1Race, Memory, and Civil Society: Who me? Couldnít be!: Racism, Affirmative Action, and Civil Societythe Japanese YWCA case
Draft - 4/24/01
8Mari J. Matsuda 1999*
IntroductionIntroduction If the YWCA takes seriously its charge to eliminate racism, it has only one morally just and proper choice C to fulfill the intent and purpose of trust by returning the 1830 Sutter Street building to the Japanese-American community. The YWCA must recognize that its status as the paper owner and as trustee of the property is the direct result of the racist and racially discriminatory Alien Land Law which denied the Issei the ability to hold the building in their own right.
Testimony to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by the Japanese-American and African- American Steering Committee of the Western Addition, San Francisco, California, USA.
6 March 1997.
It shall be the policy of the state to eradicate any vestiges of the racism of the California Alien Land Law and to take steps to ensure the enforcement of charitable trusts erected in response to that law.
California State Assembly and State Senate Resolution ACR 32, 31 April 1999.
By dragging our name through the mud of racism, YOU ARE BEING AFFECTED TOO. The government stepping in to pit one non-profit against another, without hearing both sides, sets a dangerous precedent.
YWCA of San Francisco and Marin, 'Dear Fellow Non-Profit Letter', 3 May 1999.
At 1830 Sutter Street, children's laughter floats over the walls of a stucco building that is both modest and lovely. Each week, the children at Nihonmachi Little Friends pick a different culture about which to learn. While much of the school's daily cultural practice is Japanese, the Japanese-American experience is used as a springboard for learning about other cultures. Fourth and fifth generation Japanese-American preschoolers mix easily with children from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, all of them boisterously singing Japanese nursery tunes. This is a new model of multicultural education: in retrieving the language, history, and culture of one group, a point of entry emerges for appreciation of the deeply intercultural character of the American experience.
In 1996, the San Francisco YWCA attempted to sell the building at 1830 Sutter Street, known as the Japanese YWCA. The proposal to sell the building and evict the tenants shocked the Japantown community. The community claimed that the building was purchased with Japanese-American funds in the 1920s, and held in trust by the San Francisco YWCA for the benefit of Japanese Americans. Because of a series of racist laws and policies, Japanese immigrants could not use 'whites only' YWCA facilities, nor could they take legal title to property. Under a practice common at the time, the YWCA agreed to take paper title and hold the building in trust for the Japanese Americans. Over half a century later, the YWCA decided to treat the building as its own and sell it for a significant profit. A pitched political battle ensued in legislative and judicial fora, as well as in the press and on the street. The Japanese-American community harbored smoldering bitterness at having to relive its past disenfranchisement, and the YWCA lamented that its good name was dragged through 'the mud of racism'.1 This small and continuing saga of conflict within civil society, and the state's response to that conflict, is part of a much larger story of the contradictions imposed by a history of racism.
Some observers of civil society argue for the democratizing potential of grassroots organizations that operate outside of the partisan, captive, and bureaucratized structures of government. In this view, civil society serves as a check on state power. This case study suggests that civil society is not an absolute social good. The potential for good exists, but agents of civil society must remain subject to normative claims. From the perspective of the Japanese-American community, the state B as represented by legislative and judicial bodies B has proved more willing to hear charges of racism in this particular instance than has a venerable community organization, represented by the YWCA. The YWCA, for its part, has found the charges of racism deeply insulting, and has reacted with heartfelt denials and a stance of victimization. The YWCA points out that the predominant story of racism against the Japanese Americans is of state racism, including promulgation of the Alien Land Laws, which denied Japanese immigrants the right to own land, and the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. The community is, in the words of the YWCA officials, 'barking up the wrong retribution tree B and now our state and government officials are joining in'.2
The Japanese YWCA conflict evokes a now-familiar form of debate over racism in modern, liberal society. A minority group charges racism, perhaps against a police department, a college admissions office, or an employer. The immediate response is denial: We are not racist. The face of racism - post-World War II, post-apartheid, post-civil rights movement - is not Our Face. It could not be, for racism has become a universally acknowledged wrong.3It is a wrong understood as a deeply aberrational flaw in moral character rather than as a naturalized part of cultural and institutional practices and assumptions: I am not a bad person; therefore I am not a racist. The YWCA is not a bad organization; therefore it is not racist. If there is or was racism, it is located out there, somewhere else, in another time and place, for which the YWCA bears no responsibility.
