Race, Memory, and Civil Society: Who me? Couldnít be!: Racism, Affirmative Action, and Civil Societythe Japanese ywca case

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3. Who Me? Couldn't Be!3. Who Me? Couldnít Be!

The YWCA of San Francisco, circa 1920, was an ally of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It was one of the places where women, through Christian good works, were permitted entry into the public sphere. For a woman of intelligence, energy, Christian compassion, and the drive to care for more than hearth and home, organizations like the YWCA provided a legitimate reason for leaving the confines of their own parlors. Helping immigrants was a noble gesture in a period of increasing American xenophobia, and while the YWCA could not transcend its times by rejecting segregation, it did reject the tide of anti-immigrant hostility that engulfed much of the nation in the 1920s. The YWCA took the middle road: through helping immigrant women lead lives of Christian decency, the YWCA women chose assimilation over racial hatred.56 In this spirit, the white YWCA sponsored the Japanese YWCA's purchase and construction of the Sutter Street building. Also consistent with the times was the appreciation of the higher forms of Japanese culture. Japonaisism was an international trend, and Japanese arts, architecture, printmaking, and ikebana were thought to represent a refinement and naturalism much admired among sophisticated Europeans and Americans. Julia Morgan and her wealthy patrons, such as the Hearst family, were familiar with Japanese art. Do-gooderism and an appreciation of Japanese culture as somehow less coarse than other immigrant culture may have influenced the purchase and support of the Japanese YWCA, and the donations of Japanese artwork that followed the construction. The result, a decidedly foreign-looking building constructed during a period of antiforeign nationalism, was a kind paradox in an anxious time.

The YWCA was operating within the paternalistic model of charity work of the time. It did not break out of that mold by integrating its existing facilities, or by promoting an independent Japanese-centered organization without ties to the YWCA. Self-determination and cultural nationalism were not concepts that would have occurred to the YWCA women. In short, the YWCA could be seen as both resisting race-based xenophobia and reinforcing it. It resisted xenophobia by admiring Japanese culture and sponsoring development of the Japanese YWCA. It reinforced xenophobia by maintaining segregation and the role of paternalistic, or maternalistic as the case may be, patron.

Nationwide, the YWCA segregated its facilities, despite its stated mission to 'work actively to eliminate discrimination against the Negro in both our Association and the community'.57 Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a Black YWCA worker in the 1920s, described her experience with the Y's segregation as the 'sugar-coated segregation pattern of social work and housing in the North'.58 Unlike the white facilities, the 'Negro' branches did not have a gymnasium, swimming pool, cafeteria, or an adequate staff, and it was thus clearly understood that separate meant inferior:

I found that . . . even as a professional worker, I could not eat in the cafeteria of the Central Association. The young people I supervised could not use the swimming pool or the gymnasium in the Central building . . . I was expected to build a fellowship of women and girls committed to the development of a Christian community, yet there were no tools of the spirit in the relationships between Negro and white youth.59

When Ms. Hedgeman moved to New Jersey in 1938, she encountered a similarly disturbing pattern of 'separate but unequal' segregation at the YWCA. The Central YWCA of Brooklyn enjoyed a large well-equipped building, while the Negro Club was in an unattractive, poorly maintained clubroom-residence operation in a former brownstone, with only four blocks separating the two. The stark disparity reminded her 'of the big houses of Southern white folks and the shacks of Southern Negroes'.60 The national pattern of neo-plantation treatment of Blacks puts the treatment of the Japanese YWCA within a context of unequal partnership and patent inability to transcend the racism of the broader society. This was the YWCA of the 1920s and 1930s. The aspiration of Christian fellowship could not shake loose this legacy, and when the Japanese-American community faced its biggest crisis the YWCA was a timid supporter.

When the internment occurred, and the Japanese YWCA as an organization was destroyed, the white YWCA watched helplessly. The YWCA claims it made efforts to assist Japanese YWCA members with their departure, but overtures for visits and continued assistance were ended, the YWCA says today, because the government did not allow it. No formal protests or other offers of aid were made by the YWCA, and the record shows a long silence in response to the sudden incarceration of Japanese YWCA members, along with the silence of nearly every other civil rights and charitable organization, and most of the American left. The list of those who spoke out against the internment is short, and well remembered by the Japanese-American community. It includes but a few Quakers and local ACLU members.

