When Miya Iwataki and other Japanese Americans fought in the 1980s for the US government to apologize to the families it imprisoned during World War II, black politicians and civil rights leaders were an integral part. of the movement.
Thirty-five years after they won that apology, and prison camp survivors were awarded $20,000 each, those advocates are now demanding atonement for African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. From California to Washington, DC, activists are joining revived reparations movements and pushing for the government to formally compensate for the lasting damage of the legacy of slavery on later generations, from access to housing and education to the right to vote and employment.
Advocating for reparations is “the right thing to do,” said Ms. Iwataki, a 70-year-old resident of South Pasadena, California. She cited the cross-cultural solidarity that has built up over decades.
Black legislators like the late California congressmen Mervyn Dymally and Ron Dellums were instrumental in winning the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formalized government apologies and reparations payments.
Last Sunday marked the 81st anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing an executive order that allowed the government to force an estimated 125,000 people, two-thirds of them US citizens, to leave their homes and businesses and imprison them. in desolate barbed wire fences. camps throughout the west.
“We want to help other communities get reparations, because it was very important to us,” said Ms. Iwataki.
After stalling for decades at the federal level, slavery reparations has received renewed interest amid a national reckoning over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Amid nationwide protests that year, the governor of California. Gavin Newsom signed legislation establishing a pioneering task force in the nation to address the issue of slave reparations.
Other cities and counties have since followed, including Boston, St. Louis and San Francisco, where an advisory committee issued a draft recommendation last year proposing a balloon payment of $5 million each for eligible individuals.
In December, the National Reparations Nikkei Coalition, along with more than 70 other Japanese American and Asian American organizations, submitted a letter calling on the Biden administration to establish a presidential commission.
Japanese American activists in California are studying the landmark report issued by the California task force and plan to reach out to college students, churches and other community groups to raise awareness about why reparations are needed for Black people and how it intersects with his own fight.
Critics of reparations say that monetary compensation and other forms of atonement are not necessary when no one alive today was enslaved or owned a slave, overlooking the inequities that affect later generations of black Americans today.
Retired professor Kathy Masaoka of Los Angeles, who tried herself in 1981 for Japanese American reparations and in 2021 for federal reparations legislation, says they are just beginning to educate their own community about black history and the prejudice against blacks.
He said starting conversations in his community is “undoing a lot of ideas that people have” about American history and the case for reparations, said Ms. Masaoka, 74.
San Francisco attorney Don Tamaki, who is Japanese, is the only non-black appointee to the nine-member California task force.
At the meetings, he shared how critical it was for organizers to arrange for former detainees to tell their stories to the national media. However, reparations advocates had to make difficult decisions, including accepting legislation that denied reparations to some 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent who were also incarcerated.
There is no equivalence between the experiences of the Black American and Japanese American communities, Tamaki said, but there are similar lessons, such as the need for a massive public education campaign.
Only 30% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2021 supported slavery reparations, 77% of whom were African American. Support among Latinos and Asians was 39% and 33%, respectively, with white Americans having the lowest rate of support at 18%.
Some advocates said the idea of reparations for World War II incarceration camps was once considered far-fetched. But many young third-generation Japanese Americans were inspired to mobilize by the civil rights and ethnic pride movements, including the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets, which promoted Chicano rights.
Some advocates were outraged by hearings organized by a 1980 federal commission on the internment of Japanese, and threatened to boycott them, calling it a delaying tactic. But the testimony that emerged from the public hearings the following year served as a turning point.
For the first time, many survivors shared stories that even their families did not know, educating not only the younger generation but the American public at large.
“There was not a dry eye in the house at those hearings,” said Ms. Iwataki, who worked with the National Coalition for Reparations/Reparations to arrange transportation to the hearings, as well as meals and translators, for the former arrested.
Many young Japanese Americans went from being frustrated with their grandparents and parents for not standing up for themselves to understanding just how vulnerable they were, said Ron Wakabayashi, then national director of the Japan American Citizens League. The average age of second-generation Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the camps was just 18, he said.
“Probably the most important thing we got was generational healing and restoration of our identity,” said Mr. Wakabayashi, 78.
The commission found no military necessity for the camps and said the arrests were generally due to “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a lack of political leadership,” according to a report issued in 1983.
President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, providing living survivors with a formal apology and $20,000 each for the “grave injustice” done to them. It would cost the United States government about $1.6 billion.
Throughout the process, activists said, the Congressional Black Caucus remained a staunch supporter of reparations. Former Rep. Dymally wrote a reparations bill in 1982 and later provided his staff and his office support so advocates could lobby other members of Congress.
Another California congressman, Rep. Dellums, delivered a searing speech on the floor of the home of a 6-year-old boy watching his best friend, a Japanese-American boy of the same age, being taken to camp.
A year after Reagan signed Japanese reparations into law, the late Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to consider slavery reparations, named for the promise of 40 acres and a mule the US initially made to the Japanese. freed slaves. The bill has not gone anywhere.
Dreisen Heath, an advocate for black reparations, plans to travel from her home in the Washington, DC area to California in the coming months to join artist and writer Traci Kato-Kiriyama, whose parents were imprisoned as children, in workshops and educational forums. .
They hope to involve young Japanese American and black American students in the current movement.
“Nothing worthwhile in this country has happened without intergenerational and multiracial participation. [coalition] building,” said Ms. Heath. “I see the Japanese American community, and by extension the Asian American community, as indispensable in making reparations for Black people.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.