One day in 1990, two checks signed by President George Bush arrived at my parents’ home in Salt Lake City. In the accompanying letter, Bush wrote that “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
The checks were just one part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which issued a formal apology and paid $20,000 to Japanese Americans who had been forced from their businesses and homes on the West Coast and imprisoned in camps around the country during World War II.
They were punished solely for how they looked and their ethnic origin. The country of their ancestry had just attacked the United States, and racist suspicions drove the unjust and inhumane incarceration of 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans.
For Iyekichi and Chiye Higuchi, my paternal grandparents, that meant selling their 14.25-acre farm in San Jose at a serious loss as they were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. For Yoshio and Fumi Saito, my maternal grandparents, that meant losing their store and home in San Francisco, as they, too, went to Heart Mountain.
None of them lived long enough to hear the government’s apology or get a check.
For many Japanese Americans, it was never about money. A reparation is defined as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” In 1988, the federal government made its first ever public apology for wrongful treatment of a group of its citizens. That apology transformed the lives of those Japanese Americans who survived incarceration as well as subsequent generations.
Now, Congress is considering a new bill that would create a commission to study what reparations might mean to Black Americans for the unjust treatment they and their ancestors have suffered for centuries in this country.
Proposed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, HR 40 calls for a commission to study the historic treatment of Black Americans since their ancestors’ arrival here as slaves in 1619.
Black people have long endured systemic and persisting racism at the bottom of America’s racial caste system. Sadly and regrettably Japanese Americans have helped perpetuate that racial hierarchy by unwittingly embracing their status as the “Model Minority,” a status the put us closer to White people and above Black Americans.
Meanwhile, racist laws like those that kept Japanese immigrants from owning land or becoming naturalized citizens kept Black people disproportionately impoverished and excluded from opportunities. Black Americans have been denied, among many other hardships, the chance to accumulate the same kind of inter-generational wealth that other Americans, even those of Japanese descent, have built since the war.
Systemic racism often leaves no such trace. How do you quantify what you lost or never had? No payment will ever be commensurate to the damage Black Americans have suffered. But surely something is owed.
That’s what a commission, complete with a skilled and bipartisan staff, ought to explore. And that is why many Japanese American organizations support HR 40 and the commission it will create. They know the difference such an examination of the historical record can make.
That happened in 1981 with the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which conducted a series of hearings that allowed Japanese Americans to speak publicly about the anguish and loss they suffered when they were stripped of their rights, livelihoods and property and thrown into camps.
Those proceedings gave Japanese Americans permission to discuss and study what had happened to them in the hysteria after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And those hearings led to a public acknowledgment and formal apology for the injustice done to the Japanese American community. That, more than any $20,000 check, is what really mattered.
African Americans certainly deserve the same kind of inquiry aimed at promoting truth and reconciliation.
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. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released last fall by the University of Wisconsin Press. Find out more at: Setsukossecret.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.