Within the context of the times, it is not surprising that the women of the San Francisco YWCA, given their ideological and class backgrounds, were unable to condemn the internment publicly or actively assist the departed Japanese Americans. It is anachronistic to expect more. This does not diminish the magnitude of the lost opportunity. The San Francisco YWCA had firsthand knowledge of the assimilationist aspirations of the Japanese YWCA members, of their desire to build a life in the United States, of their investment in a future for their children in the United States, of their diligence and trustworthiness. The YWCA was in a position to offer testimony that the good Christian ladies of the Japanese YWCA were no threat to national security, and it was in a position to offer material and logistical support to the families who were forced overnight to leave behind everything they had - including the Japanese YWCA. This lost opportunity leaves room for one to wish that someone in the San Francisco YWCA showed transcendent courage. No one did, and the Japanese-American community lost the Japanese YWCA for decades.

The current YWCA once again is in a relationship with the Japanese-American community, both as landlord and legal adversary. It has rented the facility to nonprofit Japantown community groups, including Nihonmachi Little Friends preschool, at reasonable rent, for several years. Until the recent dispute, this relationship was one of a friendly landlord. It was not a full partnership, and as later events would reveal, the landlord did not really know the tenant.

The YWCA's recent relationship with the Japanese-American community is marked by an apparent lack of knowledge about the aspirations and attitudes of the community. This lack of knowledge stands in contradiction to the YWCA's modern identity as a multicultural organization, but it is not surprising given the general absence of knowledge of Asian-American culture and history in mainstream American institutions.

The YWCA, both locally and nationally, had gone through the crucible of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The choice faced by service organizations like the YWCA was to stand on the sidelines of social change or to embrace it. The early, quiet resistance to xenophobia that had marked the 1920's YWCA was replaced by aggressive side-taking: we are an anti racist organization.61 The national YWCA, challenged by board members like Dorothy Height, a formidable icon of the African-American women's movement, placed the issue of race upon the national YWCA agenda. After predictable conflict, an integrated YWCA with an explicit priority of promoting racial justice emerged.

While the San Francisco YWCA is run by women of relative privilege, it has, in recent years, committed a substantial portion of its programming to the needs of disadvantaged women and girls. It has integrated its board and executive positions with some women of color. In the meantime, the social context of San Francisco and California has changed. The city, like the state, is increasingly multicultural and is seen as a bellwether of America's demographic and cultural future.

By the time the Japanese YWCA dispute arose, the San Francisco/Marin YWCA had come to think of itself as ready on the issue of race. Unlike many of the charity-oriented women's organizations that remain from earlier times (the Junior League comes to mind) the YWCA had taken on an affirmative feminist, anti racist identity. This self-identity masked failure at deep integration of the perspective of subordinated groups. The racial integration of the board, for example, was not the equivalent of forging bonds with grassroots community organizations of color, nor did it change the predominance of majoritarian/white attitudes and assumptions. Providing services to disadvantaged girls was not the same as promoting community control and self-determination in disadvantaged minority communities, nor did it require taking the perspective of those communities seriously in setting policy. Members of minority and disadvantaged communities did not run the YWCA - they were served by the YWCA. In this sense, the stance of the 1920s was not completely buried.

The YWCA of San Francisco/Marin had not integrated the Japanese-American community into its ranks, and from the start of the Japanese YWCA dispute, it was clear that the positions and perspectives of the Japanese-American community were deeply mysterious to the leadership of the San Francisco YWCA. Many of the YWCA's pronouncements express hurt, shock, and dismay at being seen as the bad guys in the eyes of the Japanese-American community, as though the YWCA's explicit anti-racist agenda entitled it to an assumption of goodwill in any dispute with people of color. This view failed to recognize that many people of color see the YWCA as a white organization, and based on life experience choose not to assume the goodwill of white organizations, regardless of organizational expressions of generous intent.

Similarly, the YWCA grossly miscalculated the strength of sentiment and strategies of resistance the threatened sale of the YWCA would evoke. In failing to consult the community from the start, and in minimizing the seriousness of the claims when negotiations were finally opened, the YWCA found itself in an increasingly defensive posture, marked by significant strategic errors that further enraged the community. For example, in its motion for summary judgment in the Soko Bukai lawsuit, the YWCA attempted to characterize the Soko Bukai as a small group of elites who did not represent the community and were from a well-off group that was seeking a valuable building it did not need. This kind of language is immediately heard by the Asian-American community as part of the model minority myth, a myth regularly used to deny political power to Asian Americans. The YWCA, not having learned the Asian-American perspective, was unable to predict this. Nor did it understand that the Soko Bukai, and the lawyers representing the Soko Bukai, were widely respected in both the Japanese-American community and the broader civil rights community.62 Years of coalition work had earned this respect. The YWCA had not accumulated correspondent credibility, and did not understand that it was operating from a key political disadvantage.

