Ron Wakabayashi pauses for a picture at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
SAN FRANCISCO — When Miya Iwataki and other Japanese Americans fought in the 1980s for the U.S. government to apologize to the families it imprisoned during World War II, Black politicians and civil rights leaders were integral to the movement.
Thirty-five years after they won that apology — and survivors of prison camps received $20,000 each— those advocates are now demanding atonement for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. From California to Washington, D.C., activists are joining revived reparations movements and pushing for formal government compensation for the lasting harm of slavery’s legacy on subsequent generations, from access to housing and education to voting rights and employment.
Advocating for reparations is “the right thing to do,” said Iwataki, a resident of South Pasadena, California who is in her 70s. She cited cross-cultural solidarity that has built up over decades.
Black lawmakers such as the late California congressmen Mervyn Dymally and Ron Dellums played critical roles in winning the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formalized the government’s apology and redress 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 U.S. citizens — from their homes and businesses, and incarcerate them in desolate, barbed-wire camps throughout the west.
“We want to help other communities win reparations, because it was so important to us,” Iwataki said.
After stalling for decades at the federal level, reparations for slavery has received new interest amid a national reckoning over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Amid nationwide protests that year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that established a first-in-the-nation task force to address the topic 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 lump-sum payment of $5 million apiece for eligible individuals.
In December, the National Nikkei Reparations Coalition, alongside 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 California’s task force — and plan to reach out to college students, churches and other community groups to raise awareness about why Black reparations is needed — and how it intersects with their own struggle.
Reparations critics say that monetary compensation and other forms of atonement are not necessary when no one alive today was enslaved or a slave owner, overlooking the inequities today impacting later generations of Black Americans.
Retired teacher Kathy Masaoka of Los Angeles, who testified in 1981 for Japanese American redress and in 2021 in favor of federal reparations legislation, says they are just beginning to educate their own community about Black history and anti-Black prejudice.
She said that starting conversations in her community is “undoing a lot of ideas that people have” about American history and the case for reparations, said Masaoka, 74.
San Francisco attorney Don Tamaki, who is Japanese, is the only person appointed to California’s nine-member task force who is not Black.
At meetings, he shared how critical it was for organizers to arrange for former detainees to tell their stories to national media outlets. Redress advocates had to make hard decisions though, such as agreeing to legislation that denied reparations to an estimated 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent who were also incarcerated.
There is no equivalence to the experiences of the Japanese American and Black American communities, Tamaki said, but there are similar lessons, such as the need for a massive public education campaign.
Only 30% of U.S. adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2021 supported reparations for slavery, 77% of whom were Black Americans. Support among Latinos and Asians was 39% and 33%, respectively, and white Americans had the lowest rate of support, at 18%.
Some advocates said that the idea of reparations for the World War II incarceration camps was once considered outlandish. But many young, third-generation Japanese Americans were inspired to mobilize from civil rights and ethnic pride movements, including the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets, who promoted Chicano rights.
Some advocates were outraged by — and threatened to boycott — hearings set up by a 1980 federal commission on Japanese internment, called it a delaying tactic. But the testimonies that came out of public hearings the following year served as a turning point.
For the first time, many survivors shared stories that even their families didn’t know, educating not only the younger generation but the broader American public.
“There was not a dry eye in the house at those hearings,” said Iwataki, who worked with the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations to arrange transportation to the hearings, as well as meals and translators, for former detainees.
Many young Japanese Americans went from frustration with their grandparents and parents for not fighting back to understanding how vulnerable they were, said Ron Wakabayashi, who was then national director of the Japanese American Citizens League. The average age of second-generation Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the camps was only 18, he said.
“Probably the more important thing that we got out of that was the generational healing, and the restoration of our identity,” said Wakabayashi, 78.
The commission found no military necessity for the camps, saying the detentions stemmed broadly from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure 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 U.S. government about $1.6 billion.
Throughout the process, activists said, the Congressional Black Caucus remained a steadfast supporter of reparations. Then-Rep. Dymally authored a reparations bill in 1982 and later, provided his staff and office support so that advocates could lobby other members of Congress.
Another California congressman, Rep. Dellums, delivered a searing speech on the House floor of being a 6-year-old boy watching as his best friend, a Japanese American boy of the same age, was taken away to the camps.
A year after Reagan signed Japanese reparations into law, the late Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to consider slavery reparations, named after the promise of 40 acres and a mule that the U.S. initially made to freed slaves. The bill has gone nowhere.
Dreisen Heath, an advocate for Black reparations, plans to travel from her home in the Washington, D.C. area to California in coming months to join artist and writer traci kato-kiriyama, whose parents were incarcerated as children, in leading workshops and educational forums.
They hope to engage young Japanese American and Black American students in the current movement.
“Nothing ever worthwhile in this country has ever happened without intergenerational, multiracial (coalition) building,” said Heath. “I see the Japanese American community, and by extension the Asian American community, indispensable to realizing reparations for Black people.”
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