If this is, as critical race theorists have argued, the predominant understanding of racism under liberal legal ideology, then fighting racism is a difficult task indeed.4 The allegation of racism immediately and predictably generates the denial, and preempts the space for reflection about how, where, and why racism becomes institutionalized. Structural change, affirmative action (referred to in some countries as positive discrimination), and collective responsibility to discover and eradicate racial privilege become taboo topics.
In some cases, it is easier for minority groups to extract responses from governmental actors, who might respond to the perceived threat of ethnic block voters, than it is to engage in dialogue with organizations of civil society that are socially and psychologically bound to a self-definition inconsistent with a charge of racism. There are notable moments in American history in which state intercession in private acts of racism was critical for advancing the cause of racial justice.5
At other times, of course, the state is a primary promoter of racist policies. The iron fist of state repression, fueled by notions of racial superiority, has taken lives and forced people from their homes. These are indelible moments of horror, and no child of the twentieth century dare entrust the state with sole responsibility for pursuing racial justice.
The challenge for friends of the civil society concept is to understand how organizations of civil society are implicated in existing systems of domination, and how those organizations can work effectively against such domination. Civil society without a normative critique is as dangerous as the state without the same. Indeed, examples of civil society's complicity with the state in promoting racial terrorism exist in U.S. history.6 Focusing on the relatively small case of the Japanese YWCA is an attempt to bring anti-subordination perspective to civil society.
At the outset this author disclaims a neutral stance. I am a Sansei7 feminist. My father, an American citizen, was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, in a concentration camp constructed of American racism and barbed wire. In their forced departure from Los Angeles, my father's family lost their modest livelihood, their possessions, and their lives there. I feel a personal connection to the effort to reclaim the legacy of the immigrant women who raised the money to purchase the Japanese YWCA. As a scholar, I seek also a stance of empathy toward the San Francisco YWCA, that group of public-spirited women who now stand so bereft at the charge of racism. There is a path for them that makes them neither the evil racist nor the immaculate innocent, but rather, a responsible institution of American civil society, subject to all the challenges and promise that status implies, particularly with regard to race.
Case StudyCase Study
1. Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?1. Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?
In the spring of 1996, the Japanese-American community in San Francisco discovered that the San Francisco YWCA, facing financial difficulties, planned to sell the Japanese YWCA building for an asking price of 1.65 million dollars. The community, represented by a steering committee with considerable credibility among San Francisco grassroots and civil rights organizations, demanded meetings with the YWCA board, and attempted to purchase the building at a discounted price. Negotiations proved fruitless, and the dispute escalated.
In the course of fighting the YWCA, the community groups unearthed an amazing historical record. The YWCA's own minutes from the time of the purchase of the property in 1921 suggested that the funds for purchase were raised by Japanese immigrant women to build their own YWCA. The property was 'to be bought by the local [YWCA] Association and held in trust for the Japanese YWCA'.8 The vote to purchase the building endorsed a motion to offer 'not more tha[n] $6500 for the property and to hold it in trust for the exclusive use of the Japanese YWCA'.9 The purchase was accompanied by a resolution stating, 'If this property is sold or any income derived from it... the funds shall be applied to Christian work for the Japanese women and girls in San Francisco after consultation with the Japanese YWCA Board or its successors. No decision is to be made about the uses of this property without consultation with the Japanese YWCA Board'.10
Thus, the good white women of the San Francisco YWCA, circa 1921, and their Issei11 counterparts in the Japanese YWCA, anticipated the possibility of a future sale, and sought to assure that the Japanese-American community would remain the beneficiaries of that sale. This agreement was temporarily lost to history because the Japanese YWCA, along with a thriving Japanese-American community in San Francisco, came to an abrupt end with the World War II relocation and internment of Japanese Americans. Once this history was reclaimed, the community was even more adamant that the YWCA's proposed sale of the building was the moral equivalent of theft.
