Laura Atkins, is a White children’s book author, editor, teacher, and the publisher of Manzanita Books. She co-wrote the second book in the Fighting for Justice series, Biddy Mason Speaks Up, with poet Arisa White, which recently won a Nautilus Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, and a Maine Literary Award. Over her 25 years in the children’s book field, Laura work has included positions at Children’s Book Press and Lee & Low Books. She offers freelance editorial services and also runs a mentoring and workshop program. Laura is quite passionate about diversity and equity in children’s books. She currently lives in Berkeley, California.
In 2014, Laura co-authored Fred Korematsu Speaks Up with Stan Yogi. This first book in the Fighting for Justice series is the winner of several awards including the Carter G. Woodson Award and the Jane Addams Honor Award. I thought Korematsu’s story would be an important addition to this series, so I posed the following question to Laura.
As I’m sitting here, the police officer who murdered George Floyd has just been charged with third degree murder. In a six week period that began in late March this year, STOP AAPI HATE received Over 1700 incident reports of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assaults and AAPI.
What relevance does Fred Korematsu have to any of this?
It’s deeply disturbing to see and be part of what is happening around our nation now. But this is not new or unusual. As friend and colleague Rachel Reinhard from the UC Berkeley History and Social Science Project posted on Facebook, “This morning I am sitting with all of these videos that show how white people employ state violence to uphold the racist systems and structures that are one and the same as the American state. Historians often talk about how contradictions become visible at various points of time. Well, this moment of police violence and sheltering in place is revealing in clear terms how the American state exists to protect white capitalist power. We must sit with that, reflect our complicity in that, and dismantle it.” (I added bold for emphasis).
I couldn’t say it more clearly. First, we need to learn from history. The past is the present, and will be the future unless we reckon with that past. Fred Korematsu stood up against these racist systems and structures when he refused to go to the prison camps where his brothers, his parents, and all the other Japanese Americans across the West Coast were forced to go during WWII. FDR, a president beloved by many, especially on the left, signed Executive Order 9066 that ultimately led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. These were people of all ages and genders. They took orphans from orphanages and elders from senior housing. People were forced to leave their homes, their businesses, their communities – often with just days to pack what they could carry in their two hands, and leave everything else behind. One report estimated the economic losses of Japanese-Americans to be as high as $6.2 billion. This article shows some of the human faces of these losses and impacts on families and communities.
Why did this happen? Because people in the military – and in particular General deWitt who oversaw the West Coast military operation – thought that people of Japanese ancestry would act as spies, disloyal to the United States. As the invaluable Densho Encyclopedia quoted DeWitt from 1943, he said, “There isn’t such a thing as a loyal Japanese and it is just impossible to determine their loyalty by investigation—it just can’t be done.” (The Densho Archives is a great resource for teachers wanting to look more deeply at WWII incarceration, including videos, audio interviews, documents and more).
Fred Korematsu decided to defy the orders to go to a so-called “relocation center” because he was born in the United States, and was a citizen of this country. He knew it was wrong to round up people based on their ancestry or race. And yet, this became the legal reality in our country. He not only defied this order personally by refusing to go, but he also used the legal system, with the support of the ACLU of Northern California, to challenge Japanese American incarceration during WWII through the courts (you can read a fuller story of this legal battle and the ACLU’s role here).
In 1944, six of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that rounding up and imprisoning Japanese Americans was a “military necessity,” or in today’s speak, to protect “national security.” Dissenting justice Murphy wrote that the exclusion of Japanese Americans “falls into the ugly abyss of racism” and resembled “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.” Justice Jackson compared the court’s opinion to “a loaded weapon” lying around for a future president to use. But the majority of the justices supported this decision, and Fred Korematsu lost the case. The major institutions of the United States had decided to incarcerate people based on their ancestry, and this was deemed legal and right.
