NBC News: The Korematsu Case and What it Means to Us Today

On January 30, 2015, 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. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang delivered these remarks at Troy High School (with Athens and Niles Community High Schools), Grand Valley State University, and Michigan State University to share with students details of the incarceration of Japanese American during World War II and the landmark civil rights case, Korematsu v. United States.

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—by 1,600 percent—all around the country targeting Muslim and Arab Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim and Arab Americans (like Sikh Americans, for whom 2 out of 3 children who wear patak or turbans are bullied in schools).

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—including Fred Korematsu—stood up for the Muslim and Arab American communities and said, “Never again.” So it is important to continue to examine the Korematsu case to see what it means to us today.

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 all 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—in the 1940’s it was Japanese Americans, in the 1960’s it was African Americans, in the 1980’s it was Asian Americans, today it is Muslim and Arab Americans 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 always sets them off is something called, “suspicious activity,” which is a code so subjective as to cover almost anything that we do while yellow and brown.

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, a Saudi student at Michigan State University (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 suspicious dish made with rice and meat.

Sometimes racist and sexist slurs bubble out far too easily, revealing the distance between us. A year and a half ago, a group of Vietnamese American students who attend the University of Michigan (UM) were in East 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. Last year during the polar vortex, 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 because it was only -22 degrees, the students (a bunch of lightweights) erupted in ugly racist and sexist and violent name calling on Twitter because race and gender allowed them to think of her (their Chancellor) 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, Michigan, a year ago 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. At sentencing, the judge said, “I do believe that you felt fear, but an unjustified fear has never been an excuse for taking someone’s life.” Theodore Wafer was sentenced to 17 to 32 years in prison.

Remember, there is no one way for standing up for what is right. Do we have any artists and writers here? After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this month, where 17 people were tragically killed by terrorists, there has been a spike in Islamophobic acts and threats around the world. In France, where there are usually about 200 reported Islamophobic acts and threats in a year, there were over 54 reported in one week—mosques were firebombed, Muslim businesses were vandalized, Muslim women had their hijabs ripped off, a Muslim immigrant was murdered in his own home while his wife and small child watched. In San Francisco, an extremist anti-Muslim hate group purchased 50 inflammatory ads on San Francisco Muni busses equating Islam with Nazism. City leaders and Muni could do nothing to stop the anti-Muslim ads because of freedom of speech issues. Then, this past weekend, young street artists stepped in to challenge the ads by adding triumphant images of comic book superhero Ms. Marvel, also known as Muslim, Pakistani-American shapeshifting teenager Kamala Khan, to the ads on the busses alongside new messages including, “Calling all Bigotry Busters,” “Stamp out Racism,” “Free speech isn't a license to spread hate,” and “Islamophobia hurts us all,” complete with red hearts for punctuation. Love and creativity are much more powerful than hate and fear.

Fred Korematsu was not much older than you 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 or Nisei Japanese American men age 18 and up, also not much older than you, 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 incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II still exist in our society, in our state, in our schools, 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 Fred 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.”

Thank you.

An earlier version of these remarks was published in 2014 in Chicagoistheworld.org.
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 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 NBC News Asian America, AAPI Voices, 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 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 and @fkwang.