The Pacific Citizen’s annual Scholarship Special Issue is intended to be a celebration, recognizing the accomplishments of the students we hope to be the future of JACL. Yet, for this year’s awardees, one cannot help but recognize the challenges they have faced.
Senior years in high school ended with the detached experience of graduating via video conference commencement ceremonies, canceled senior proms and no opportunity to take one last walk through the school as a senior, knowing that was their last time before graduating.
And the pain has continued into the next transition, meeting new classmates again through the computer screen, without the joy of what has been the normal college freshman experience.
The high school class of 2020 has had much taken from them, and they have every right to be disappointed, embittered and spiteful of the adults who have failed to control COVID-19 and protect the end of their childhood experiences.
This past week has been made even more difficult. The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has shaken many of us to the core. There has been an outpouring to celebrate her life and the inspiration she has been for women, especially young girls.
Today’s young adults only know of a time when the Virginia Military Institute has been co-educational because of an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg. The darker side, however, has been the immediate calls for a replacement to be made in record time, an unprecedented rush to confirmation in the midst of an election and pandemic that Congress has failed to respond to adequately.
One could not fault anyone for feeling despair and a deep mistrust in a system of government that seems to have failed in every possible way. It has failed to respond to COVID-19, necessitating the continuation of online classes for students or rushed returns to physical classes, leaving some with the feeling of unease and lack of confidence it is truly safe.
Now, the sudden urgency for a Senate that has been inactive on COVID relief and slow to respond to policing injustice suddenly seeks to rush through the confirmation of a still-to-be-nominated justice.
I’ve heard it said that with the loss of the courts, everything will be lost, so why bother voting.
Yet, history tells us that the courts have not always been the great backstop of justice for all. The Hirabayashi and Yasui cases were decided unanimously without dissenting opinions. Korematsu was decided by a 6-3 decision.
We saw the Supreme Court more recently uphold the Muslim ban using the same logic the Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui cases had been held — that the government’s actions were justified by military necessity and there was no discrimination on the basis of race or religion.
Our history is full of dark times, often approved by Congress, executed by the administration and upheld by the courts. Yes, the system has always been broken. But it is also a system capable of change.
In the wake of Japanese American incarceration, in the midst of Jim Crow also came legislation such as the Immigration and Nationality Acts, Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. All came within the 20 years after the end of World War II. The courts also played a role from Brown v. Board of Education up through Loving v. Virginia.
When Japanese Americans were incarcerated, there were few who stood up to protest outside our community. We will always remember the Society of Friends as the one national group that did stand in solidarity. The Civil Rights movement changed that paradigm, as we all recognized the need to stand together in the face of injustice.
We stand together in opposition to our inhumane immigration policies that incarcerate children illegally and have separated them from their parents. We stand together in opposition to a Muslim travel ban that keeps families separated. We stand together in opposition to systemic racism that devalues Black lives. We stand together against the xenophobia resulting from COVID-19 targeting our Asian communities.
Standing together does make a difference. The Shutdown Berks Coalition regularly leads actions at the detention center, often when the families incarcerated there are given time outside where they can hear our chants, our songs, and know that they are not alone.
What we give them is the knowledge that they are not forgotten, that their lives do matter. And with that, they have hope that our country might eventually end our inhumane policies toward them and welcome them as we have so many others to our country.
For our students starting college this fall, you may be discouraged by the dysfunction and failures of our current government, and you would be right to recognize all of that. However, there remains hope. We can still work to effect change.
Call out our government’s immoral actions on asylum seekers. Tell our legislators to change the laws that systematically target Black lives for incarceration and excessive use of force by our justice system that is not blind and sees color of skin. Call upon all Senators to fully vet any nominee to the court and not rush through a sham of a confirmation hearing.
The Senate should instead be told to focus immediately on the pain our nation continues to experience due to COVID and take action to pass a relief package that helps American people who need it most, not corporate welfare. This is how we try to make the system work for us.
Most of all, vote. Make your voice heard at the ballot box because as slow as the change might come, that is how we can be the difference. The system might be stacked against us, but we shall overcome. We always have and will continue to do so if we work together.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.