When I was a child, I first learned about World War II-era Japanese concentration camps on Saturday morning kids’ television. As a Korean American, I viewed this injustice from my own position: to most of my schoolmates, I was simply Asian, indistinguishable from other Asians and easily identifiable (and excludable) by my eyes, color and heritage.
It was not until I was older that I truly understood the scale and injustice of the camps. I couldn’t comprehend the level of fear and racialized anger that must have been required to press the machinery of government into rounding up and incarcerating citizens and families, many of whom had lived in the United States for decades.
These memories shaped my own reaction to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The scale of the tragedy drew me into vigils to mourn the lives lost, but it also generated in my gut a deep apprehension for how our nation would respond. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and I’ll never forget seeing the city in military lockdown with an armored vehicle on every downtown street corner. Fear was palpable, and the power of the military was omnipresent.
Almost immediately, I remember the reports of attacks on Muslims—and anyone who looked Muslim—by angry vigilantes in communities ranging from Arizona to New York. Alongside the rapid build-up to war in Afghanistan, federal security and law enforcement agencies quickly moved toward registering and monitoring Muslim, South Asian and Arab American communities.
Today, the cynical anti-immigrant demagoguery of Donald Trump and the reactionary right-wing fundamentalism of Ted Cruz are symptoms of an underlying anxiety in our nation over changing demographics and social trends, growing income inequality and economic insecurity, and a seemingly unending war on terrorism.
But what arose out of that moment wasn’t only negative. A new generation of organizations, coalitions and grassroots leaders emerged in response to vigilante violence and government oppression targeting Muslims, Sikhs and other communities. Collectively these new leaders demanded due process, an end to racial and religious profiling and humane reforms to our immigration system. That was the genesis of OneAmerica, then called Hate Free Zone, the organization I’m now privileged to lead. Our fight continues nearly 15 years later.
I draw from that era more than a half-century ago and from this recent one two important lessons:
First, the movement for justice is resilient. I continue to be moved by the courage of our own communities—Japanese, Muslim, Sikh, immigrant and refugee—to not just rebuild and carry on, but to demand our rights and accountability and to push back against prejudice and government surveillance.
And second, contrary to Trump’s stump speech, America is great when we are one in all our diversity of race, religion and ethnicity.
Some politicians may subtly—or explicitly—validate the exclusion and surveillance of our communities. For the rest of us, our message must be adamant: never again.
Rich Stolz is the Executive Director of OneAmerica.