Don Tamaki, Karen Kai, and Bob Rusky, representing the Soko Bukai on a pro bono basis, were longtime members of the San Francisco civil rights movement. They were known both as skilled advocates, and as individuals of deep integrity. Their choice to take on the case was reason enough for many community groups to support the Soko Bukai position, for these lawyers had a reputation: they would not take on a high profile case like this one if it was weak on the merits, for that would do more harm than good for the cause of civil rights. These lawyers had received numerous awards and widespread recognition, including portrayals in documentary films and studies by university students, for their work on the Coram Nobis redress cases. They had established a national network of supporters, who would quickly understand the racial and historical implications of the Japanese YWCA dispute. These advocates also understood how to use the courts, the media, and government entities in a multifaceted advocacy strategy. The case was never just about the legal rules to the civil rights lawyers.

Neither the YWCA lawyers nor the YWCA leadership seemed to understand that they were in a political battle with energized and experienced community activists. Their initial response was simple and legalistic: we have title, therefore we can dispose of the property as we choose.

This perspective was evident in several missteps. By February of 1999, negotiations between the YWCA and the community had broken down, and the case proceeded in the courts. The Japanese-American community was planning a series of 'Day of Remembrance' events to commemorate the internment. Following the Redress Movement, the Day of Remembrance had become a way to mark the anniversary of the internment through ceremonies that were part somber memorial, part invigorating expression of community pride. A vast array of groups - from churches, to historical societies, to Boy Scouts, to theater groups - typically participated. A community-wide memorial service and artistic celebration was planned in Japantown, and Asian Improv, the arts group that organized the event, applied for community arts funding from the city of San Francisco.

The theme of the proposed Day of Remembrance ceremony would be 'unfinished business', picking up the widely discussed notion that Redress checks were not the end of a movement, because the need to struggle for social justice is unending.63 Key unfinished business for Japanese Americans in 1999 included reparations for Japanese Latin Americans, who were interned under U.S. government orders by U.S. ally nations in Latin America,64 and the Japanese YWCA case. While the organizers made no content recommendations to the participating artists, the chosen theme invited political commentary. Numerous artists, performers, and academics (including this author) agreed to participate in the ceremony.

The YWCA was outraged, and sent a letter to the city demanding revocation of city art funds for a partisan performance. The letter alleged misuse of public funds for advocacy: 'We urge you to protect fairness, due process, and community harmony by preventing this clear and unfortunate misuse of public funds. Please help ensure that the Day of Remembrance fully represents the true San Francisco spirit of community, dignity, and justice'.65 The letter further diminished the significance of the event by alleging that the commemoration was 'actually geared around a protest against the YWCA' and was an attempt to garner publicity for the Soko Bukai lawsuit.66

This letter is an example of failing to assess the view of the community and the political reality of the dispute. The community had obtained the arts funding because the organizers were well-known for quality, community-based arts programs. Perhaps more importantly, the Asian-American community was a force in local politics. The politicization of performance was a welcome part of the San Francisco arts scene, and indeed the distinction between art and politics was exactly the line that gifted artists in San Francisco were admired for traversing. Asian Improv was known as an organization that could draw a large crowd at community art events, use funds efficiently, and promote multicultural artistry. To call their work inappropriate advocacy was not only an insult to Japanese Americans, but a miscomprehension of the broader multicultural and highly politicized San Francisco arts scene.

