This piece originally ran in the Truman Doctrine Blog.
Several weeks ago, President Trump tweeted a link to a proclamation which designated May 2017 as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. It is now the end of that month, but I am still struggling to see how the administration has honored the great contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to our nation.
Earlier this year, two of my friends, Dr. Vivek Murthy and Preet Bharara, were fired by our commander-in-chief. They represented more to the broader AAPI community than just their respective appointed positions in government: They represented acceptance and success, and gave the rest of us hope that we too can someday serve as pillars for the nation we love and call home.
Today, AAPI leaders like Murthy and Bharara are following in the footsteps of people like Bhagat Singh Thind, who was one of the first Sikhs to join the U.S. military in the early 1900s. After serving honorably in our military with his regal turban and beard, he saw his U.S. citizenship revoked because he was not a “free white man.” Yet, what Thind faced was, in fact, a wave of hatred that began decades before his struggle.
For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 grew out of xenophobic sentiment and outright racism at the highest levels of our government. In subsequent years, it was repackaged and resold to the American public to “protect” them from the Japanese, Koreans, and Indians that were flooding our shores and stealing their jobs. These Asians would often take jobs for significantly lower wages and were ridiculed by “real” Americans because of their accents and their culture. Such anti-immigration policies adopted by our nation well over a hundred years ago gave birth to the shared experience of institutionalized racism which Thind fought in the 1900s and AAPI communities continue to fight to this day.
Thind fought for his citizenship and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but in 1923, he lost his landmark case United States versus Bhagat Singh Thind. As a result of that decision, all Indian-Americans born abroad were retroactively denied citizenship. Let that sink in for a moment: Our government actually revoked the citizenship of hard working, law-abiding Asian Americans that paid taxes and in some cases actually served in our military. Given that history, it comes as no surprise to me that the modern day Asiatic Exclusion League is working hard to “reform” the H1-B visa program which brings hundreds of thousands of highly skilled Asian immigrants annually to the United States.
Our American prosperity has always been driven by our ability to attract the best and brightest minds from all over the world. This has fueled innovation and advancement in every field of study. An Indian-born American physicist, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, invented and introduced the world to fiber optics. Another Indian-born physicist, Dr. Swarn Singh Kalsi, advanced the field of superconductors and applied research that made maglev transportation possible. You can find AAPIs in large numbers on the bleeding edge of communications, programming, the arts, medicine, and countless other fields — except politics and the military. But that is rapidly changing.
AAPI communities are learning how to engage politically. In 1957, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian American to serve in the U.S. Congress. Today, there are 15 Asian Pacific Americans in the House and 3 in the Senate. AAPIs also are increasingly serving in the U.S. military, with some becoming decorated Generals. It’s interesting to note that while AAPIs only make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, we made up more than 7.5 percent of West Point’s 2016 class. That may not sound like a big deal, but graduates of West Point and other highly competitive institutions of higher learning go on to become the leaders and CEOs of tomorrow.
However, despite such great achievement by the AAPI community, xenophobia has persisted and is now prevalent among several of the president’s most trusted advisors. Some of these political time bombs like Stephen Miller have even made openly racist remarks in the past. But why should we care? Let’s ask the families of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche. These two men were slain by a known white supremacist last week who was harassing two women wearing hijabs on a train in Portland — and the current administration’s actions and inactions have only fueled such hate-filled actions across the U.S.
Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking a large surge of hate violence and bias-based incidents against Muslims and other minorities. Disturbingly, they also “calculated that 37 percent of them directly referenced either President Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault.” It is clear that, if left unchecked, this tide of hatred, bigotry, and violence will serve to undermine the foundations of our nation.
Sadly, it seems that the only Asians our president is interested in defending right now are Russian. Yet, we need the current administration to react swiftly and pro-actively engage with all communities that are threatened. So, until then, we must stand together, protect those targeted by hate and prejudice, and thereby project diversity as one of the strongest elements of American power.
LTC Kamal S. Kalsi, D.O. is an ER doctor and a U.S. Army officer who deployed to Afghanistan and has served in the military for 16 years. He currently serves in U.S. Army Reserve at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a disaster medicine expert. He also serves as a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. The opinions expressed above are his alone and do not reflect the opinions of DOD or the Army. Follow him on Twitter @KamaljeetSKalsi