The legal framework of this dispute is simple; the social and historical framework is less so. The YWCA claims it has free and clear title to the Japanese YWCA, and that it can sell the building or do with it as it pleases for the benefit of current YWCA programs. The YWCA asserts that there was never a trust, or, if there was one, it was abandoned. The Soko Bukai, a consortium of Japanese-American churches that represents the legacy of the Isseiwho bought the building, claims that the YWCA's title is subject to a trust, and that the YWCA will violate the trust if it sells the building or evicts the community groups. A current lawsuit may well determine the doctrinal, legal answer to this question, but larger questions of justice remain. Understanding those questions requires history.
2. You Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar!2. You Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar!
An important building block of American capitalism is that we take title seriously. The paper declaring legal ownership, or title, is a prerequisite to economic certainty, growth, and development. Title determines who can sell, lease, and exploit property. Buyers, and others who would deal with property owners, rely on title to make reliable investments. The question of fairness and the role of history, if brought seriously to bear on the question of title, would destroy much of the utility of clear title as a key building block to economic growth. In legal terms, we seek to 'quiet' or 'clear' title and remove 'clouds' on title. Rules and proceedings that clarify title and extinguish challenges to title are favored. Claims that confuse ownership stand in the way of development and are thus disfavored.
In political terms, an incessant cry of agony is shouted out every time a legal action to quiet title succeeds, for all title in this country sits under a darkened cloud of unquiet. Not far from 1830 Sutter Street is a famous bay, and in the bay there is an island called Alcatraz. Every year, Native Americans return for a symbolic reoccupation of Alcatraz, their stubborn effort to say 'your title is not quiet, not unclouded, for us'.12 It is a difficult charge to convey, that all American title is clouded by genocide against Native Americans.13 This is not the self-image Americans choose. It fits poorly with the simple dream of a white picket fence.
Fairness and equality are not norms embodied in the history of property ownership in America. Feminists recall that for most of this country's history, women could not hold property in their own name, reinforcing the male control over wealth that we live with to this day.14 African Americans recall 'being the object of property' under constitutionalized slavery.15 Asian Americans recall Alien Land Laws targeting the Japanese and shaping the pattern of land ownership, agricultural development, and wealth distribution in the western United States.16 Mexican Americans recall lands lost under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.17 Descendants of farmers, of Appalachian hill families, of anachronized small ranchers, of unfortunates caught in the path of railroads, or mines, or highways and city redevelopment, recall losing land to tax sales, adverse possession, eminent domain, and foreclosure B a laundry list of legal devices that, in application, have sometimes wrought great dislocation, misery, and impoverishment to American families who lacked power and influence. Given the regularity of the complaint that land is grabbed, not fairly purchased, it is impossible for the law of property to concede too much to fairness. While the principle of equity does make regular incursions into the law of property, each time this happens it creates destabilizing contradictions even as it legitimizes the system. Small concessions to fairness mask the coercion of legal terms such as eminent domain. The Constitutional principle is known as the Takings Clause18: if the state takes it, it must take it fairly. This invites an unwelcome conversation about fairness.
The story of the Japanese YWCA is thus part of a larger story of clouded title. The particulars of the Japanese YWCA story began more than one hundred years ago, when racial hatred of Asian Americans coalesced with working-class populism in the first great wave of anti-Asian violence and nativism. Chinese laborers, brought in to build the railroads and perform undesirable work during the gold rush, were deeply resented by white workers, who turned their legitimate fears of economic security into American-style racialized nativism.19 The Oriental Exclusion Acts followed, forbidding citizenship to Asians. A little-known pattern of violence helped keep the Chinese economically and politically disenfranchised. Lynchings, forcible evictions, and massacres of Chinese workers were recorded up and down the west coast in the mid-nineteenth century.20
Japanese immigrants followed the Chinese laborers, with the first significant numbers arriving in the 1890s. By the 1920s, Japanese-American communities were well established, though not welcome, on the west coast. Local laws and practices ensured that Japanese were kept in their place: they were kept out of white schools, white neighborhoods, and white recreational facilities. Despite these slights, the Japanese Americans stayed, started families, and built an American life. As skilled agriculturalists, the Japanese immigrants made formerly unused land a major part of America's breadbasket. They brought California into its modern agricultural ascendency. Fear of Japanese economic success quickly resulted in Alien Land Laws, which piggybacked on the Exclusion Acts.21 Rather than prohibiting Japanese from owning land, the Alien Land Laws avoided overt racism by prohibiting non-citizens from owning land. Japanese were, conveniently, not allowed to become naturalized citizens.
