In San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, the Fred T. Korematsu Institute presented its annual program for Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution Jan. 30 with this year’s program entitled “Re(ad)dressing Racial Injustice: From Japanese American Incarceration to Anti-Muslim Bigotry.” Featuring two panels of speakers, as well as presentations by children, the evening addressed the parallels Muslims and people of Arabic descent face today with that of wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Korematsu defied military orders that incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II, leading to his arrest and trial. His case, appealed to the Supreme Court, was upheld in 1944 but a 1983 writ of coram nobis had the decision vacated. Today, the late Korematsu, who passed away in 2005, is remembered through Korematsu Day, which has been recognized in California since 2011 and has since been recognized in five other U.S. states.
The evening, emceed by KTVU Fox 2 reporter John Sasaki, featured two panels discussing the current relevance of Korematsu’s Supreme Court case.
John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor, led a discussion on the similarities of wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans to the increased Islamophobic rhetoric used by various political leaders. The panel featured Grande H. Lum, director of the community relations service for the U.S. Department of Justice; Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates; and Lorraine Bannai, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at the Seattle University School of Law.
Diaz said those who are aware of Korematsu know the “grave injustice” Japanese Americans faced in World War II, but he was not sure if that history lesson had been fully absorbed by all Americans, citing recent comments by politicians invoking the wartime incarceration. “How could it be that we have not learned the lessons of internment,” Diaz asked.
Bannai said some lessons must be constantly learned and relearned. Bannai, who was part of Korematsu’s legal team in 1983, said ignorance and fear victimizes and targets communities of color. “During World War II, Japanese Americans were treated as foreign, as spies, as potential saboteurs, and we see that today,” she said. She stressed the importance of speaking up, citing few people came to the Japanese American community’s defense during World War II.
Lum discussed the Department of Justice’s role in preventing and responding to hate crimes. During the month of December, Lum said 38 hate crimes against Muslims were reported, 18 of them were shortly after the Dec. 3 shootings in San Bernardino.
Khera said the fear and anxiety felt by Muslim Americans are high as ever. “It is a level of fear and anxiety … that I have not seen before. It’s worse than even after 9/11,” she said.
She added that more needs to be done to address the hate directed at Muslims and encouraged people to call out hate when they see it, whether it is in public or on social media.
The second panel, moderated by California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, featured nine high school students from Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, Calif., and Castlemont High School and Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif., who discussed what Korematsu’s life and activism means to them.
The students spoke about how Korematsu’s stand for justice inspires them to live by his example through advocacy and fighting to live their lives free of prejudice. “Freedom has many difficulties. And democracy is not perfect,” Cuéllar said, quoting John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech in Berlin. “Every word you have heard up on this stage today is a testament to that reality. How apt those words were for Fred Korematsu.”
Cuéllar, said Korematsu is often remembered for his Supreme Court case, but he said the civil rights icon should also be remembered for what he wanted in life, “to be treated like the American that he was.”
Along with the panels, the program for the evening featured a spoken word presentation entitled “Social Justice” by Young, Gifted and Black, a performing organization for Black youth, and speeches by two middle school speech contest winners from the Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito, Calif. Eight grader Madeeha Khan recited her speech on Korematsu and her thoughts on equality: “Equivalent doesn’t imply we are all the same. Each of us is distinctive in our own particular exceptional way, yet we additionally have normal qualities that make every one of us equal,” she said. “So each of us ought to be approached with open hearts, and respect and treat others similarly.”
Seventh grader Vivien Wallis recited her speech on prejudice. “It is, perhaps, the most sinister product of human culture. The thoughtless grouping of individuals according to external characteristics, the notion that we should treat people based on how they looked or where they were born,” she said. “It is this terrible habit of which we are all are guilty that finds its purest form in this very specific act: racial profiling.” She said the urgency to fight against racial profiling was great as ever, but added Korematsu has shown her it is possible to win that fight.
Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, said the issues her father faced 70 years ago are still being faced today. “And it’s sad for me to say that actually Korematsu vs. United States … is more relevant now than even it was then,” she said. Korematsu said she, like her father, believe in educating the public about her father’s experience so as not to repeat the mistakes made during World War II, a mission that faces resistance.
“Certainly one of the problems we as a nation face is a really fierce anti-intellectualism, this fear of knowledge … in this case, the fear of, or opposition to knowing history,” Sasaki said. “Learn as much as you can about everything possible because knowledge is, indeed, power.”