Japanese Americans Join The Struggle for Black Reparations

·3 min read
Photo:  Bob Korn (Shutterstock)
Photo: Bob Korn (Shutterstock)

If you got burnout from circulating the same book list on how to be an antiracist to your white colleagues and friends, here’s a story that might just restore your hope in the definition and practice of true allyship. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the remarkably written “The Case for Reparations” by Ta Nehisi Coates, it would appear that we are closer now than we have been in generations prior to making real headway in the redress of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. While Black Americans aren’t the only minority group to have fought for reparations, we would be one of very few to actually receive them. Which is why as of late, we’ve been taking our cue from Japanese Americans, who having come out as victors in their own fight, are joining us in the struggle.

In 1989, the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced H.R. 40, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. In April of 2021, the House Judiciary held a historic markup of the act, and in August of the same year, a virtual town meeting was held between leaders of the Black reparations movement, and Japanese American activists to further drive the conversation forward with their allyship.

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“Just as Black Americans supported our community’s struggle for redress, we will strive to support and show solidarity with Black people as they fight for reparations today,” 29 year old doctoral candidate and organizer Michael Nishimura shared with NBC News reporters.

While Nishimura might be too young to recall the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings that took place some forty years ago, he is aware of the impact made.

82 year old John Tateishi on the other hand remembers it all too well. At the age of 3, Tateishi was sent to Manzanar, an American internment camp in California. He later became the director of the Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest Asian American civil rights group. While their own movement for reparations began in the 60’s, it wouldn’t be until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan would sign the Civil Liberties act, an act that awarded $20,000 checks to over 80,000 survivors. Tateishi received his check by mail in 1990, and within a year began receiving requests to speak at meetings around Black reparations.

He and other activists and organizations like the JACL began forming alliances with Black reparations movement leaders, partnerships that still exist to this day. Last fall, Japanese American organizations Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and Nikkei Progressives formed a joint committee to study reparations for Black people in the U.S.

Veteran Japanese American organizer Kathy Masaoka testified last February during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on H.R. 40. “one, it is the right thing to do; two, it is long overdue; and three, because we know it is possible.” she stated.

Dreisen Heath leads the U.S. reparations work for Human Rights Watch and has become the central link between several of the organizations involved. The coalition urging support for H.R. 40 is made up of over 450 organizations committed to the movement. The groups have written letters, organized zoom calls, town halls, and have most recently called for a 12 hour day of action that included three live email and phone-banking sessions.

While President Joe Biden has not made explicit statements that he considers reparations for Black Americans a legislative priority, organizers remain hopeful.