also come from a family of military service. My–in World War II when we entered into the war after Pearl–the attacks on Pearl Harbor, my grandpa and his two brothers served. My grandpa was in the military intelligence service and was awarded a Bronze Star for his valor in the Pacific theater. And I had my great-uncle, Curly Nakae, who served with valor and actually got a Congressional Gold Medal. We have two Congressional Gold Medals in our family.

And at the same time–and these are all things that I hold because these were the households that I grew up in with these stories and these examples. My great-great-uncle, Ireicho, my grandpa’s–my great-grandpa’s little brother, was actually interrogated, imprisoned, and then transported to an incarceration camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while all of his other family members were serving and fighting, and some actually died in service of the country.

And so you can say that public service kind of came naturally to me through the luck of growing up where I did, not to mention that I’d come–when I came to the continent to live on the East Coast, I came to the civil rights movement through volunteer work and not through Asian Americans, basically through like Black and Jewish spaces. And, you know, I spent my time volunteering mostly until I found that there was actually–get paid to do this, to fight for social justice for traditionally marginalized communities.

I also had extraordinary leaders and public servants as my mentors and supervisors and influencers who not just inspired me and many, many others but believed to me to execute on their vision like, you know, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada and Senator Duckworth from Illinois, Julian Castro, who is the Secretary of HUD when I served there in the Obama administration, our beloved Senator Danny Akaka from our home state of Hawaii. And these are folks who tied together everything that I’ve learned growing up in Hawaii about, you know, being truly committed to principle and also having the nimbleness to find other pathways from their passages and truly centering the people that, you know, they had signed up to serve and also lifting up and elevating others, especially young people, kind of like–

MR. NAKAMURA: Let me ask you about something.

MS. MORITSUGU: –President Biden and Vice President Harris.

MR. NAKAMURA: Let me ask you about something you said there, though. You know, you and I shared the fact that my father and grandparents were in the Topaz, Utah, internment camp, which I always called it that growing up. You called it “incarceration camp.” There’s–I know there is a movement to call these, what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II, “incarceration.” Tell me why you used that term and why that’s important.

MS. MORITSUGU: Well, it’s based on two things, and this is one of the reasons why I’m really lucky to have the platform to be able to tell these stories that are not known or to explain. I love it when people ask me when they’re confused about a change in nomenclature or an addition of acronym letters to an already-clumsy acronym.

But incarceration, I think more traditionally, the euphemism had been “internment,” which seemed a little soft. And so the community, the survivors of the camps and their descendants, it is their preference, and we should be in a practice of asking the communities that are directly impacted what their preference is and why and to implement and hew to it.

The second one is a little bit more technical, and it’s part of the storytelling that has been lost and invisibilized, which is that internment camps are actually for enemy alien combatants or enemy aliens, and many, many, many of the folks who were incarcerated during World War II and, you know, following Executive Order 9066 that President Roosevelt had signed were U.S. citizens. And so interment, from a technical standpoint, is actually technically inaccurate and masks the fact that these were American citizens who had their rights stripped away, and so–

MR. NAKAMURA: Are there changes–is that an official change in government documents and policy at all, that word?

MS. MORITSUGU: So it is–it is absolutely the practice of this administration. It’s embodied in our style guide that the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders has promulgated throughout the government. And the National Park Service actually was the lead on this, you know, having stewardship over many of these sites to have made that change and done the deep research and not just dictated or pushed out what we should say but also the why.

MR. NAKAMURA: Okay. I wanted to go to two years ago, I met you for the first time, I think, on the roof of the W Hotel where there was an event for Asian Americans, including some high-=profile ones. The actor, Daniel Dae–Daniel Dae Kim was there. And I think the idea there was to sort of introduce some of the folks working in the administration on these kind of issues with other figures who were also pushing that in the community, and there were other activists and such there.

