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A Message from EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Future Farmers of America, 4-H, and an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.  Sounds like an all-American boyhood.  Well, it was, 20th-century style. The boy was Ellison Shoji Onizuka, of Kealakekua, Hawaii – a little town on the leeward side of the Big Island that was popularized in the 1933 song “My Little Grass Shack” before its later favorite son and Konawaena High School graduate immortalized it forever. Ellison was the son of Buddhist Nisei parents – second-generation Japanese Americans. 

Onizuka, called “El” by his friends, later became an Air Force test pilot and flew out of, among other places, Edwards AFB in the California high desert, a seedbed of astronauts. He joined the NASA astronaut team in 1978, and flew his first space mission in a1985 mission, STS 51-C, on Discovery, the first space shuttle mission for the Department of Defense. He was the first Asian American, the first person of Japanese ancestry and the first Buddhist to reach space.

The next year he was a crew member on mission STS 51-L on the space shuttle Challenger. This time his voyage was brief. The endeavor turned into tragedy within seconds, as Challenger exploded and killed all aboard. 

Those images of that January morning were seared into all of our brains.  “We will never forget them, or the last time we saw them,” President Reagan said, “as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

The seven astronauts that died that day included white, black, Asian, male and female explorers – a space ship full of heroes that looked like America. 

Only a handful of Americans have been honored with a quote in U.S. passports.  Among the presidents and poets cited in that blue booklet is Ellison Onizuka.  “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds…to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation,” were Onizuka’s words printed on the biometric pages. 

Onizuka’s own plateau, of course, was about as high as they come. The nation and world are fortunate that El Onizuka was able to fly as high as he did, literally.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and it should inspire us all to remember Japanese Americans and all other AAPIs and their many contributions to our country.  And it should especially energize us here at the EEOC, who have the challenging but satisfying mission of protecting AAPIs and all who work in the United States against job discrimination, including that based on race and national origin.