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Excerpted from: Eric K. Yamamoto, Racial Reparations: Japanese American Redress and African American Claims, 40 Boston College Law Review 477 (December, 1998) (189 Footnotes) (Full Document)

Eric K YamamotoIn 1991 the United States Office of Redress Administration presented the first $20,000 reparations check to the oldest Hawai‘i survivor of the Japanese American internment camps. I attended the stately ceremony. The mood, while serious, was decidedly upbeat. Tears of relief mixed with sighs of joy. Freed at last.

Amidst the celebration I reflected on the Japanese American redress process and wondered about its impacts over time. The process had been arduous, with twists and turns. Many Japanese Americans contributed, and their communities overwhelmingly considered reparations a great victory, as did I.

Other racial groups lent support, often in the form of political endorsements. Support also came as ringing oratory—for instance, the moving speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by African American Congressperson Ron Dellums. Yet some of the support seemed begrudging. One African American scholar observed,

[t]he apology [to Japanese Americans] was so appropriate and the payment so justified…that the source of my ambivalent reaction was at first difficult to identify. After some introspection, I guiltily discovered that my sentiments were related to a very dark, brooding feeling that I had fought long and hard to conquer—inferiority. A feeling that took first root in the soil of “Why them and not me.”

This confession led me to ask about what political role Japanese Americans might play in future struggles for racial justice in America. That question then led to my essay in 1992 about the social meanings of Japanese American redress. The essay started with the recognition that Japanese American beneficiaries of reparations benefited personally, sometimes profoundly. The trauma of racial incarceration, without charges or trial, and the lingering self-doubt over two generations left scars on the soul. The government's apology and bestowal of symbolic reparations fostered long overdue healing for many. As I observed then, redress was:

cathartic for internees. A measure of dignity was restored. Former internees could finally talk about the internment. Feelings long repressed, surfaced. One woman, now in her sixties, stated that she always felt the internment was wrong, but that, after being told by the military, the President and the Supreme Court that it was a necessity, she had come seriously to doubt herself. Redress and reparations and the recent successful court challenges, she said, had now freed her soul.

But, I wondered, what were the long-term societal effects of reparations—the social legacy of Japanese American redress beyond personal benefits? Would societal attitudes toward Asian Americans and other racial minorities change? Would institutions, especially those that curtailed civil liberties in the name of national security, be restructured? Would Japanese American reparations serve as a catalyst for redress for others?

I identified and critiqued two emerging and seemingly contradictory views of reparations for Japanese Americans and then offered a third. The first view was that redress demonstrates that America does the right thing, that the Constitution works (if belatedly) and that the United States is far along on its march to racial justice for all. I criticized that view as unrealistically bright.

The criticism is not that reparations are insignificant for recipients; the criticism is that they can lead to an “adjustment of individual attitudes” towards the historical injustice of the internment without giving current “consideration to the fundamental realities of power.” The “danger lies in the possibility of enabling people to ‘feel good’ about each other” for the moment, “while leaving undisturbed the attendant social realities” creating the underlying conflict.

The second view was that “reparations legislation has the potential of becoming a civil rights law that at best delivers far less than it promises and that at worst creates illusions of progress, functioning as a hegemonic device to preserve the status quo.” I criticized that view as overly dark.

As part of this critique, and drawing upon critical race theory insights, I offered a third view.

[R]eparations legislation and court rulings in cases such as [the] Korematsu [coram nobis case] do not…inevitably lead to a restructuring of governmental institutions, a changing of societal attitudes or a transformation of social relationships, and the dangers of illusory progress and co-optation are real. At the same time, reparations claims, and the rights discourse they engender in attempts to harness the power of the state, can and should be appreciated as intensely powerful and calculated political acts that challenge racial assumptions underlying past and present social arrangements. They bear potential for contributing to institutional and attitudinal restructuring ....

In light of this third view, I posited that the social meaning of Japanese American redress was yet to be determined. I suggested that the key to the legacy of redress was how Japanese Americans acted when faced with continuing racial subordination of African Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Latinas/os and Asian Americans. Would we draw upon the lessons of the reparations movement and work to end all forms of societal oppression, or would we close up shop because we got ours?

Six years have passed. During that time, the United States, indeed the world, has gone apology crazy. Japanese American redress has stimulated a spate of race apologies. Some apologies appear to reflect heartfelt recognition of historical and current injustice and are backed by reparations. Other apologies appear empty, as strategic maneuvers to release pent-up social pressure.

Amidst this phenomenon African Americans have renewed their call for reparations for the legally sanctioned harms of slavery and Jim Crow oppression. These renewed claims have gained momentum, perhaps more so than at any time since Reconstruction—when Congress and the President sought to confiscate Southern land and provide freed slaves with forty acres and a mule. The Florida legislature recently approved reparations for survivors and descendants of the 1923 Rosewood massacre. The African American victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment received reparations and a presidential apology in 1997. One reparations lawsuit was filed on the West Coast and a reparations class action is contemplated on the East Coast. Representative John Conyers' resolution calling for a Congressional Reparations Study Commission, reintroduced every year since 1989, has garnered endorsements from an impressive array of political organizations.