At the time, I wrote a piece about you, and you were new to this job. It was the first time, I think, for this sort of Asian American liaison in the White House. It had come after some pressure from your former boss, Tammy Duckworth and others in Congress to appoint a high-profile Asian American. At the time, though, you were still settling in, and you weren’t sure kind of what the boundary of the job was. What have you focused on most in the past year-and-a-half so far?

MS. MORITSUGU: Yeah. I’m glad to catch up with you on that because I think about that conversation a lot where, you know–first of all, just to clarify, I’m not the first liaison in the White House. I’m the first to sit in the chief of staff’s office as a senior commissioned officer with a narrow focus on the Asian American, Naïve Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, but a broad kind of landscape to work with, both on policy and engagement, which is an important kind of combination, because the engagement informs policy, and policy should be communicated back to the communities.

When we first spoke, when I first started, it was–it was with the spirit of building something new, not creating something, because the President and the Vice President have always been committed to and understanding of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. But the mandate for me was to build on it and to build it out with, you know, no playbook but a lot of high expectations.

And so since then, you know, there was–it’s through the work of policy and engagement that informed a lot of what we were able to be working towards and making progress towards, and some of it was responsive to extraordinary things that had happened and others were, you know, those kind of thoroughfares of intentional inclusion and empathy and allyship that was the way that the president would ask me to execute on his vision.

And so, you know, I just point super briefly, David, to the article that you wrote after the Oscar sweep where, you know, there’s a lot to celebrate in terms of progress that we’ve been making, particularly with legislation in the past two years, we’re now in implementation phase, but also going out into community and recognizing that there’s tragedy but also, also recognizing that tragedy doesn’t define us. And we bring back–so when I travel outside of the beltway, which is an important part of what I do, because it informs the policy work that I do, I get the feedback and the real-time input and hope and expectations and unique challenges in a very diverse community and bring it back to the decision-making table to make sure that it–I’m being a proper representative of our communities to the president and then going back out and making sure that that’s not the last time that I’ve ever talked to them, to be the president’s representative back to the community.

MR. NAKAMURA: Let me ask you about that. You were–I know you were in Monterey Park, California, recently with the president, I believe, in March, to do a gun–a gun control event. That’s in the wake of two mass shootings in the Asian American community by Asian American perpetrators and Asian American victims there in California, back-to-back. You were with the president there. I think you also went without the president but to mark the anniversary of the mass shooting at the as spas in Atlanta that killed six people of Asian descent there.

I wondered if you could talk a little bit how often you get to see or brief the president and then what–you know, we talk about Monterey Park. Did you stay and talk to residents there about some of their concerns of the immigrant community there, and then did you take that back to the White House, and what specific things have you advocated for?

MS. MORITSUGU: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of the great examples of this, you know, dynamic policy and community engagement and being the president’s representative on the ground but then also being able to bring the voices and the needs and the challenges and even the celebrations and joys of our community back to the decision-making table.


So back in January, as soon as we’d heard about the shooting–and not very much was known yet, except for the horrific deaths and some sense of who the victims were.

I flew out to Monterey Park because the president and vice president had asked me to. They weren’t immediately available. And that’s where, you know, engaging with the local community, the local leaders, the partners and the allies and the coalitions and the service providers who have been doing this work on the ground for so long, that’s where, for example, the fear and terror that they were already shaken by because of the spike in deadly anti-hate violence, like anti-Asian hate violence, you know, was that they were holding and the fears that this was a hate crime, a hate-motivated incident. To hear that, you know, they were interested and very actually concerned about, you know, mental health resources and abating the gun violence and gun deaths and wanting to have more culturally competent services and more accessible services to federal government when the president–and then, of course, the vice president was able to loosen up her schedule to come down, and that’s when she met with the families of the victims. And this is just a couple of days afterwards. The families were–these were private meetings but a real generosity of their time to share their stories and their grief and their pain and to ask the vice president for help.

So when we come back to Monterey Park, the president decided to do his gun violence prevention executive order announcement. He selected Monterey Park in part because of what we’d heard and learned from the January trips and meetings and the follow-up that we’ve done since then and between them and have continued to do.