Further, to suggest that the individual artists, performers, poets, and academics who participated were somehow required to take an anti-YWCA position demeaned those individuals, who were known to the community as independent thinkers whose talent was not amenable to spoon-feeding of a party line. Before the Board of Supervisors, activist Karen Kai testified in response to the YWCA letter: 'When I look at a letter like this I'm saddened that an organization that calls itself a civil rights organization seeks to censor a community. They denigrated us, they sought to erase our history, and now they attack our own Day of Remembrance'.67

Asking the Board of Supervisors to shut down an Asian-American event was not savvy politics in a city where Asian-American voters are taken seriously. While the Japanese-American community is relatively small, the Redress issue was owned by a broader pan-Asian coalition. Indeed, the birth of the Asian-American coalition in U.S. history is marked in San Francisco by three struggles: the ethnic studies strike at San Francisco State, the International Hotel anti-eviction movement, and the Redress Movement.68 Most Asian-American activists in the bay area, whether Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean or other Asian, had either participated in all three struggles, or were familiar through study and exposure to a strong tradition that forges Asian-American political identity in San Francisco around those struggles. Not to know this was not to know San Francisco's Asian-American community. Attacking the Day of Remembrance was the equivalent of attacking the Redress Movement, which was the equivalent of attacking Asian Americans. Members of the Board of Supervisors responded to the YWCA's overture with hostility. Supervisor Michael Yaki called it, 'insensitive, ignorant, and completely inappropriate to the mission of the YWCA. All this is, pure and simple, is an attack...insensitivity to the highest degree'. Supervisor Mable Teng echoed Yaki's sentiments, calling the letter 'very troubling and distasteful'.69

The performance went on as scheduled, with city funding, and with broad support from city politicians who made their token appearances at the events. The mayor himself was introduced at a banquet the night before, which honored the Coram Nobis legal team - including the Soko Bukai attorneys. The Day of Remembrance event filled a large theater and opened with school children in kimono who took the stage to sing folksongs. Next, rap, spoken word, and performance artists brought a youthful feel to the performance, and academic/lawyer types made broader social commentary. The ceremony culminated in a solemn candlelighting, with representatives from various youth activist groups lighting one candle for each internment camp, while the name of the camp and a pledge to honor the memory of those interned, was recited. Finally, the flag-carrying Boy Scouts led the crowd of hundreds on a candlelight procession to the Japanese YWCA building.

Meanwhile, the YWCA board was hosting a reception at the building. Stung by the widespread distribution of the YWCA's letter condemning the Day of Remembrance and the political backlash this engendered, the YWCA attempted to repair the damage by wrapping the building in a huge banner that read 'The YWCA honors the Day of Remembrance'. The YWCA also sponsored a by-invitation-only reception at the facility in commemoration of the Day of Remembrance, scheduled to conflict with the community event. This was a puzzling move. First the YWCA had attempted to block Japantown's chosen means of commemorating the internment, then the Y decided to sponsor its own commemoration without including the Japanese-American community. For Japanese Americans, this added insult to injury. 'They're blatantly insensitive', said community organizer Richard Wada. 'What they're knowingly doing . . . is rubbing salt into the open wound of the community'.70 While the YWCA reception continued inside, the candlelight procession headed for the doors of the Japanese YWCA.

Marchers were greeted with the sonorous call of the taiko drum. Lawyer-activist Karen Kai, dressed in traditional taiko street garb, wielded the drumsticks ceremoniously, while four generations of Japanese Americans, from babes in arms to frail elderly, surrounded the Japanese YWCA building. Inside, the Y board sipped their sodas sadly, while outside community leaders gave rousing speeches demanding the return of the building to the community. San Francisco Supervisor Michael Yaki embodied the mood of the protestors when he said, 'This building is a symbol of our community. It is a symbol of a community that we used to have here, before we were sent to camps. . . And we will continue to fight for this building every day, until it is firmly committed and remains in the hands of the Japanese American community of San Francisco'.71

The community was left feeling energized and exultant. The YWCA board was left feeling besieged. The YWCA had only recently begun to use the building for its own executive offices - probably in an effort to add a physical support for the claim that the building belonged to the YWCA. The board now sat in its building, surrounded by hundreds who claimed it was their building, while the drums pounded and television news cameras swarmed.

Contrary to the YWCA's allegation that the Soko Bukai was a non-representative group that did not speak for the Japanese-American community, it was becoming clear that large numbers of Japanese Americans were prepared to join the cause and to rattle cages if necessary. Newspaper editorials favorable to the Soko Bukai position appeared. The San Francisco Examiner, for example, wrote:

It's one thing to hire combative lawyers to win a property law case on technicalities that don't take into account a horrid history of racism and segregation. It's quite another to emerge unwounded from the muddy battlefield of public opinion...The YWCA, after considering the effect of this dispute on future fund-raising, should graciously return the property title to the churches that built it 65 years ago. .72

Television news coverage, while careful to show 'both sides', featured moving footage of the internment and disruption of the Japanese-American community. National newsmagazines, such as Ms., made inquiries about the case.73 The community was waging a public relations campaign framed in terms of moral truths, and the YWCA's lawyers continued to treat the dispute as one over legal title. Perhaps recognizing that they were outgunned on the publicity front, the YWCA became increasingly reticent about its positions, turning inquiries over to lawyers and public relations consultants.