And in every African American reparations publication, in every legal argument, in almost every discussion, the topic of Japanese American redress surfaces. Sometimes as legal precedent. Sometimes as moral compass. Sometimes as political guide. In similar fashion, Native Hawaiian reparations claims against the United States for the illegal overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian nation in 1893, and against the State of Hawai‘i for mismanagement of Hawaiian trust lands, also cite reparations for Japanese Americans.

In light of recent reparations history and contemporary claims, the diverging views of Japanese American redress and the February 1999 closure of the Office of Redress Administration, the time is ripe to revisit the legacy of Japanese American redress. As part of that inquiry, it is also time to assess what Japanese American redress means to racial reparations movements for others.

In this essay I examine aspects of Japanese American reparations history and the current reparations debates and offer the beginnings of a conceptual framework for inquiring into, critiquing and guiding ongoing reparations efforts in the United States. The framework I offer operates from a specific vantage point: groups seeking reparations. The framework, however, does not address “how to get reparations” so much as “how to think about the reparations process with all its potential and risk.” Its utility lies in helping groups frame concepts, craft language and determine strategy in deciding whether to embark on a reparations journey and what to anticipate along the way.

More specifically, Section II of this essay surveys the terrain of recent race apologies and reparations and asks about the extent of Japanese American support for other groups currently seeking redress for historical injustice.

Section III asks what lessons, bright and dark, might be drawn from the political and legal processes of Japanese American redress. It begins with the assumption that reparations usually have salutary impact upon recipients and that in certain situations reparations can be transformative for groups struggling against oppression. The section then focuses on the underside of that assumption, a darker side often only minimally explored during legislative lobbying, court suits, community demonstrations and media presentations—a darker side often overlooked amid the hot rhetoric justifying reparations.

That underside is comprised of the risks of reparations efforts—the hidden dangers of entrenched victim status, image distortion, mainstream backlash, interminority friction and status quo enhancement. Drawing from experiences of Japanese American redress and the current African American and Native Hawaiian reparations movements, and for the sake of simplicity, I cast this underside, the risks, in three ways. The first is the distorted legal framing of reparations claims; the second, the dilemma of reparations process; and the third, the ideology of reparations.

Section IV assesses pending African American reparations claims in light of these concerns. Finally, in the context of future claims, Section V offers an expanded view of reparations not as compensation, but as “repair”—the restoration of broken relationships through justice.

. . .

Notwithstanding legal and political objections and the dilemma and ideology of reparations, reparations have been offered and accepted in recent years. The socio-psychological benefits of apologies and reparations are often significant for recipients. As previously mentioned, one woman said the Japanese American redress process had “freed her soul.” Other beneficiaries responded with a collective sigh of relief. Ben Takeshita, for instance, expressed the sentiments of many when he said that although monetary payments “could not begin to compensate…for his…lost freedom, property, livelihood, or the stigma of disloyalty,” the reparations demonstrated the sincerity of the government's apology.

In light of both the dangers and the transformative potential of reparations, I offer two insights into specific reparations efforts, insights drawn from Japanese American redress that bear on the shape of African American reparations claims and strategy. One is normative: reparations by government or groups should be aimed at a restructuring of the institutions and relationships that gave rise to the underlying justice grievance. Otherwise, as a philosophical and practical matter, reparations cannot be effective in addressing root problems of misuse of power, particularly in the maintenance of oppressive systemic structures, or integrated symbolically into a group's (or government's) moral foundation for responding to intergroup conflicts or for urging others to restructure oppressive relationships. This means that monetary reparations are important, but not simply as individual compensation. Money is important to facilitate the process of personal and community “repair” discussed below.

A second insight is descriptive: restructuring those institutions and changing societal attitudes will not flow naturally and inevitably from reparations itself. Dominant interests, whether governmental or private, will cast reparations in ways that tend to perpetuate existing power structures and relationships. Indeed, traditionally framed, American interests in racial reparations, including international credibility and domestic peace, tend to reinforce the social status quo.

Those seeking reparations need to draw on the moral force of their claims (and not frame it legally out of existence) while simultaneously radically recasting reparations in a way that both materially benefits those harmed and generally furthers some larger interests of mainstream America. Moreover, those benefiting from reparations in the past need to draw upon the material benefits of reparations and the political insights and commitments derived from their particular reparations process and join with others to push for bureaucratic, legal and attitudinal restructuring—to push for material change. And their efforts must extend beyond their own reparations to securing reparations for others.

These insights point toward a reframing of the prevailing reparations paradigm—a new framing embracing the notion of reparations as “repair.” Indeed, reparation, in singular, means repair. It encompasses both acts of repairing damage to the material conditions of racial group life—distributing money to those in need and transferring land ownership to those dispossessed, building schools, churches, community centers and medical clinics, creating tax incentives and loan programs for businesses owned by inner city residents—and acts of restoring injured human psyches—enabling those harmed to live with, but not in, history. Reparations, as collective actions, foster the mending of tears in the social fabric, the repairing of breaches in the polity.

