When Satsuki Ina’s mother received her reparations check from the US government in apology for incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945, the check ended up somewhere in a stack of papers piled high on her desk. Instead, a framed apology letter leaning against the wall caught Ina’s eye.
“What does this mean for you?” Ina asked her mother.
“I feel like I finally got my face back,” her mother replied.
Ina says of her mother, “It was the loss of dignity, the loss of her humanity that had been like a ghost hovering over her and her descendants.”
The apology may not have made a dent in her physical life, but Ina says her mother had reclaimed her honor and had, in a sense, been given back her humanity.
Ina, a renowned activist, psychotherapist, community healer and filmmaker of Japanese descent shared this story during a March 24, 2021 panel, facilitated by ACLU-Washington, called “Japanese Americans and African Americans Advancing the Movement for Reparations and H.R. 40.” Featuring several experienced Japanese American and African American community leaders and activists, the panel’s main goal was to explore the story of reparatory justice for Japanese Americans and African Americans.
“This country’s failure to address past slavery and present-day discrimination is of lethal proportions. We wish to have an America that is truly free and fair. We must be in solidarity together,” said ACLU-WA Executive Director Michelle Storms while introducing the event.
Japanese Americans who were incarcerated received formal, monetary reparations from the U.S. government in 1988, decades after Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes. Now H.R. 40, a bill to study proposals for reparations to African Americans, lies before the U.S. Congress. If the bill passes, it will directly lead to federal reparatory policies.
Why We Need Reparations
Reparations is a process of repair, reckoning, healing and reclaiming — all aspects highlighted by the program’s panelists. At the heart of our current American context of reparations is a radical necessity to mend deep-seated racial injustices perpetrated by white supremacist ideologies which lie at the heart of all our institutions.
Kristee Haggins, associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University (CNU), says, “Reparations is really about repairing that harm, about correcting those historical wrongs and realizing that they still exist in contemporary times when we think about structural and institutional racism.”
While slavery does not exist in the manifestation that it did two hundred years ago, the long-term effects of being disenfranchised and dehumanized continue to affect Black Americans.
“The first thing we knew was being stolen from us was liberty. The reparations movement began the moment we were put on those ships,” said Chicago-based reparations activist Kamm Howard.
Howard continues to assert that reparations are not about the past at all, but about what is happening now. “We are suffering right now as a people because of the crimes of the past. The suffering will be perpetuated until the crimes that were committed were addressed in the form of full reparations.” Howard said.
There has been a long, solid movement for reparations throughout history. From 1989 until 2017, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) brought the “Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act” (CSRPAAA) before Congress every year. H.R. 40 builds upon Conyers determined efforts.
The year before Conyers began championing CSRPAAA, Japanese Americans won a surprising and long-fought victory for redress. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 resulted in a public education fund, restitution for Japanese Americans who had been formerly incarcerated, and an official apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
There are parallels and influences that intertwine the Japanese American redress movement and the movement for reparations for African Americans, both in the past and in the present.
The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration
Susan Hayase was an activist and active member in the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR). She says the effects of incarceration and the resulting treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII succeeded in suppressing her community’s full understanding of what really happened.
“The fact that young people like myself didn’t hear that from our parents was damaging to our sense of selves and our ability to understand the racism that was around us,” said Hayase.
The Japanese American redress movement began to coalesce and gain momentum amidst the fervor of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and a parallel crystalizing Asian American movement. Ron Wakabayashi, a former national director of the Japanese American Citizens League and a redress movement advocate, remembers taking courage and inspiration from the Black Panthers especially.
“We mimicked a lot of those behaviors. We got black leather jackets, and we got berets as well,” remembered Wakabayashi. The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to an important question for Japanese Americans, according to Wakabayashi, “How does that question of identity, of our place in this country relate to us?”
As young activists, Wakabayashi and his peers went to their parents to learn more about what happened in the incarceration camps. At the time there were only two books about the camps, and Wakabayashi assumed “camp” referred to some kind of summer retreat. Many parents did not have anything to say: “We didn’t get answers because they suppressed it.”
Working towards passing a redress policy at the federal level took immense work, first within the Japanese American community. Trust within the community needed to be rebuilt, and intergenerational trauma needed to be faced as well. Hayase says there was very little political infrastructure that united the fractured community.