This pattern of fear and exclusion of Japanese Americans was thus well-entrenched by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked. California had a good century of experience in hating and fearing the yellow menace by that time, and a full lexicon associated Asians with disease, depravity, and duplicity.22 This set the stage for the forced roundup and incarceration of Japanese Americans, including many native-born U.S. citizens, in 1942. Like the Alien Land Laws, the internment order euphemistically avoided a Constitutionally-flawed and racist reality. The order was directed against 'aliens and non-aliens'. The non aliens referred to were the Nisei,23 American citizens like this author's father.
Keith Aoki argues that it is important to see the internment as the culmination of the Alien Land Laws.24 It was part of the same ideological system, and had the same underlying cause: fear of Japanese-American economic competition. Most significantly, the Alien Land Laws and the internment worked in conjunction to distribute wealth and property away from Japanese Americans to European Americans on the west coast. The internment order required Japanese-American families to dispose of all their worldly goods overnight. Family heirlooms, businesses, books, homes, farms, furniture, and household goods were given away or sold for a pittance.25 A few non-Japanese neighbors agreed to hold family goods, and many did so with generous grace. Others ended up using or destroying what was entrusted to them as the war dragged on and circumstances changed. Some interned families tried to hold on to their land, sending payments from the internment camps to straw buyers. Many such arrangements ended in bitter dispute when straw buyers died or exploited the situation. Other families were fortunate to have adult Nisei children who held title, but because the families were not there to harvest crops or keep businesses going, they lost their property to foreclosure, tax sales, and escheat proceedings (designed to turn abandoned property over to the state). The State of California had an official policy of expediting escheat actions against incarcerated Japanese-American land owners, who were hard pressed to hire lawyers while they were incarcerated.26
The internment and the Alien Land Laws are the key reasons why family wealth built up by the Issei generation through decades of toil before the war disappeared and was never reclaimed.27 After the war, the Nisei started from scratch, with the huge disadvantage of educations disrupted by the internment, and war-fueled anti-Japanese racism and violence making resettlement difficult. Thriving pre-war communities in places like San Francisco were never able to make a complete homecoming.
This is the bigger picture into which the history of the Japanese YWCA fits. As Japanese immigrants streamed into San Francisco in the early 1900s, they were rigorously segregated out of white facilities. The YWCA board recognized that this was a problem B young Japanese-American women needed a place to become Americanized and learn social graces in a setting appropriate for single women. The YWCA thus established 'International Institutes', which offered recreational activities, housing and employment bureaus, and English classes to immigrant women.28
The white YWCA board voted to maintain its policy of segregation.On 6 February 1920, a motion carried that 'no change be made in the former policy of admitting no Chinese, Japanese or colored girls to the Boarding Home'.29 Perhaps to ameliorate this decision, the YWCA agreed with the proposal to buy property on behalf of the Japanese YWCA and to hold it in trust. The Japanese YWCA was organized by Issei women through Japanese Christian churches in San Francisco, and, after a series of overtures, the white YWCA directors carried this motion in February of 1921:
The Japanese people have $2000 pledged and they wish to authorize the Board of the trustees to offer not more tha[n] $6500 for the property and to hold it in trust for exclusive use of the trustees be authorized to investigate the house and lot. With a view to purchase of it for the permanent use of the Japanese branch of the San Francisco YWCA.30 A resolution added in July 1921 confirmed the Japanese YWCA's control over the building:
