The Unfulfilled Promise of African-American Redress
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
On August 10, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 became a law, granting a government apology and cash settlements of $20,000 apiece to the 60,000 surviving Japanese-American internees in the World War II American Concentration Camps.
The dream of vindication for those Japanese-Americans who had suffered the blatant loss of liberty and rights during the war had become a glorious reality, signaling the beginnings of a long process of reconciliation and a working through of the past injustices of the American government.
For many Japanese-Americans, the passage of the redress bill provided a catharsis of sorts, and in many ways a political awakening, for through the grassroots campaign, members of the Japanese-American community worked together to address the issues of the past, and in doing so, helped work through the psychological effects of those times.
Yet even further, it accomplished tremendous effects in terms of international precedents. It had set new standards of government accountability, and showed quite clearly that wronged victims of governmental injustices can collectively demand that the government apologize and address those wrongs.
Today, the struggle for racial justice in America continues, as talk within the media has grown appreciably over the subject of African-American redress and reparations. N'COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, an African-American organization founded in 1989 to forward the redress struggle, has recently held its fifth annual convention, and the concept of redress and reparations has continued to gain support not only from prominent national leaders, but also on the grassroots level as evidenced by Chris Tucker's recent article on the subject (2/6/95).
In many ways, however, the African-American community has had a very long haul in attempting to deal with the legacy of the past.
Starting with the 3/5 slave compromise (where African-American slaves were considered as three-fifths of a human being for representation purposes) which was imbedded into the foundations of the U.S. Constitution, the American government has been an accomplice, if not an originator, of major injustices towards the African-American peoples. It took a hundred years and a civil war to finally bring about the release of the four million African-Americans from slavery, where they had suffered some 246 years of injustice, degradation, and loss of liberty.
Finally having been freed from servitude many asked for nothing more than their "forty acres and a mule" in order to pull themselves up by their own hard work and diligence. Even in Reconstruction times, government officials had promised to award land to African-Americans freed from servitude, even though such measures were later vetoed by then President Andrew Jackson.
Yet the question that must be asked is whether conditions have truly changed in the last 130 years since the abolition of slavery for the African-American population and whether African-American redress is still necessary. To understand that situation one need only look at where we are.
In Los Angeles, for instance, 21% of the African-American population remains in poverty compared to 7% of the population of "non-Hispanic whites." At UCLA, college retention rates for African-Americans remain in the low 50th percentile, indicating that almost half of the entering African-American freshman population does not graduate. For whites the rates of retention remain in the high seventies and low eighties.
Similar disparities between African-Americans and whites continue in terms of indicators such as median income or vocational parity, and all of these indicators demonstrate the continued problems facing the African-American community in the types of institutionalized racism of American society. Truly the conditions of slavery continue to exist today, though the basis of economic and racial exploitation has taken a different style of clothing.
African-American redress can provide an honest solution to these problems in addressing the historical roots of the current situations affecting the community. By providing a government acknowledgment of the effects of slavery on the population, the root causes of the current problems can be ferreted out and dealt with.
And with reparations, governmental allocations can be specifically earmarked to aid in the development of the African-American community. With these allocations, whatever form they may take (be they in direct cash payments, the provision of land resources, educational and vocational scholarships, or funding towards small business loans or community projects), greater economic stimulus can be directly funneled into such things as raising the educational, economic, and social standards of the community in ways that will benefit the largest numbers of the population.
Of important note is that the push for redress must not remain the responsibility solely of the African-American community. We as Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans, People of Color, and as human beings, must realize that we must collectively work in support of the African-American community by garnering support for their work and applying any political machinery that we can operate in support of their drive.
When Warren Furutani stated, during the Japanese-American redress hearings, that "the issue of the concentration camps that Japanese Americans were put in cannot be taken out of the context of American history," he made specific reference to the oppression that all people of color have experienced in America not only for Asian-Americans and African-Americans, but also for the Native Americans (with the thousands of treaties broken by the US government) and Latina/os (with the broken treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo).
By looking at governmental oppression of people of color in this fashion "you can see that it is not the exception, it is the rule" in American history. Through the recognition of this commonality, and by aiding in the work of remedying the past injustice of slavery, greater ties and understanding between all people can be fostered for the benefit of everyone in this nation.
In this time of questioning over inter-ethnic and interracial relationships in America, such bridge building work has proven of the utmost necessity.
Being the direct descendent of Japanese-Americans who had been forced into the camps during the second World War, who saw how my great-grandfather was unjustly sent to L.A. County Jail due to the nature of his race and ethnicity, and how my family experienced forced segregation to a concentration camp in Arkansas, I have seen the types of racial injustice this nation has perpetrated on my people, and it is my fervent hope that we will all work together until everyone has escaped from under the thumb of oppression.
Now more than ever we must remember the basic principles of justice, equality, and freedom upon which this nation was founded, and recognize the importance of dealing with the wounds of the past.
Now more than ever we must remember that none of us will ever be free until we all are free.
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