Liberty and Justice … for Whom?

By John Tateishi
Published September 5, 2008

Before the House of Representatives adjourned for its long election-year recess for re-election campaigning, Congressman Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., successfully managed a house resolution calling for an apology for slavery.

It'll be interesting to see what impact that resolution has because it called for an apology but no monetary consideration. In today's society, an apology is tantamount to an admittance of guilt, and with that, our courts are replete with lawsuits that demand some form of monetary compensation. 

Lawyers are quick to point out never to admit or say anything lest one inadvertently utters those terrible words that could result in a guilty verdict and/or payment of some form of compensation. 

From the outset in the redress campaign, we insisted that we were owed an apology from the government but varied in our views on the issue of monetary compensation. We fought long and hard among ourselves over the issue of compensation, but there was little argument about the apology. Everyone wanted that, and recognizing that an apology without compensation was meaningless, the JACL insisted on individual monetary compensation.

The apology carried with it a political backdoor strategy which we hadn't discussed: we campaigned hard to get the commission bill passed and met with strong opposition in the House because there were members who objected to visiting an issue that was already part of our historical past.

But there were some members among the opposition who understood that a report of findings would also require recommendations as remedies should the commission find the events leading to the internment weren't justified. They saw the backdoor on the apology and recognized that if the Congress accepted the report and thereby legitimized the conclusions, it was compelled to accept the recommendations. 

They knew full well that the JACL had as part of its demands the apology and the $25,000 compensation.

Accepting one meant possibly accepting the other, and damned if they would buy the idea of individual monetary compensation for something that happened 40 years earlier to a segment of the population that was likely guilty of some serious infraction against the country. And even if we weren't, we looked like the enemy and, regretfully, honest mistakes were made in the name of national security in a time of war.

The backdoor was recognized by enough members that passage of something as benign as the commission bill calling for an examination of historical facts that resulted in the internment became difficult.

As I lobbied one member after another among those who strongly opposed the bill, it was the backdoor that was often mentioned. The apology. Why should the government apologize for something that was decided by another administration and Congress in the past? And they saw that an apology would lead to other political considerations, such as monetary compensation. It was setting a precedent and would open a can of worms.

Which brings us back to Congressman Cohen's successful resolution on behalf of African Americans and others whose ancestors were indentured as slaves (some of the earliest slaves included Arabs). 


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