What would a White House Office on Racial Equity look like?
AL DÍA sat down with two leaders in the movement to break down a path forward.
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In December 2020, The Racial Equity Anchor Collective, met with President-elect Biden’s transition team to outline the role of a proposed White House Office on Racial Equity and Inclusion.
The Collective endorses the rhetoric on racial healing and equality that the new administration has emphasized so far, but they maintain that the commitment to these issues must be vigorously sustained and result in tangible shifts in our nation’s institutions.
AL DÍA recently spoke with two leaders from the Collective, Juliet K. Choi, CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, Deputy Vice President for Policy and Advocacy of UNIDOS US about what the future holds for the relationship between the movement and the administration.
Juliet K. Choi’s work as CEO of the APIAHF involves influencing policy, mobilizing communities and strengthening programs and organizations to improve the well-being of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
She served as the former chief of staff and senior advisor of two federal agencies under the Obama administration: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
President Biden has entered the Oval Office with multiple agendas — all with the common thread of building a stronger nation that celebrates diversity and boosts unity. He is the first president in U.S history to openly denounce white supremacy during an inaugural address.
Choi knows that the new administration cannot single-handedly undo 400 years of racial injustice in just four years, but she is an optimist at heart and is hopeful that progress will be made.
“Actions matter. Leadership matters, what the leadership looks like matters. And in just the first week of this administration, having the President of the United States declare and be able to openly discuss racial healing … I think, matters,” said Choi.
She also spoke about the traumatic racial past that this nation is still struggling with, as well as the destructive impact that former president Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the virus had on Asian-Americans.
“It was incredibly painful and unconscionable to have a president of this country not listen to history experts, community leaders, and reopen wounds that have existed for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities,”she said.
For instance, Choi mentioned the establishment of Japanese internment camps by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, which are now considered one of the most heinous violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.
She also brought up the colonization of the once sovereign community of Hawaii, which resulted in their lands and waters being stolen to build military bases and resorts.
As a result of Trump’s derogatory words, reports of hate incidents and harassment towards Asian-Americans have increased.
“Having a president use such harmful terms, really brought about this new wave of xenophobia, an intensity of hate crimes against our communities. [It’s sobering] to think that in this day and age, there is so much fear within our community because of these hate crimes, bullying and harassment, you know, our elders being punched and spat upon,” she said.
Choi resides in Washington D.C and although she is a second generation Korean-American citizen, she is “very American” and considers herself to be a patriot.
She shared an experience she had last week while walking in her own neighborhood, where a larger white man stopped her in her tracks, to shout at her, asking if she spoke English.
“It really does bring about xenophobia and tears our country apart, and when we think about the Covid pandemic response, it’s unconscionable,” said Choi.
I must admit, it’s rather moving, after having endured the rhetoric of “Kung-Flu” over the past year, to see an Asian American agent leading the President’s security detail. pic.twitter.com/t5WFnodFZ3— Duke Kwon (@dukekwondc) January 20, 2021
Choi also spoke a lot about the power of words, and how essential it is for people with great power and influence to be conscious of how the words they utter have substantial and oftentimes harmful repercussions.
Mexican author Don Miguel Ruiz dissects this idea in his book The Four Agreements, based on ancient Toltec wisdom.
The first agreement is “be impeccable with your word.”
He writes: “The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; it is the tool of magic. But like a sword with two edges, your word can create the most beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything around you.”
When asked about what her vision of true racial equity would look like, Choi highlighted the idea of unity across all sectors of humanity, and the value of all citizens being able to see their dreams come to fruition.
“That would mean even if I don’t know this person, that’s thousands of miles away, whether they are Black or Latino, indigenous, female, transgender, or disabled, I have a shared common humanity, and a shared responsibility in making sure they can realize their dream,” she said.
As artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh publicized in her street art series, “America is Black. It is Native. It wears a hijab. It is a Spanish speaking tongue. It is migrant. It is a woman. It is here. Has been here. And it’s not going anywhere.”
New mural in OKC by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, "I wanted to make something in a very Republican state that was a challenge to whiteness." pic.twitter.com/AMyCie1FMB— Alex Coleman (@alexlcoleman) November 29, 2016
Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro is a frequent media commentator on the Latino electorate and immigration issues, and is a board member of the U.S. Vote Foundation. Her work with UNIDOS US helps to advance fair and effective immigration policies and to expand civic engagement within the Latino communities.
In December 2020, UNIDOS US called on Biden to place Latinos at the forefront of his 100-day agenda.
Their requests are threefold.
Firstly, the virus must be defeated and public health must be restored.
Secondly, economic relief must ensue, but with a strong emphasis on stabilizing the essential workforce through immigration reform and relief.
Lastly, sustained determination must be dedicated to achieving racial equity and healing.
“This means having a government that reflects its people, looking at how you engage people in a community safe agenda, meaning police oversight and new approaches to criminal justice. Racial equity and healing also means that those things are reflected in your budgets, because budgets are really a document of what is important and what our priorities are,” said Martínez-de-Castro
Biden talked a lot about unity and “disagreeing with one another without starting a war.”
While Martínez-de-Castro feels that these are primarily sentimental, she does think it’s a necessary vision to have and to act upon.
“For example, going back to the beginning of 2019, we asked Latino voters what the most important traits they want to see in a presidential candidate, and the top [trait] was somebody who values diversity and could bring people together,” she said.
Both Martínez-de-Castro and Choi are hopeful that this new administration will bring issues of racial healing, immigration, equitable access to the centerstage of this nation’s dialogue, but it will absolutely require all of us working in unison towards this common goal.
“I think it is incredibly important that government and our elected officials conduct themselves in a way that they are leading partners in that effort, but that we also understand we as a civil society need to be a part of not only providing that effort, but making it a reality,” said Martínez-de-Castro.