Shirley Ann Higuchi: Black Americans helped Asian Americans find their voice

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Black Lives Matter protesters march down Center Street, to the City and County Building in Provo, Wednesday July 1, 2020.

In the summer of 1942, as he rode in a darkened train with his family from California to a remote corner of Wyoming, 16-year-old Takashi Hoshizaki felt sympathy from one group that was traveling with them — the African American Pullman porters who worked on the U.S. railroads.

Takashi, who is now 94, told me the porters knew exactly what was happening on those hot, dusty and darkened trains that summer: They were watching another group of Americans, whose appearance and ethnic origin set them apart from “real Americans,” experience the same racism that afflicted black people from the time they were brought here on slave ships.

My parents and grandparents also made that train ride to Heart Mountain, Wyo., where they were unjustly incarcerated for the duration of World War II. When the passengers arrived, like my family members and Takashi, they continued to feel the sting of racism.

But while Japanese Americans and African Americans shared the common indignity of being identified as “the other,” they did not always share a common cause.

Once Japanese Americans were forced from their homes on the West Coast, African Americans who moved west to work in defense plants often settled in the former Japanese American enclaves. Little Tokyo in Los Angeles soon became known as Bronzeville.

After the war, when Japanese Americans were released from camps and allowed to return to their former neighborhoods, they were often pitted against their new African American neighbors by the white-dominated power structures of these cities. Japanese Americans often resented their fellow people of color as they tried to regain their lost place in society.

As Japanese Americans strove to assimilate and become the “model minority” desired by white America, they left African Americans behind and developed their own brand of “anti-blackness.”

But, as the world recoils at the police violence that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other African Americans, I now realize how much the Asian American community owes the Black community. In many ways, they gave us our voice.

Our incarceration during World War II forced Japanese Americans to look even more inward. My parents never talked about losing three years of their childhoods to unjustified imprisonment. It was the source of shame and something to conceal as they went to college, built their careers and raised their children.

In the 1960s, however, the third generation of Japanese Americans, the Sansei, watched their African American friends in college fighting for civil rights. It awakened in the Sansei and their Chinese-, Filipino- and Korean-American colleagues the desire to learn more about their heritage and demand equal treatment. Instead of being quiet members of a model minority, they demanded to be heard.

Satsuki Ina, a Japanese American psychologist whose work has inspired me and countless others, said she was finally motivated to speak out about her family’s treatment during World War II by the activism of her African American fellow students.

Without that inspiration, perhaps Asian Americans would still be seeking the approval of the same racists who confined us without due process, prohibited us from owning land and passed laws that forbade us from immigrating to the United States or becoming citizens.

Anti-Asian racism because of the COVID-19 crisis may hopefully only subject me to a racial slur. But increasingly African American citizens know each day outside their homes may bring a potentially fatal encounter with law enforcement.

We owe our African American neighbors a great debt; they helped us fight for the right to know ourselves. They need us now, and we need to step up and repay them with understanding, friendship and the awareness that we have more in common than we ever realized.

Shirley Ann Higuchi

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. Her book, “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” published by @UwiscPress due out this September.