For example, slavery, Jim Crow apartheid and mainstream resistance to integration inflicted horrendous harms upon African American individuals and their communities, harms now exacerbated by the increasing resegregation of America. Reparations directly improving the material conditions of life for African Americans and their communities are especially appropriate. In addition, the racial harm to African Americans also wounded the American polity. It grated on America's sense of morality (do we really believe in freedom, equality and justice?), destabilized the American psyche (are we really oppressors?), generated personal discomfort and fear in daily interactions (will there be retribution?), and continues to do so. As Harlon Dalton observes, “perpetuating racial hierarchy in a society that professes to be egalitarian is destructive of the spirit as well as of the body politic.” Reparations for African Americans, conceived as repair, can help mend this larger tear in the social fabric for the benefit of both blacks and mainstream America.

So viewed, reparations are potentially transformative. Reparations can avoid “the traps of individualism, neutrality and indeterminacy that plague many mainstream concepts of rights or legal principles.” Reparations are grounded in group, rather than individual, rights and responsibilities and provide tangible benefits to those wronged by those in power. As Mari Matsuda observes, properly cast, reparations target substantive barriers to liberty and equality. In addition, coupled with acknowledgment and apology, reparations are potentially transformative because of what they symbolize for both bestower and beneficiary: reparations “condemn exploitation and adopt a vision of a more just world.”

For these reasons, some argue that reparations—in the sense of repair rather than compensation—are essential to mending racial breaches in the American polity. Manning Marable contends that the post-Civil War Reconstruction eventually failed because the federal government refused to support broad land grant reparations to African Americans. Without large-scale land redistribution (forty acres and a mule), the emancipation, the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights statutes failed to uplift blacks socially and economically. Marable observes that because economic power was held by whites, equality in political and social relations was an illusion.

As Marable implies, without change in the material conditions of racial group life, reparations are fraught with regressive potential. Without attitudinal and social structural transformation of a sort meaningful to recipients, reparations may be illusory, more damaging than healing. No repair. Cheap grace.

Native Hawaiians voice these concerns in their drive for reparations. Hawaiians are seeking reparations from the United States and the State of Hawai‘i in the form of money, homelands and Hawaiian self-governance. Repairing cultural wounds, restoring a land base and altering governance structures are perceived by increasing numbers of Hawaiians as essential to functioning relationships among indigenous Hawaiians, the federal and state governments and their non-Hawaiian citizens. Thus, while monetary compensation may be an appropriate form of reparations in some instances, it is not, alone, deemed sufficiently reparatory by most Hawaiians. For some, monetary payment alone would not bring material change; it would likely generate only illusions of progress and “throwing money at old wounds would do little to heal them.”

Symbolic compensation without accompanying efforts to repair damaged conditions of racial group life is likely to be labeled “insincere.” For instance, despite modest monetary restitution, the Japanese government's refusal to acknowledge responsibility for World War II crimes or take active measures to rehabilitate surviving victims has generated charges of insincerity and foot-dragging. For many, the Japanese government's refusal to express regret undermines the possibility of forgiveness and prospects for healing. By contrast, Germany's efforts to heal the wounds of Jewish Holocaust survivors extend beyond monetary reparations. The German government has also undertaken disclosure of war archives, passed legislation barring race hatred, overhauled Holocaust educational materials and commemorated war victims.

Reparations, as repair, therefore aim for more than a temporary monetary salve for those hurting. Reparations are a vehicle, along with an apology, for groups in conflict to rebuild their relationships through attitudinal changes and institutional restructuring. In terms of changed attitudes, making apologies a part of a group's public history—as the Southern Baptists did through their formal apology to African Americans one means of reparation. Committing to end derogatory stereotyping of racial “others” is another. In terms of dismantling disabling social structures or supporting empowering ones, reparations might mean, as in South Africa, the government's new struggling but active Reconstruction and Development Programme aimed at redistributing land, changing education, health and housing policies and establishing public and private affirmative action programs.

This repair paradigm of reparations redirects attention away from individual rights (recognized by law) and legal remedies (monetary compensation). It focuses instead on (1) historical wrongs committed by one group, (2) which harmed, and continue to harm, both the material living conditions and psychological outlook of another group, (3) which, in turn, has damaged present-day relations between the groups, and (4) which ultimately has damaged the larger community, resulting in divisiveness, distrust, social disease—a breach in the polity. Within this framework, reparations by the polity and for the polity are justified on moral and political grounds—healing social wounds by bringing back into the community those wrongly excluded.

How Japanese Americans respond to African American reparations claims in the new millennium, and whether Japanese Americans participate in the repair of other groups' wounds and the mending of tears in society's fabric, may well determine the legacy of Japanese American redress.

Professor of Law, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.