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Opinion Andy Kim and the ‘politics of humility’ in the midst of anti-Asian hate

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the Capitol Rotunda in the early morning hours of Jan. 7. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Decent. That is perhaps the best way to describe Rep. Andy Kim. We saw his decency in the aftermath of the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol, when an Associated Press photographer showed the New Jersey Democrat on his hands and knees, helping to clear the Rotunda of debris in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“It really just broke my heart, to see this building that I love . . . in that condition,” Kim told NJ Advance Media on Jan. 8.

The second-term congressman’s fundamental decency was on full display during an interview for my podcast “Cape Up” about the murder of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, in Atlanta on March 16. And by decency, I mean heart. Our conversation about the mass shooting, and how it fit into the frightening atmosphere for Asian Americans, took an emotional turn when Kim, only the second Korean American elected to Congress, talked about its impact on his children:

I have a 5-year-old boy in kindergarten, and he came home a couple of weeks ago and just said, “Something happened.” And he was telling me how another kid at school, an older kid, just over and over and over again over the course of the day just kept calling him “China boy, China boy” or “Chinese boy.” And my son was just really confused. He’s like, “I kept telling him, ‘I’m a New Jersey boy. I don’t know why he thinks I’m from China.’” My son kinda laughed it off, and I realized that he didn’t understand what was happening there. He didn’t understand that these are elements that get at this [phenomenon] of people not seeing us as American first and seeing us through the lens of the other. . . .
I didn’t know what to tell my kid, and I didn’t know what to say to him. And I felt sadness because I felt like I knew that that was not the last time he would hear these things. I know that things are actually gonna be worse. He’s gonna hear things far worse than what he heard, and I’m sad that he’s going to have those experiences, and I wish, as a dad, I could prevent him from having that. So these are tough.

In the age of covid-19, I do my interviews through Zoom. So, while the anguish in what Kim said might not have manifested itself in the audio of his even-keeled voice, it most definitely welled up in his eyes. As I asked my next question, Kim removed his glasses and wiped away tears.

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Like Kim, I was born and raised in New Jersey. Even though I’m 17 years older than him, my memories growing up as an “other” or an “only” in predominantly White neighborhoods and schools helped shape my view of the world around me. And so did “the talk.” That’s the moment in every Black child’s life when their parent, guardian or loved one must remove the cloak of protection they erected to shield them from the harsh realities they faced since birth because of the color of their skin. My mother’s talk with me didn’t go well. Lots of ugly crying and screaming about how she was wrong. Mom was right, of course. But I wondered if Kim’s parents had had a similar conversation with him.

“I’ve thought about this recently because I never got any version of ‘the talk’ from my parents. I don’t know if that actually kind of exists in the Asian American community in the way that it does for the Black community,” Kim told me. “My parents . . . very much thought that just hard work and keeping your nose to the grindstone and kinda minding your business is gonna get you through. I never really had that talk, and I never really understood how to contemplate being Asian American.”

Throughout our conversation, I kept thinking about what Doc Rivers said last August when there were Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the nation. “We keep loving this country, and this country doesn’t love us back,” the then-Los Angeles Clippers basketball coach said a few days after a police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23.

I asked Kim how he felt about what is happening in our country, and whether it shattered or altered his vision of our country and his place in it. He said he has a “higher and heightened sense of patriotism” as a result of the insurrection and the Atlanta spa shootings. “It has made me want to fight harder for it because I see what’s at stake,” said Kim. “I see us on an unstable and unsustainable trajectory as a nation right now.” The rest of his response was incredibly moving:

The problems that we faced did not rest with just one person, and it’s not gonna get better just with somebody out of office and someone else in. I really feel like we are on a very long road to recovery ahead. And I have to do everything I humanly can to be able to fix that, because I love this country, but also because, if I don’t, I feel like I would therefore be saying that I’m giving up on trying to shape this world that my kids are gonna grow up in. . . . That’s why you see me get emotional when I talk about my kids. The work that I do in Congress, this isn’t just about laws that we’re writing or speeches that I give. I see this as my way of being a dad and trying to shape the world that they grow up into. . . .
So this is all deeply personal to me, and that is where I draw my strength from. That is my North Star, and I feel like I’m hitting up against places where I don’t know if I can make the difference that I feel . . . is needed. And that is tough for me in the same way it’s tough for me to think about how I can talk to my kid about the experience that he had and what he will have. That talk. I don’t know how to have that talk with this country. I don’t know how to have that talk with my community, about what we really need to do to get [it] done. . . .
This is a moment where I wish I knew what to say to my kids. I wish I knew what to say to you about how we heal. I wish I knew the right words to say to my district, but I fall short. And I’m still learning and I’m still listening to try to figure out how we move forward.

Being comfortable with not having all the answers, and being open on the journey to find solutions,is the foundation of Kim’s public service. He calls it practicing “the politics of humility.” Would that more members of Congress did the same.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast

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