If this property is sold or any income derived from it other than Japanese YWCA uses, the funds shall be applied to Christian work for Japanese women and girls in San Francisco after consultation with the Japanese YWCA Board or their successors. No decision is to be made about the uses of this property without consultation with the Japanese YWCA Board.31
Several years later, in 1934, the San Francisco YWCA reiterated this understanding in a resolution:
That the building be continued to be used for purposes of the Japanese YWCA and if at some future time any change in the use of the building should be considered, such change would be submitted to the Japanese Board of Directors and its approval be secured before the change should be considered to be in effect.32
A new building had been built for the Japanese YWCA and the property's growing value prompted reiteration of the arrangement. Julia Morgan, famed architect of the Hearst Castle, donated her services to design a unique Japanese-influenced building, suitable for Japanese cultural activities. The Hearst family and others donated Japanese artifacts. Morgan, who herself had once depended on the Y's boarding facilities for single working women, did not usually work without pay; she had built other YWCA buildings for a fee. Her interest in Japanese architecture and her concern for the Japanese YWCA may have prompted this rare donation by a pre-eminent architect of the day.33
For its part, the Japanese YWCA board treated the building as their permanent property, running a host of programs that emphasized domesticity and Japanese culture within a broader perspective of assimilation. Flower arranging classes took place alongside civics classes; hat making was offered, as well as swimming. In its 20-year retrospective in 1932, the Japanese YWCA proclaimed, 'This building of ours belongs not only to us but also to the Japanese community in general. It is our sincere desire to make it even more useful . . . '.@ 34
The Japanese YWCA's own retrospective and minutes refer repeatedly to 'our' building, which 'we purchased'; to its many fund-raising activities to purchase and build; and finally, to the triumph of paying off the note. The loan to complete the purchase and supplement the cash raised by the Japanese YWCA was taken by the San Francisco YWCA, and is the basis of the claim that the Japanese did not pay for the entire purchase. The evidence indicates, however, that the Japanese made the loan payments. The white YWCA's minutes from July 1921 state, 'It is further recommend [sic] that a Note be given by this Board of Directors to the International Institute Treasurer for this [loan] amount... It is recommended that the repayment of this by the Japanese Centre in installments of forty dollars a month be accepted'.35 The Japanese YWCA retrospective confirms this view, reporting 'in January of 1931 we completed the payments for the full amount of the purchase'.36 The Japanese YWCA buzzed with activity in the pre-war years. Kabuki productions, 'American' cooking classes, knitting and embroidery programs continued. This picture of wholesome innocence belied the social and political environment of virulent anti-Japanese sentiment that surrounded the Japanese YWCA.
Anti-Japanese propaganda built relentlessly. Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese war, and the uncertain international calm after World War I heightened an incessant fear of Japan and the Japanese.37Legal action, both litigation and legislation, resulted in the entrenchment of several anti-Japanese positions, including segregation of public education; denial of voting, jury, and citizenship rights; and the Alien Land Laws. As early as 1905, the San Francisco school board had voted to remove Japanese students from white schools so that 'our children should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race'.37 Anti-Japanese legal actions were accompanied by a propaganda machine that referred to Japanese in the vilest terms; vermin, filth, disease, evil, and treachery were the predominant themes, with violence against the Japanese Americans explicitly urged in the media and in street corner invective.38As World War II approached, the feeling of inevitability of a conflict with Japan exacerbated these tensions.