We’ve rolled out in language resources and a special guide for new communities in trauma. I mean, Monterey Park is a great example of a beautiful community where belonging and inclusion–disability was not–you know, was not as much of an issue because it was a place of safety and community. They were not prepared for a tragedy of this nature or the national attention or international attention, because who would be? There’s no plan that you can put in place just in case a horrific tragedy like this befalls your community.

MR. NAKAMURA: Let me ask you. You mentioned anti-Asian hate. It’s been well reported over the past few years during the coronavirus about a backlash perhaps that’s against Chinese Americans, really Asian Americans more broadly. That seems to be reflected in rising statistics around anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Asian hate incidents and rhetoric and harassment. I wondered about your influence in the White House on this point. The activists I’ve talked to say, “Look, you know, the climate around”–even as we move out of, you know, the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, the climate around tensions in U.S.-China policy could continue to contribute to this backlash and fear of Asian Americans. And I wonder how–if you’ve advocated for anything along these lines about how the White House should talk about this, because there is, you know, both, you know, sort of bipartisan sense that the country needs to do more to protect itself and its interest against the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government. Have you had a voice on this, and what have you said?

MS. MORITSUGU: Yeah. And, I mean, that’s actually something that, you know, I stepped into on day one on the job two years ago, because a lot of this was well underway. And there’s–it’s not an on/off switch that you can easily solve, but one of the things that I hope that you’ve seen in not just words but also demonstrated in actions and practice is much more care in the way that we talk about competitiveness with the PRC or Beijing, what we worry about and how we’re addressing national security risks and things of that nature, because, you know, I mean, you know, there was the old, old adage that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt us. Words can hurt, especially when there’s a permission structure that’s granted from, you know, the highest office in the land. It emboldens folks.

And so we have been working very diligently to make sure that when we do speak about the PRC, that we refer to the government, not the people, because it does have a deep and observable and sometimes deadly impact on our diaspora here and elsewhere outside of China, the PRC or–and to, you know, use our words responsibly, even if that’s not what we mean, but to really broaden our sense of what the impacts are, both in terms of empowering and emboldening people who have hate their hearts and want to lash out in discriminatory, bigoted, and sometimes violent ways, but also what kind of leadership is necessary to re-instill hope and confidence in not just the Chinese diaspora or Chinese American community here but for folks who are of Northeast Asians descent or Northeast Asian presenting.

And it’s also the case that once these–this permission structure to like show your ugliest-ness, you know, was out there, the president has said, you know, you can’t just sweep hate under the carpet, especially when the carpet has been pulled back. The only way to move forward is together, first of all, and second of all, to start a journey of reconciliation and healing, because there really isn’t any, you know, sweeping it under the rug anymore. This is obviously still enduring, and it’s the same. Communities are still living in terror and fear and this kind of existential crisis of not being welcomed, being a perpetual victim.

And, you know, it’s interesting because of the difference in the distinction and the diversity within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander collective and the aggregate, how many of us experienced this in different ways? And that’s an important thing to name and honor as well, because, you know, we can be invisibilized.

MR. NAKAMURA: I think you’re–

MS. MORITSUGU: Our elders and our ancestors wanted to integrate and be invisible, but we can’t stay invisible, because we get scapegoated–

MS. MORITSUGU: –and victimized in a moment, and that–it’s that juxtaposition that I think leads to a lot of what animates what’s happening in movement and community and government with all partners and all allies and coalition, that–

MR. NAKAMURA: I mean, as someone who–

MS. MORITSUGU: –is not unique. It’s just it energizes us to finally come out of the shadows, because we don’t fan the shadows when they need–somebody needs to be scapegoated.

MR. NAKAMURA: As someone who covered the White House, I know you’re entering a campaign season. I think you’re going to have a test on this, you know, careful language, maybe on both sides. China is often a scapegoat, you know, during these election cycles.

Let me move on to another topic dealing with the Asian American community broadly. The Supreme Court is weighing two college cases related to affirmative action, and the conservative majority is likely, I think experts think, to overturn the ability of higher education programs to use affirmative action as part of their, you know, decision-making on entrance.

