January 30 was officially recognized as “Korematsu Day” in California, Hawaii, Utah, and Illinois. In one of many commemorations across the country, The Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) and the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission (MAPAAC) recognized Fred Korematsu as a national civil rights hero with a Special Tribute signed by the governor and an educational program at Huron High School, Ann Arbor, to share with students details of the World War II Japanese American internment experience and the landmark civil rights case Korematsu v. United States. These remarks were prepared together with my daughter, a high school senior, and presented by her. For more information about this landmark Supreme Court case, check out the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education korematsuinstitute.org.
by Hao Hao and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Some people think that the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II happened a long long time ago, and since the verdict in the Korematsu case was vacated, everything is okay now, and this could never happen again. However, after the events of 9/11, there has been an escalation of hate crimes and racial profiling all around the country targeting Muslims and Arab Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim and Arab Americans (like Sikh Americans). In fact, the first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11 was a Sikh American originally from India named Balbir Singh Sodi. There were also many people at the time proposing that we round up all Muslim and Arab Americans into concentration camps just like World War II. Luckily, many Japanese Americans stood up for the Muslim and Arab American communities and said, “Never again.” So it is important to continue to examine the Korematsu case as we look to the future, our future.
This was part of Fred Korematsu’s motivation for forcing the US Supreme Court to reexamine the case, to “stand up for what is right” and ensure this does not happen to anyone else ever again. It is important for us as young people to also look out for each other and to stand up for our friends and neighbors. We should fight against all forms of ignorance and bigotry because although the target might change—the target in the 1940’s was Japanese Americans, the target in the 1960’s was African Americans, the target in the 1980’s was Asian Americans, today the target is Muslim and Arab as well as Hispanic Americans—tomorrow it might be any one of us, and, frankly, racists are not that good at telling us apart.
Another problem is that what sets them off is always called, “suspicious activity,” which is a code so subjective as to cover almost anything that we do.
After 9/11, for example, every time a group of Indian or Pakistani families got together for a potluck, some neighbor would see all these brown people walking into a house with big pots of chicken curry and call the FBI to report “suspicious activity.” After the Boston bombings this past spring, the same thing happened again. A Saudi student at MSU named Talal Al-Rouqi went to a potluck, bringing his food in a pressure cooker, and someone called the FBI to investigate his kabsa, a dish made with rice and meat, very suspicious.
Another example occurred on September 11, 2011, the ten year anniversary of 9/11, when Frontier Airlines flight 623 from Denver landed in Detroit, escorted in by F-16s. The newspapers all reported that three passengers were detained and questioned for suspicious behavior, then released. “Suspicious behavior” seems an understandable precaution at first glance, but then one of those three, Shoshana Hebshi, a self-described “half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio” and mother of two blogged the details of her interrogation—including handcuffs, jail cell, and strip search—all because she happened to sit in the same row as two South Asian men who didn’t know each other, who didn’t talk to each other, and the men happened to go to the bathroom one after the other. At the end of her ordeal, she says that the FBI agent told her there had been fifty other similar incidents across the country that day, quote, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” She and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit for racial profiling.
Sometimes racist and sexist slurs bubble out far too easily, revealing the distance between us. Last fall, a group of Vietnamese American students who attend the University of Michigan were in Lansing all dressed in maize and blue for the annual UM-MSU game. They were heckled and harassed not only for being U of M fans, which they expected, but also for being Asian. And not just from MSU students, but from other U of M students, too. This past Sunday, after Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, who happens to be Asian American and a woman, announced that they would NOT have a snow day on Monday, the students erupted in ugly racist and sexist and violent name calling on Twitter because race and gender allowed them to think of her as “The Other.” Other students and alums used their hashtag to call them out on it.
We need to get to know each other better so that we can see each other for who we are, not some vague stereotype and even vaguer fear of the unknown. We all remember the Trayvon Martin case, but closer to home, in Dearborn, this past November, a 19-year-old African American woman named Renisha McBride had a car accident during the night and knocked on the door of a nearby house to get help. The Caucasian homeowner responded by opening his front door and shooting her in the face with a shotgun and killing her. He said he thought she was trying to break into his house. The community stood up and said this could have been any one of us.
Fred Korematsu was not much older than we are when he resisted the order to be interned at 23. At the time, he says he just wanted to live his life, but then he also realized that it was important to fight for what is right. Other second-generation Japanese American men age 18 and up, also not much older than us, volunteered for the US military, the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion (the two most decorated military units in US history), in order to prove their loyalty and the loyalty of their families to the United States. Unfortunately, some of the racist fears behind the Japanese American internment during World War II still exist in our society, in our state, in our school, and it is important for all of us to take the time to get to know each other better, to stand up for each other, and to speak out when we see prejudice and injustice. This is for all of us. As Mr. Korematsu said, “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” and “Stand up for what is right.”
For more information about this landmark Supreme Court case, check out the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education korematsuinstitute.org or read the White House statement about Fred Korematsu.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawai‘i. She has worked in philosophy, anthropology, international development, nonprofits, small business start-ups, and ethnic new media. She team-teaches courses on Asian Pacific American Civil Rights and Asian Pacific American Media at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a contributor for NewAmericaMedia.org, ChicagoistheWorld.org, PacificCitizen.org, InCultureParent.com, and HuffPostLive. She has published three chapbooks of prose poetry, has been included in several anthologies and art exhibitions, and she will have a multimedia artwork with Jyoti Omi Chowdhury entitled, “Dreams of the Diaspora,” as part of a Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Indian American Heritage Project online and travelling art exhibition. Check out franceskaihwawang.com.