The Japanese American Citizens League was founded in 1929 but had been manipulated by the U.S. government and lost credibility amongst some Japanese American organizers. “We realized if we were going to unite the Japanese community we had to create a new organization,” said Hayase.
The new organization would become the NCRR, which worked in tandem with a number of different organizations in Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities. NCRR”s main focus was to organize working class people — teachers, gardeners, butchers, janitors — people who may not have been activists but held the memory in their hearts. “We knew we had to build a mass movement. It had to be everybody; it had to be artists, writers, students, old people … everybody had to be involved,” remembered Hayase.
As within any group of people with varying experiences, emotions, and points of view, there would be differences in opinion. There needed to be a central rallying point, and Hayase says that factor was honoring the wishes of parents and grandparents.
“For my generation we took that as a mission. That this is so important to fulfill the desires of our parents and our grandparents was really important to us. So that was part of dealing with the unity,” said Hayase.
Wakabayashi says that the movement towards redress, even before the 1988 bill would pass, had begun the process of healing. He can see it in his nieces and nephews, in his children.
“There is the monetary compensation … that is going to be situational,” he said. “But what you have within control is the movement and the movement is self-healing.”
After years of organizing within the Japanese American community, drafting proposals and plans, and working with rare, but key, allies in congress, Congressman Mike Lowry who represented Seattle, introduced the first redress bill in 1979. After 10 years of deliberation and opposition, and the sizable chance that it would not pass, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law by President Reagan.
Paving the Way for HR 40
The redress bill of 1988 might provide a blueprint and a hope for H.R. 40’s future and for African Americans to receive the institutional healing and rectification that is painfully overdue. But Ina and Hayase both say though the Civil Liberties Act was a win, it was just a “chip” in the “boulder” of white supremacy.
“Racism trauma is a destructive force that fractures the self, family, and communities. So reparations, for me, is a lot about healing. And the healing can take many forms,” said Ina.
Ina sees H.R. 40 as the natural and “most pressing” next step to ensure there is an institutional cleansing of sorts.
“We have to start educating ourselves and the community, and ultimately what I’ve learned from reparations for Japanese Americans is that all of us have to take responsibility for reparations,” Ina said.
There is certainly no dearth of resources and possibilities on how to achieve reparations. Howard points out just how financially well-positioned the United States is as a developed, first world nation.
“There are enough resources in the government coffers to adequately, over a number of years, address the crimes,” he said.
Not only that, but the consciousness of the country is at a place where real change can happen. 2020 saw the largest movement in US history, a second civil rights movement which continues today.
Panelist Nkechi Taifa, who is CEO of the Taifa group and a commissioner at the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), says reparations is, “an issue whose time has come.”
“One thing I want people to keep in mind is the harm is multifaceted, thus the remedy must be multifaceted as well,” she said. In other words, reparations can and should be addressed at all layers of society, in monetary and nonmonetary ways.
These are just some of the forms reparations could take according to Taifa and the NAARC: a formal apology; the right of repatriation; creation of an African knowledge base; right to land for social and economic development; resources for health, wellness, and healing for Black families and communities; education; affordable housing and programs for generating wealth, preserving Black sacred sites and monuments; repairing the damage of the criminal injustice system.
Haggins, the professor of psychology from CNU, has a useful analogy to understand how all these different forms of reparations work together to generate community-wide generational healing. She asked us to picture someone who has been stabbed multiple times and has a severe, debilitating injury. The logical response would be to take the injured person to the hospital where they can receive all the treatments they need to get better.
Many specialists would be at hand. Surgeons to operate on torn ligaments, nurses to help with bedside needs. A pharmacist would provide medication. A psychologist would be available to address the psychological trauma from the incident. She uses this analogy to hone the point that reparations is a means of providing multilevel care to ensure that Black people can heal holistically from the historical legacies of enslavement.
Finally, Haggins says that institutional and policy change need to happen alongside the intimate channels of community healing. There need to be safe spaces to process, unravel the narratives and impact of racial trauma, and reclaim a full humanity.
The question Haggins offers is this: “How do we create this healthy Black family to begin to reconnect with the truth of who we are?”
This is just a summary of the conversations that took place during two moderated panels hosted by ACLU-WA. Watch the full video here.