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Congressman Andy Kim On The Discrimination He Says He Faced In The State Department


Violence against Asian Americans is drawing new attention to anti-Asian racism in the U.S. And according to one congressman, that discrimination extends deep into the State Department. Democratic New Jersey Congressman Andy Kim tweeted over the weekend that he, quote, "will never forget the feeling when I learned that my own government questioned my loyalty." During his time working on Afghanistan at the State Department, Kim says he was given an assignment restriction, told that he couldn't work on anything related to the Korean Peninsula. Given that he is an American born in Boston and says he doesn't speak much Korean, I asked the congressman what reason the State Department gave him for this ban.

ANDY KIM: I wasn't really given one. I went through very extensive security clearances multiple times to be able to work in the State Department - again, worked in Afghanistan, worked on a lot of very sensitive matters. And I never imagined that once I got the clearance - that I would be told I can't do things or that they don't trust me on certain aspects. As you mentioned, I was born in the United States. I have really no real ties to Korea. And for this to happen simply because of my last name - and look; I get it. I share a last name with a brutal dictator. But my family is a family that fled the North Korean army during the war. My family had to hide in the mountains, in the woods to escape the North Korean army. So for me to be considered in any way - you know, questioning my loyalty there or questioning my ability to look at this with the interests of the United States, I just found that deeply offensive.

SHAPIRO: Do you know whether this came from political appointees or career officials? Was it connected to one administration's agenda?

KIM: I don't think it was because I think that this issue - you know, as I dug into this, I learned that other people, especially Asian Americans, were experiencing this. And I think it kind of crosses across multiple administrations. I think this is more of a systemic and structural problem when it comes to our foreign policy.

And this is something that I'm trying to - now that I'm on the Foreign Affairs Committee, trying to get a greater sense of this, trying to understand, you know, who is this affecting? You know, are they - is this predominantly for Asian American countries or other areas? - because I certainly knew people who - you know, who were born in Brazil and worked on Brazil issues. I know people who have German ancestry and German immigrants that are working on Germany issues. I saw so many examples of that, so it didn't really feel like this was being treated the same across all different countries and ethnicities. And for instance, if we're working on issues of Korea, wouldn't it be a benefit, actually, to have people that understand this on a deeper cultural level?

SHAPIRO: So you now sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the State Department. And the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, acknowledges discrimination problems at State. I know you have a bill pending that would address diversity at the State Department, but do you think there are easy fixes that the Biden administration could put in place right now to help solve these problems, whether or not Congress gets enough votes to pass new legislation?

KIM: Absolutely. I mean, look; I've had the honor to be able to work with Secretary Blinken before at the White House. I know him well, and I know that this is something that's important to him. But there are some immediate steps that can happen. There's a - it's about how the State Department recruits as well. A structural, systemic problem requires a structural, systemic solution. And this is not something that any single law or any single policy change is going to be able to fix alone. It really requires a real, deep understanding and commitment to be able to fix.

SHAPIRO: That's Congressman Andy Kim, Democrat of New Jersey.

Thank you for talking with us today.

KIM: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.