This is an interesting one for the Asian American community. I know that particularly in the Harvard case, some of the plaintiffs are Asian American groups, and I think there’s a–you know, there’s broad support for–I think polls have showed for–among Asian American groups for affirmative action, but there are Asian Americans and Chinese American groups on the West Coast that have been pretty, you know, vocal about saying, “No. You know, we think this hurts us. This is discriminatory against Asian Americans in some cases.” I mean, the data shows various points on this, but I’m wondering if you have spoken to those kind of groups, people with that view, even as the Biden administration and the Justice Department dropped a similar case after President Biden took office against Yale saying, “No, we’re not going to continue that challenge of the Yale’s affirmative action.” Where do you stand on this, and where have you talked with these kind of groups that support the overturning of this, and what do you say to them?

MS. MORITSUGU: Yeah. No. And this is one of the opportunities and challenges of trying to be as accessible as possible. I do get to talk to folks with the diversity of views, even ones that are in opposition to the administration’s positions, even ones that are in opposition to my personal positions, and what I’ve held and worked for, for a long time, which is support for affirmative action. And, you know, so I absolutely have had a lot of discussions with the diversity of viewpoints and lived experiences and stories and hopes and aspirations and disappointments over how this this case and this trend of cases comes, especially when there is, you know, visible divide within the Asian American community.

One of the things that’s really important in these discussions is to really listen to all sides, and it’s not just, you know, one or it’s not just Black and White. It’s not just one or the other. There’s a lot of nuances in between. But to recognize the benefits that affirmative action had for, say, Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans who’ve benefited from the programs but also expanding the way we look at, again, the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and the Pacific Islander community on a larger basis, naming and honoring the differences about how we’re differently situated, depending on your geography, depending on your ethnicity, depending on what other identities, you know, define you, generational, your immigration story. All of those things would counsel us to look deeper into the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander collective, indeed, its constituent parts and recognize that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians have not benefited and could benefit from this if we were more generous in zooming out and looking at the larger picture.

MR. NAKAMURA: We’re down to just a few seconds left. So I want to go to a quick lightning question. Maybe just yes or no, but I want to talk about Oscars so Asian. And has President Biden seen “Everything Everywhere All at Once”? Have you pushed him to, and if so, has he had any reaction to it?

MS. MORITSUGU: So= I actually don’t know the answer to that question, but–

MR. NAKAMURA: [Laughs] How about you? Where did you see it?

MS. MORITSUGU: He is avidly, avidly paying attention to the successes. And Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan and the entire cast and successes and the larger representation is definitely a part of the ethos that he operates in, always wanting to learn and hear more.

And so the celebrity platform that a lot of these successes, these very prominent successes have had really does help to inform both, again, not just what we do but how we do it, which is a partnership. The celebrities with their extraordinary achievements have a different–really different lever points than, say, the federal government does. And so that’s a really important thing to honor and acknowledge that we cannot to it alone. We need to do it together because we’re stronger together.

MR. NAKAMURA: Where did you–where did you watch the Oscars, and have you been in touch with any of the cast at all, do any events with the White House?

MS. MORITSUGU: I have not done any events with the White House yet. It was another moment where I was occupied elsewhere, but I watched the Oscars at home with my children.

MR. NAKAMURA: Oh, that’s terrific. And how–what was their reaction?

MS. MORITSUGU: They were very excited. They were very excited, again, like they’re going to–they’re teenagers, you know, growing up biracial in Washington, D.C., and they don’t know how far we’ve come and hopefully we don’t–


MR. NAKAMURA: I’m looking at my watch. I think we are, unfortunately, out of time. I have so many more questions for you. We can do a part two, but thank you, Erika, so much for joining us here on Washington Post Live, and thank you to the viewers for also for joining us. And if you have interest in the upcoming events at Washington Post Live, please go to where you can get all the information on upcoming interviews. And, again, I’m David Nakamura. Thank you very much.

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