‘There is a saying in Japanese culture, ‘kodomo no tame ni,’ which means, ‘for the sake of the children.’ And for us running this [Japanese American redress] campaign, that had much to do with it. It’s the legacy we’re handing down to them and to the nation to say that, ‘You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.’” — Former JACL Executive Director and National Redress Director John Tateishi
The conversation around redress for slavery received renewed cultural attention with the release of The Atlantic’s June 2014 article “The Case for Reparations.” The article, which took journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates over two years to write, explores the brief history of economic and fiscal predation of African-Americans at the hands of the government beyond the institution of chattel slavery, including civil rights era terrorism, redlining and modern loan discrimination. The article also briefly mentions HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act — a piece of legislation originally proposed in 1989 by veteran Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and steadily ignored for the past 25 years.
Conyers’ bill, proposed just one year after Japanese Americans won formal apology for their internment, was modeled in part after successful Japanese American redress legislation including HR 442. If passed, it would ask the United States government to set up a federal commission that would accomplish four main things: 1) Acknowledge the fundamental brutality and inhumanity of slavery 2) Establish a commission to study slavery and its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against former slaves 3) Study the impact of those forces on today’s living African-Americans and 4) Make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African-Americans.
In past years, Japanese Americans have drawn clear and profound parallels between our wartime incarceration and a number of modern social issues. Indeed, the JACL is proud to be an organization of “firsts,” known for our willingness to speak out when our values demanded it — even in apathetic or hostile social environments. In 1994, we were the first non-LGBTQ civil rights organization to come out for marriage equality, conscious of the staunch support gay folks like Barney Frank lent our redress campaign. Shortly after the events of 9/11, our organization decried the profiling and internment of Muslim and Arab Americans, drawing direct connections to the discrimination experienced by our community after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
While there are visible differences between African-American and Japanese American calls for reparations, our communities’ shared struggles for dignity and justice have long-intertwined roots. It was the energy and gains of the civil rights movement that inspired Nikkei redress activists and former incarcerees to speak up at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians’ public hearings — an event that began to heal the deep, psychic scarring many in our community didn’t know we still had. These hearings forever changed the tenor of the Japanese American redress conversation and were instrumental in bringing about our reparations.
Although important, Japanese American redress is far from the only example of how wide-scale formal apology and restitution might be implemented.
We know that Germany paid over 3 billion marks to Israel in the dozen or so years after the Holocaust, donating millions to the World Jewish Congress on behalf of those who were murdered under Nazi rule. Similarly, Native American groups have to some extent received apology and partial payments for lands forcibly taken by the United States government, and numerous European countries and cities have formally apologized and repented for their role in perpetuating the Transatlantic slave trade.
Just this spring, the mayor of my own city of Chicago voiced support for a reparations proposal that would set aside over $5 million to offer college education, psychological and substance abuse counseling and up to $100,000 to survivors of police torture and their families. The legislation would also provide a formal apology to victims, create a permanent memorial and introduce curriculum into Chicago Public Schools on the torture cases’ lasting blemish on city history.
In all of these cases, reparations weren’t won because our governments suddenly discovered their consciences independent of external pressure. Tortured Chicagoans and Holocaust survivors achieved redress because they gave human voice to their grievances and insisted on their moral right to recompense. Likewise, Nikkei received redress because we demanded it, built broad intercommunity support and chartered a congressional study that forced our government to finally recognize our incarceration as
a “grave injustice.”
The United States has formed hundreds of such federal commissions over the years, tasked with goals as varied as researching space programs, protecting our national forests, maintaining landmarks, studying environmental sustainability and investigating wartime internment. Surely the historic wounds that the institution of chattel slavery and its racial afterbirth have left us with deserves, at the very least, apology and intentional study. Gathering facts in this way should be far from controversial — as Congressman Conyers has made clear, “This is not a bill on how we deal with reparations. This is a bill that calls for a commission that sets up a study for reparations.”
Our country is emerging from a year of moral movement marches and community protests in response to the increased documentation of the physical and economic predation of black Americans at the hands of their government. Now more than ever do we need to engage with the United States’ most haunting racial histories, and yet we do not seem to be at a point where we can speak intelligently about what a practical, ethical and nonblame-based reparations schema might look like. This is exactly why we need the commission’s research, findings that would allow all U.S. Americans to set about the business of healing our shared racial trauma with care and humility — and with facts, statistics and official research in hand.
The National Youth/Student Council is sponsoring a motion at this July’s National Convention asking the JACL to express full support for HR 40. If this bill is ever to become a reality, it will take widespread intercommunity support, from people of all ethnic groups. For Japanese Americans in particular, we believe the way forward should be clear. In deciding whether to remain silent or speak out in asking our country to begin to grapple with the horrors of slavery and segregation, we must look toward future generations: kodomo no tame ni, “for the sake of the children.” Yet, our answer also surely lies in the past, among the hurdles we have already surmounted, in imagining what our peoples might achieve together,
with one another’s help.
Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu is the JACL MDC Youth Representative.