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Sen. Tammy Duckworth on hate crimes, racism, and environmental justice

‘There are structures that are racist in our society.’

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Senators Schumer, Kaine And Duckworth Address Media At The Capitol
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) talks to reporters during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on November 17, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has been tackling racism on multiple fronts recently, particularly against Asian Americans. A bill aimed at curbing anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic finally picked up bipartisan support last week, which Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) sponsored and Duckworth supported. And following criticism from Duckworth and Hirono on a lack of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in his cabinet, President Joe Biden last week announced that Erika Moritsugu would step into the role of deputy assistant to the president and Asian American and Pacific Islander senior liaison.

In March, Duckworth released a memoir detailing her childhood as a biracial kid growing up in Southeast Asia and Hawaii. The Verge talked with Duckworth about how those experiences inform her work now, and how she’s navigating her role during a time of dramatic reckoning with racism in America. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

As an Asian American woman, I’m still reeling from the murders in Atlanta last month, and what feels like a steady stream of attacks against people who look like me and my elders. 

What’s it like for you to see the recent rise in violence against Asian Americans, particularly against Asian American women? 

“I’ve always known that Asian women were targeted.”

This is something I have been bringing to my colleagues’ attention: the fact that, yes, we have a 150 percent rise in reported hate crimes against Asian Americans last year alone, about 3,800. Those were just the ones that were reported. 

Almost two-thirds of those were against Asian women. And so it’s really affecting how I go about doing what we’re doing. Mazie Hirono and I, along with Senator Richard Blumenthal , are moving forward with this anti Asian racism bill. But one of the things that is going to be an amendment to it is the fact that we need to recognize that, how we classify a crime as being race motivated is really not accurate. So for example, a lot of crimes against AAPIs are listed as robberies or muggings. But if your motivation for who you choose to be your victim for the robbery that you’re about to conduct is based on racism, like you’re choosing Asian American women in particular, or you’re choosing elderly Asian American women like my 80-year-old mom, then that should be reported as a hate crime, not as a mugging or a burglary. 

And so for me, watching what has happened this past year... I’ve always known that Asian women were targeted, but to have what little data we have clearly point out that two-thirds of those crimes are directly targeting Asian women really crystallized for me what I have always known instinctively. It bothers me a lot because my mom is very independent and she goes out and she drives and she goes shopping, and I know that she is a potential target, and I worry about her.

I have similar worries about my parents. Thank you for sharing.

You’ve also supported the Black Lives Matter movement and have asked the DOJ to probe into the police treatment of Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who is Black and Hispanic and was pepper sprayed while in uniform during a traffic stop in Virginia. Can you talk with me about why those issues are important to you?

We shouldn’t be fighting each other over the one slice of diversity pie. I’m tired of the Black community being pitted against the Latinx community, being pitted against the Asian community. We should all have a seat at the table. 

“We should all have a seat at the table.”

I tried to learn to be a good ally this past summer in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I learned a lot actually from my own staff members. So I hope that transfers over into my work now as a senator, trying to be each other’s allies.

You confronted the White House about a lack of AAPI representation in the president’s Cabinet. Why is that a problem? What do you see as the consequences of excluding Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders?

I’ve been working with the Biden administration for a long time — like for six months —  setting forward names of well-qualified Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to be considered for the top Cabinet posts. And I voted for every nominee they put forward. I voted for every single one, whether they were white, Black, Native American, Latinx. Time and time again I was told that there was going to be a Cabinet-level AAPI nominee. And then we had 15 Cabinet secretaries nominated and not a single one of them were AAPI. And there were well-qualified AAPI candidates who were not even interviewed. That was very frustrating to me, and it led to a conversation where a member of the White House team basically said, “Well you have Kamala, that should be enough.” I was incredibly offended, and I said wait a minute, you would never say, “We have a white male president, that should be enough. We shouldn’t need any more white male Cabinet secretary nominees.” You wouldn’t say that to the Black Caucus. You wouldn’t say that to the Latinx caucus. Why would you say that to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders? 

“I was incredibly offended.”

It’s important to have representation because government needs to look like the people that it represents. This is the first time in 20 years that we do not have a single Cabinet secretary in either a Republican or a Democratic administration that is AAPI. That’s not good for the nation.

In your memoir, you describe how being biracial shaped your experiences growing up in Southeast Asia. And you write about how America’s history of segregation and racism might even have influenced your American dad’s decision not to return to the US sooner — since his marriage to your mom, who is Thai Chinese, would have been illegal in some states when they met in the 1960s. How have all those experiences shaped your work today?

Well, if you read my memoir you know that there are themes of both prejudice and racism, but then there’s also structural racism that existed. My parents’ marriage would not have been deemed legal when they met. So there are structures that are racist in our society — even if we maybe never thought of them as racist — and that really affected how I look at the work that I do today. 

Duckworth’s new memoir describes her experience growing up biracial. Her father was born in the US and met her mother in Thailand.
Duckworth’s new memoir describes her experience growing up biracial. Her father was born in the US and met her mother in Thailand.
Image: Tammy Duckworth’s office

For example with environmental justice, we continue to grant permits for polluting industries on a one-off basis without looking at them cumulatively. So you have Black and brown communities exposed to far greater amounts of pollutants because that’s where we’ve always put the petcoke industry, now we’re going to put the ethylene oxide industry, and then we’re going to do manganese recycling there. And it just keeps going into the same communities because the structure of how we do permitting doesn’t look at cumulative effects.

So when I started the Environmental Justice Caucus with Senator Tom Carper and Senator Cory Booker, I understood instinctively that there are systems in place that are inherently unequal, and that we have to lift up communities of color to an equal footing, and then make an investment across the board. It’s not that we’re going to say “Okay, we’re going to give a wealthy white suburb $50,000 and we’re going to also give a poor Black suburb $50,000. That’s equal, right?” Well, no — because of history and how things have been, one is not on an equal footing. So I think it really does speak to what I’m trying to do today and how I approach my job.