Kristen Nemoto Jay
On Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in a letter sent to the White House, 76 Japanese American and Asian American organizations demanded President Joe Biden to create a reparations commission for Black Americans before the year was up. The groups – led by the National Nikkei Reparations Coalition – called for an executive order to establish the commission, which would further investigate “the legacy of enslavement and racist government policies with the intent to develop and implement practical solutions for reparations.”
For some who are not already aware, H.R. 40 — a bill that will establish the commission to study and develop reparation proposals for Black Americans — has been in inexistence since 1989, introduced by Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a year after the Civil Liberties Act was passed to create a commission that provided reparations for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. Today, many supporters are tallying up to rally behind H.R. 40, especially those who’ve seen the success of Japanese Americans receiving reparations.
“We support the Black community’s demand for reparations because: 1) it is the right thing to do; 2) it is long overdue and 3) because we know it is possible.” stated Kathy Masaoka, a representative for the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress and Nikkei Progressives, in her testimony supporting H.R. 40 on Feb. 17, 2021.
“We know that many in this country did not know about Japanese American incarceration during WWII and that a great deal of education was and still is needed,” continued Masaoka’s testimony. “So, too, many in this country, including ourselves, do not know the long history and legacy of slavery. We have been studying Black history and realized how much we did not understand about the depth and breadth of the impact of slavery or of Jim Crow, which lasted from 1877 to the mid-1960’s and continued to enforce segregation through state-sanctioned terror and policing. We learned how racist practices like ‘redlining’ systematically prevented Black folks from better housing. We learned how they were prevented from building wealth and that when Black folks did achieve some success, their communities were destroyed – like the community of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the town was burned down and over 300 Black people were killed. No wonder the wealth of Black families is one-tenth the wealth of white families today. We often think that the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, but it did not end lynchings. We learned that 6,500 Black people were lynched from the end of the Civil War to 1950 (which is two people per week). We often think that laws like Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Fair Housing Act meant equal rights, but racism continued to find a way around real equality.”
Masaoka, who joined the Japanese American redress movement as an activist in the 1970s, is currently working with Black leaders in their reparations campaign. Over the past year, many Japanese Americans like Masaoka have been key advocates of H.R. 40 by organizing letter-writing campaigns, webinars, phone-banking sessions and town hall meetings.
John Tateishi, a Sansei Japanese American, Manzanar incarceration camp survivor and author of “Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations,” emphasized in a virtual event series back in October 2021, hosted by the University of Southern California’s Shinso Ito Center, how reparations not only did justice to those Nisei who’ve suffered through it but also helped move a community forward in education and healing.
“For me, I saw the transformation as the Nisei were talking as they testified and what it did to us as a community and what it did for the country,” said Tateishi, referring to the nationwide hearings that allowed hundreds to testify from Aug. 4-6, 1981, to share their stories of life in the incarceration camps and the pain and suffering that many of them endured. Tateishi further stressed that America’s current reparations that’s needed today exist for many Black Americans whose ancestors were chained to a life of slavery.
Tateishi, the former National Redress Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, was involved in the movement to obtain redress and reparations for Japanese Americans and challenged the Bush administration’s policies that targeted Arab and Muslim communities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In his book “Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations,” Tateishi writes that the Nisei generation embraced traditional American values and encouraged their families to move on. The Sansei generation, however, grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and saw the incarceration camps as another form of racial oppression that needed to be voiced and heard. Unlike history lessons about slavery that has been and continues to be taught in American classrooms today, mentions of the Japanese incarceration camps were always spoken about as a way to “protect Japanese Americans” from the war’s aftermath. The sudden uprootment, losing of family homes, possessions, and careers, were never discussed in history books as well as among Japanese American veterans who continued to show their loyalty to the United States by silencing their suffrage. Since the passing of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which granted $20,000 to living U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated during World War II, Tateishi continues his fight for social justice by supporting Black American reparations.
“We know about slavery [and] some of the misery of being Black in America but we don’t really understand it for those of us who are not part of that,” continued Tateishi in his virtual discussion. “Until we do something as a nation to rectify the sins of slavery, we’re not going to see much of a change. My hope is that we make some kind of movement, however it’s done. I think it’s really important for the good of the nation. Both Blacks and Whites and everyone.”
Solidarity between Japanese and Black Americans has been a decades-long partnership. Representatives of the JACL attended the March on Washington in 1963. Black politicians such as the late Rep. Ron Dellums, the late Rep. Mervyn Dymally and the Congressional Black Caucus were integral to the redress movement. In his testimony on the House floor in 1987, Dellums recalled watching his childhood friend being taken away from his home.
“I’ll never forget the vision of fear that my friend had,” said Rep. Dellums. “My mother, as bright as she was, could not explain to me why my friend was being taken away as he screamed not to go. And this 6-year-old Black American child screamed back ‘Don’t take my friend!’ No one could help me understand that. No one, Mr. Chairman. So it wasn’t just Japanese Americans who felt the emotion, because they lived in the total context of community. And I was one of the people in that community. And so I would say to my colleagues, this is not just compensation for being (incarcerated) … How do you compensate that child’s fear of leaving his family and home? This meager $20,000 is compensation for the pain and the agony that he felt and that his family felt … This Black American cries out loudly as much as my Asian American brothers and sisters on this issue.”
H.R. 40 has acquired 196 cosponsors, the largest it’s ever held, and is currently being referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary as of Monday, Jan. 9. It needs a majority of 218 votes to pass out of the House and head to the Senate, where the challenge will continue to follow.
Though the end of the year has passed, there’s still hope for many as the bill builds steam in visibility and remembrances of past reparations for Japanese Americans continues to hold as an example that a step towards progress can be made.
The full letter sent to the White House can be read at docs.google.com/document/d/1hdpn7GSBsK-X2M-Q7DkfJPcvR50JZfZhoWXvbYjaUXU/edit.