Fast forward and 40 years later scholars uncovered evidence in the National Archives that the US government had lied to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. Attorneys had claimed that the military held proof that Japanese and Japanese Americans in the US were sending signals to enemy ships. In fact, they had no proof of this. All the evidence they had showed that Japanese Americans were loyal. A legal team came together, made up mostly of Japanese American attorneys working pro-bono – people whose family members had been incarcerated in the prison camps. Based on the evidence showing that the government had lied, Justice Marilyn Patel overturned Fred Korematsu’s conviction. While this represented some legal acknowledgement that the original ruling was wrong, this did not overturn the original Supreme Court ruling. That continued to lie like a loaded gun to be used by another president.
Fred Korematsu then spent the rest of his life as an older man speaking up against
injustice – not just against Japanese Americans or Asian Americans, but also against Muslims after 9/11. He signed onto an amicus brief challenging incarceration of Muslim Americans without due process and continued to speak out. And the Korematsu Institute, run by Fred Korematsu’s daughter Karen, continues to make these connections (while also providing a wealth of materials for teachers wanting to share Fred Korematsu’s story). They hold annual events on January 30th, which is known as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution in several cities and states, linking current events to Fred Korematsu’s story, including mass incarceration in the U.S. today and the treatment of undocumented immigrants. Recently, the families of Fred Korematsu and other Japanese Americans who defied WWII orders signed onto an amicus brief opposing the travel ban ordered by the current president, and supported by the current U.S. Supreme Court. Everything is connected.
This country was built on a framework of white supremacy and racism – including the genocide and forced removal of Native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans brought here to build wealth for White enslavers and the country as a whole, and targeted exclusion of groups seen as “other” such as the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned immigration from China between 1882 until 1943 – the irony being that this was finally lifted because Japanese people became the new “other” or “enemy” so Chinese people were finally allowed to immigrate to the US after 60 years. At the center of all of this are people who have designated themselves as “White” and basically instituted White affirmative action, giving power, wealth and privilege to those seen as White, and denying those same things to people designated as “not White” or “other.”
Fred Korematsu resisted this othering, and refused to go along with the U.S government’s racist incarceration of Japanese Americans. And he paid a price for this – rejected by many during WWII for speaking up when it was unpopular to do so, and later unable to get certain jobs because of his criminal conviction. But that didn’t stop him. As an activist in his later years, he saw connections between discrimination against Japanese Americans and the targeting of other groups. He said, “If you have a feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up!” The Korematsu Institute recently shared this quote on their Facebook page in the context of highlighting an article in which actor John Cho spoke out about discrimination faced by Asian Americans during this current COVID crisis.
We need to speak up and take action now, more than ever, when the COVID virus shows how deep the inequities are in our society. This moment also shows how important it is for people to come together and cross racial, class, religious and political divides. We ALL need to speak up, on behalf of Black people when police and other institutions target them without legal repercussions or justice. On behalf of members of API communities when individuals, and also racist institutions including our current president, attack them both verbally and physically. If we follow in Fred Korematsu’s footsteps and try to create a more inclusive and fair society for everyone, maybe there’s a chance to move in a new direction.
Note – I asked coauthor Stan Yogi to participate in this post, but asked very late, and while he hoped to do so, he ran out of time. Stan and I wrote Fred Korematsu Speaks Up together, and have shared the book with over 8,000 students at over 50 schools. The process of co-creating this story felt like a really meaningful part of telling Fred’s story – a coming together of me, a White woman with a radical activist family history, and Stan, a Japanese American community member, activist and historian. The book he co-wrote with Elaine Elinson, Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California chronicles civil liberties struggles in California history, and was the inspiration for our book. I’m sorry Stan wasn’t able to contribute to this post, but he read my post, and gave a suggestion for a change, which I made. I am deeply grateful for our friendship and work together. Teachers can find a teacher’s guide for the book – in full on the Fighting for Justice series website, and excerpted along with pages from the book in the free digital toolkit provided to teachers and families.
Also, I’m inspired and motivated by this article by Angela Pelster-Wiebe, “White Artists Need to Start Addressing White Supremacy in Their Work: Those Who Benefit From Racism Should Be on the Front Lines Fighting It,” and encourage other White creators – authors, illustrators, publishers and others – to read it.