The Japanese YWCA's efforts to offer courses in 'English and American Law', and to promote 'the Americanization movement among the Japanese in the United States and the wave of friendship between Japan and the United States', as declared in its retrospective, takes on the color of poignant desperation in this context.39
It soon became clear that the women of the Japanese YWCA had failed in their efforts to disarm racial hatred through Christian Americanization. Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Japanese Americans became the immediate scapegoat. Homes and shops were vandalized, Japanese Americans were physically attacked, daily editorials argued for incarceration and worse for the Japanese.40 Solid citizens like Earl Warren added to the propaganda machine. It was Warren who made the 'no evidence is evidence' argument, stating that the absence of known fifth column activity among Japanese Americans was all the more reason to believe that Japanese Americans are dangerously treacherous.41
We now know that the government's own intelligence operations revealed no national security threat from the Japanese Americans.42 Government records to this effect were the basis of the Coram Nobis cases setting aside the convictions of the Japanese Americans who chose to be arrested in order to challenge the legality of the internment.43 Historians and Constitutional law experts are largely in agreement that the internment was wrong on the facts and illegal under the law. This has long been clear to Japanese Americans, who knew of their own family's loyalty to the United States. Thousands of Japanese Americans were welcomed as combat soldiers in spite of being declared a threat to national security. No security proceeding was required before my own father enlisted, and his unit B the 100th infantry battalion B suffered the most casualties per person of any American unit in the war. Other Japanese Americans were recruited directly from behind barbed wire to serve in the most sensitive intelligence operations of the war effort. The Nisei veterans of the Military Intelligence Service were responsible for saving countless lives because of their ability to translate Japanese directives, to direct propaganda in the Japanese language to Japanese troops, and to carry out daring espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines in the Pacific theater.44 In addition to the clear contradiction of welcoming the presumably disloyal Japanese Americans in the war effort, the clearest contemporaneous evidence of the absence of military necessity was the fact that the Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not incarcerated. Under Hawaii's plantation economy, the Japanese Americans were not an economic threat to whites. Rather, their labor enriched major agricultural conglomerates. Original plans to incarcerate the Japanese Americans from the highly vulnerable and strategic Hawaiian islands were abandoned in the interest of preserving the economic interests of elites.45 In short, even the most casual observer would see significant evidence that the U.S. government did not believe its own justification for the internment. Nonetheless, the official view persisted: Japanese Americans, unlike German Americans or Italian Americans, posed an inherent security risk.
Lives and livelihoods, neighborhoods and dreams were destroyed based on this presumed military necessity. The Japanese YWCA was lost in this swirl of history. Mrs. Yamoto who taught Tea Ceremony; Mrs. Uyeda, Recording Secretary; Miss Harada of the Dormitory Department; Mrs. Fujita of the Character Building Department B all of these women stuffed a few dresses, pots, and pans into old suitcases, and were herded off to the horse stalls, the deserts, the cold places where they sat out the war and worried over sons and brothers and fathers who more often than not came back from Italy and France wounded, if they came back at all. Most of the women on the Japanese YWCA roll call never returned to Japantown. The once-thriving community was all but destroyed, and most of the former residents were unable to return.
The San Francisco YWCA continued to operate the building, leasing it out for significant periods of time. It tried, according to the present YWCA board, to offer assistance to the Japanese YWCA members as they were interned, but the YWCA claims it was ordered by the United States government to cease contact and assistance.
Flash forward: Japantown is still Japantown, San Francisco. It is no longer a residential community, but it has gradually regained its status as a center of Japanese-American community life. Most Japanese Americans now are in the Sansei/Yonsei46 generations, with most of the youngest members sharing Japanese ancestry with some other part of the rich American racial tapestry. Most Japanese Americans these days are not marrying other Japanese Americans, but they still come to Japantown for a bowl of ramen, three yards of yukata fabric, seed packets for Japanese vegetables, and community activities. The Japanese YWCA building is once again a place to learn Japanese culture alongside American culture.
Japantown is also an activist place. The revitalization of Japanese-American community life in San Francisco is both historicized and politicized by its makers. Japanese language pre schools, churches, ikebana and taiko classes, and community centers carry the influence of the 1960's civil rights and Black Power movements, as well as the Asian-American movement that grew out of the 1960s- and 1970s-style activism. The consciousness of Japanese-American culture in today's Japantown is part of an ethnic pride developed in direct opposition to American racism. Japanese Americans learned to say 'we are proud of who we are, we have a right to be here as who we are', from the Black Power movement. Even for older Japanese Americans, the ikebana classes represent a new, peaceful pride in being Japanese. Those who remember the internment first hand and who lived long enough to see the Redress Movement, can now own their identity in ways that were denied to them in earlier years.
