East Bay Times: Korematsu legacy inspires anti-profiling strategies

Karen Korematsu speaks to a crowd of about 100 about her father, Fred Korematsu and his struggle against the World War II-era racial profiling of Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants. His image is projected in background. The event was held at the Muslim community center the Pacifica Institute in Albany and featured a multicultural gathering of members of Jewish and Muslim groups in the Bay Area. Photo by Paul Kuroda

By Mark Hedin

OAKLAND — In the face of divisive rhetoric about immigrants and with a history lesson as a jumping-off point, diverse communities gathered over a meal to discuss common challenges in the current political climate.

At the Albany site of the Muslim community organization Pacifica Institute, about 100 members of its organization gathered with those of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, Berkeley’s Beth-El and Netivot Shalom temples, Oakland’s Islamic Cultural Center and the Japanese American Citizens League for a potluck meal and a presentation by Karen Korematsu.

Korematsu is the daughter of Fred Korematsu, an Oakland native who resisted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 executive order 9066,which resulted in the government rounding up 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, and dispatching them to desolate internment camps.

Korematsu graduated from Castlemont High School and, with white schoolmates, had tried to enlist in the Coast Guard and National Guard, only to be turned away because of his complexion, his daughter related.

“People are just learning what an executive order can do. We’ve never heard so much about executive orders from a president, at least as long as I’ve been alive,” she said in an interview.

“I know people feel a bit like they don’t have the power to make a difference, but one of the legends of my father’s legacy is that, working together, people have more power than they think.”

Her father’s challenge to the Supreme Court of the executive order’s constitutionality was denied and his conviction for resisting it upheld in 1944. It was overturned decades later when the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California determined the government had presented false information that affected that wartime ruling.

People who had been relocated to the internment camps, in some cases losing their homes and businesses, were eventually paid $1.6 billion in reparations and received an official apology as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan.

Korematsu, who died in 2005, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

The Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling against Korematsu has never been officially overturned, however, and despite its notoriety has re-entered the conversation on how immigrants should be treated in this country.

“Fred Korematsu is a great example for both the Jewish and Muslim communities of how we can fight for equality and social justice,” said Fatih Ferdi Ates, director of  Pacifica Institute/Bay Area.

At Sunday’s Pacifica Institute event, following Karen Korematsu’s presentation and a question-and-answer session, those attending put their heads together to come up with specific steps they might take to maintain civil liberties and prevent injustices such as those threatened by President Donald Trump’s executive orders barring travelers from seven largely Muslim nations earlier this year.

Among the suggestions, Susan Rosenthal of Temple Sinai said, were to “get out of our bubble, figure out ways of having dialogue with people who have a different viewpoint toward respecting minorities, to open the hearts and minds of people who feel differently, concentrate on civil liberties in the current era. Especially if there’s any sort of a terrorist attack, the Trump administration could look to undo a lot of the civil liberties.”

As 501(c)3 organizations, she pointed out, they “can’t do electoral work, can’t go to Modesto to help them unseat their Republican congressperson,” but they can organize on specific issues.

“The focus was on Muslims, but there are certainly other under-represented groups. Another thing we’re thinking of is to have rapid response teams and organizations so if people from other communities are threatened in any way, to be able to respond to that,” she said.

Rosenthal said a high school student attending the session was unaware of the World War II-era Japanese internment camps.

Her own son, a product of Bay Area private schools, was similarly uninformed, she said.

That lack of education, Korematsu said, “is why I get out of bed in the morning.”