In April of 1999, Soko Bukai succeeded in getting the California State Assembly and Senate to pass unanimously a resolution condemning the Alien Land Laws, and declaring a state policy to enforce trusts created out of the Alien Land Laws. The state was clearly taking the side of the Soko Bukai in the law suit, and admitting state complicity with past racism. The YWCA was unprepared for this legislative action, and responded with an outraged campaign to rescind the resolution, which was passed, in the YWCA's view, without hearing both sides of the story.74

When the rescission campaign proved unsuccessful, the YWCA adopted a different strategy and dismissed the importance of the resolution: 'We are told nobody reads those things anyway', YWCA consultant Darolyn Davis told Ms. Magazine.75 'It's like [declaring] National Dairy Week', added YWCA board vice president Bonnie Hough.76

The community strategy of treating the case as a political fight was an affront to the YWCA. Unlike the YWCA, the Japanese-American community had lobbied and worked at the state legislative level for years and knew how to move a resolution through quickly. Again, this was the legacy of the Redress Movement, completely unknown to the YWCA. The YWCA interpreted the community's success in obtaining a resolution as an example of sneaky, below-the-belt tactics.

For its part, the YWCA has a long list of arguments for its position in the Japanese YWCA case, which fall generally under three categories. First, are the legalistic arguments that the YWCA has clear title and the trust is nonexistent or unenforceable. Included here are what lawyers call 'standing' arguments - that any harm in the loss of the YWCA was done to an organization, the Japanese YWCA, which no longer exists, therefore there is no victim entitled to enforce any trust. The Soko Bukai, in this view, is a pretender to the Japanese YWCA legacy belatedly trying to cash in on a tenuous connection to the original organization. In addition, the YWCA disputes the facts, claiming that the Issei did not provide the bulk of the funds used to purchase the building.

Second, are the 'who me?' arguments. Because the YWCA is an anti racist, good works organization, charges of racism against it are misplaced. Board President Linda Hills stated the allegation 'is especially unfortunate given the YWCA's distinguished record of service and commitment to peace, justice, and dignity for all people'.77 The real racism, the YWCA believes, was historical, grounded in the Alien Land Laws and the internment, which the YWCA did not cause. The various community groups, lawyers, politicians, writers, journalists, and street agitators who have latched onto the Japanese YWCA case have completely failed to see that the true carrier of the social justice legacy here is the San Francisco YWCA - a multiracial organization that is beholden to no one community group. The San Francisco YWCA cites a long track record on racial justice issues, and points out that there would have been no Japanese YWCA building to fight about in the first place if the San Francisco YWCA had not, even in the 1920s, bucked the tide of racial hatred. The YWCA claims that it is being unfairly punished for 'an ugly chapter in U.S. history in which it played the savior, not scoundrel'.78

Third, and related, are utilitarian arguments. The YWCA does important work on behalf of many people, therefore it should keep unfettered title to the building because that will benefit the most people. An implicit and sometimes explicit claim made in conjunction with this is that Japanese Americans are the least needy group and therefore have the weakest claim to the building.

Miscellaneous additional ad hominem arguments challenge Soko Bukai as a male-dominated organization of questionable credibility, and allege that the motives and tactics of the Japanese-American community have been assaultive and dishonest toward a longstanding ally.

The YWCA believes these positions, with genuine passion. Indeed, if there was not a sincere belief in the righteousness of its position, this case would have settled long ago, because the community representatives have offered significant sums of money to buy the building from the YWCA, at close to the original asking price.

Once the charge of racism was on the table, however, settlement negotiations stalled, and the YWCA became more defensive and less conciliatory in its public statements. Why do allegations of racism have this effect, and how are we to judge the racial justice track record of organizations like the YWCA? Anyone who has worked extensively in community groups has seen good coalitions break down around issues of race. This kind of tension is so familiar, that experienced activists like Bernice Johnson Reagon have said, 'If it feels good, it isn't coalition'.79

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