The Redress Movement was a turning point for the Japanese Americans. The movement comprises a group of organizations and individuals who, starting in the 1970s, began strategizing around the idea of receiving an apology and reparations from the United States government for the wartime internment.
They weren't supposed to win. Every consultant and observer of the political scene stated unequivocally at the outset that the Redress Movement represented an impossible dream. The average American was just not ready to accept the idea that an ethnic group was entitled to reparations because of a past act of racism. In ideological terms, there were dozens of reasons why redress was unacceptable, ranging from 'I didn't do it, therefore it is unfair to use my tax dollars to pay them', to 'I was a prisoner of war in the Philippines - why should I care about the Japanese?'47 The inability to distinguish Japanese Americans from Japanese nationals was a recurring problem for the Redress Movement. Wherever the Japanese-American community raised the issue of redress, it faced bitterness from those who remembered Japan's atrocities during World War II.48 When the Smithsonian Institution established an exhibit on the history of the internment and Redress Movement, it received more virulent and obscenity-laced hate mail than ever in the museum's history.49
As part of the Redress process, Congress held hearings across the nation, and the silent, stoic Nisei came forward, one by one, with their stories. They told of loved ones denied medical care, violent responses of military guards when confused elderly wandered too close to the barbed wire, the feeling of facing machine gun towers when the guns are directed toward you, life in the horse stall, the indignity of gang latrines without partitions, the family social structure disrupted by mess hall dining and too many people squeezed into too small rooms. They spoke of the details and images of humiliation, boredom, fear, hopelessness, and most significantly, pain. The Nisei, raised never to show public pain, testified through choked sobs. They described how it felt for a teenager in love with American pop culture to suddenly become the enemy and to leave home, schools, piano lessons, sports teams, dreams of going to college behind; how it felt to sit on the front lines in Italy and France, hearing the dying around you, knowing your parents were locked up at Manzanar; how it felt to watch the Issei suffer as they left crops unharvested and bills unpaid; the look on a father's face when a lifetime's work was lost overnight. We were citizens, they said. We recited the pledge of allegiance in camp, and wanted so much to believe the words. We were lied about. There was no need, no reason. One by one, ordinary citizens took the podium to make these statements. It was the first American accounting for a racist act of the past, the first time the state offered to listen to each and every citizen who wanted to describe their loss in violation of the Constitutional principle of equality. And the most amazing result of the pages and pages of personal testimony was that Congress heard. Over virulent opposition, the Redress Bill passed, granting each survivor of the internment a formal apology and monetary reparation of $20,000. Significantly, a conservative president, known for his promises of less government spending, signed the Redress bill into law.50
Redress success was achieved by the grassroots organizing of the Japanese-American community. Every locality participated, supporting the combined efforts of litigation, lobbying, and publicity. From the start, public education was the goal. The process of standing up for human rights and letting the American people know of the internment was more important than winning in any given state arena. Church groups, students, professional associations, and allies in the civil rights movement were called upon to spread the word. Japanese-American members of Congress, including World War II veterans who carried war wounds proudly, brought their moral authority to bear.51 As I have written elsewhere, the Cold War no doubt played a part.52 As America sought to criticize human rights violations in socialist countries, it was hard pressed to ignore its own recent history of putting citizens behind barbed wire without rights of habeas corpus.53
This story, of Japanese Americans moving Congress and the courts to rectify past wrongs, is an unusual footnote to the civil rights movement. So much of our national failure to redress racial injustice comes from a refusal to look at the historical record and to admit present responsibility for continuing effects of that record. Complaints of racial disadvantage are met with impatience or denial: it's not that bad, get over it.54 Despite the demographic reality of inordinate racial privilege in this county, the popular belief that minorities receive special advantages over beleaguered white males - 'reverse discrimination' - persists.55
The Japanese Americans learned that there is room for a different story. Their private knowledge of racial degradation could become public knowledge, forcing a progressive response from the state. Given this experience, the stonewalling response of the YWCA in the 1830 Sutter Street dispute was both unexpected and infuriating from the perspective of the community.