As part of a nationwide commemoration of Fred Korematsu Day on January 30, the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and Muslim Law Students Association co-sponsored a celebratory dinner and panel to honor the Japanese-American civil rights icon. Korematsu made history in bringing a lawsuit against the United States government for its internment of individuals of Japanese descent during World War II (WWII). Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him in Korematsu v. United States, the case was reopened in the 1980s because of evidence of government misconduct in the original trial. In 1983, a federal court for the Northern District of California overturned Korematsu's conviction.
The event began with the viewing of "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights," a documentary tracing Korematsu's story, followed by comments from a panel that included activists, a journalist, and a former internment detainee. Being just a few days after President Donald Trump issued a controversial executive order on immigration, the panel's discussion centered on the immigration ban and its parallels to Japanese internment during WWII.
The documentary followed Korematsu's life from the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor—the day that changed the lives of Korematsu and other Japanese-Americans forever. In the wake of the attack, government officials concluded that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast posed a threat and needed to be detained and monitored. Korematsu was arrested and jailed for refusing to comply with an order to relocate. Eventually, he was sent to an internment camp in Utah, where detainees lived in horse stalls under severe weather conditions. Korematsu eventually obtained representation to bring a test case on behalf of all interned Japanese-Americans. The Supreme Court ruled against Korematsu, however, accepting the government's arguments that internment was an exigency of the war and that it was justified because Japanese-Americans were part of an enemy race. Its decision stands to this day, though it is considered anti-canon and Korematsu eventually had his own conviction overturned.
Following the documentary, panelists discussed the modern overtones of Korematsu's story. "It would be hard to ignore the events of the past few days," said Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, in reference to the Trump administration's actions. "We urge everyone to act with restraint, and not in ways that foster fear and division."
Panelists agreed that the Trump administration's executive order on immigration causes concern at individual and systemic levels, and draws parallels to Korematsu's story. Ron Aramaki, an adjunct professor of American culture at U-M, suggested that in both cases, governments created division and destroyed individuals' sense of identity. "[W]hen someone comes along and says you don't belong, your entire story is basically shattered." Asha Noor, advocacy and civic engagement specialist for the National Network for Arab American Communities, said recent events recall the days immediately following 9/11, when the Bush administration ordered non-U.S. citizens to register through the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). The ACLU and other advocacy groups eventually exposed the program for targeting and discriminating against those originating from predominantly Muslim countries. Noor added that although this policy should not come as a surprise based on Trump's campaign rhetoric, many did not foresee that the administration would act so quickly. "This has set a dangerous precedent," Noor stated. She explained that the Trump administration's actions perpetuate a "cultural violence" already fostered by the media's and the federal government's negative portrayals of Muslims and people of color, analogous to the negative portrayals of the Japanese that to internment.
Another panelist, Mary Kamidoi, has firsthand knowledge of what Noor described. She was 11 years old when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. "My parents didn't want to believe it," Kamidoi said. The family was sent to an internment camp in Arkansas, with conditions mirroring what Korematsu experienced in Utah. Kamidoi then described the bullying she and her siblings faced after the war ended and they resettled in Missouri, and she told the audience that she had refused to stand by while she or her friends were treated wrongly. "I didn't want to go home and stew about something I could have done something about. Speak up, or [the bullying] will just continue."
Panelists encouraged the students to follow Kamidoi's example in their immediate circles and beyond. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a journalist for NBC Asian America, advised the audience to think about what privilege they may have and to use that to help. She also encouraged getting involved with advocacy groups and noted nonprofits that people should consider supporting. Roland Hwang, former chair to the State Advisory Commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, agreed. "It's very important to support coalition building. We count on it to get the work done."
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