I was in the nation’s capital last week and got to visit the historic and immense Capitol Rotunda, where Sen. Daniel Inouye once lay in state, one of only 35 others in our nation’s history to be so honored after his death.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the grandeur and gravitas symbolized by places like this, as well as the magnificent monuments of Lincoln, Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., I suddenly felt the weight of the values upon which our country was founded. Standing at the nation’s epicenter of American democracy, I thought of the people before us who formed our more perfect union and was reminded how important it was for each and every one of us to uphold the principles of freedom and equality and to speak out against hatred and discrimination whenever we could.
Since I’ve been working on a project on Heart Mountain and reading accounts of what went on in Wyoming during a time when fear and national hysteria helped fuel public sentiment, I thought back to a time when hatred against Japanese Americans was commonplace and violence against them well documented. Sadly, such racist hate is being perpetrated once again, this time against Muslims and Arab Americans.
Not so coincidentally, I happened to be in D.C. for a program related to Day of Remembrance, this one a panel discussion on the subject of racial profiling sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), an organization dedicated to building a politically active Asian Pacific American community and ably guided by its president and CEO, Floyd Mori.
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (one of APAIC’s founders) and Congressman Mike Honda were among the panelists who began the conversation by talking about how JAs were treated during WWII. Joining them were two leaders of the South Asian community who had much to say about how people continue being targeted by racist hate even after the nation issued an official apology and monetary compensation to camp survivors more than 35 years ago.
Suman Raghunathan, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), offered an intelligently researched account of how South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Middle Eastern and Arab communities are today’s Asian Americans being targeted. (To be honest, I wasn’t altogether sure what constituted South Asian, so I looked it up and found that it included people from the southern region of the Asian continent, primarily India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, but also including Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan, and even Iran.)
Like Japanese Americans 75 years ago, though not put in camps, they are still being scrutinized and under suspicion, and sometimes even deprived of their constitutional rights of freedom of religion, speech and association.
Collecting data over the past four years, her organization cites many horrible examples, including growing incidents of political figures targeting Muslim Americans in their rhetoric, which is being transmitted by the media and results in hate violence directed not only against Muslims, but against the entire South Asian community.
One day after this panel convened, the news of the Chapel Hill slaying of three Muslims brought all their research tragically to bear. Could this horrendous execution-style murder possibly be the result of hate directed at Muslims? Sadly, the cry of “Muslim Lives Matter” rang out as another slogan for our times.
Drawing further parallels between the Japanese American story and the post-9/11 one was Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). Donning the traditional Sikh dastaar (or turban) that focused attention on people of his religion after 9/11, Singh spoke about the need for educating communities to foster healing.
It was wonderful to see this panel bookended by two elder statesmen in Japanese American history who clearly had a lot to say about racial profiling, both from the standpoint of having been victims as well as legislators. Secretary Mineta spoke about his crucial role in the Bush Administration moments after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and remembered the conversation following the panic that struck the White House.
It was clear to him that what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor served as a lesson for decision-makers at the time. He ended with a plea for vigilance, especially in light of the ever-present threat to people who might appear “different” to some.
Perhaps the most personal statement came from Congressman Honda, who spoke about the need for all of us to try to make a difference. If not overly simplistic, it’s an idea that is vitally important in a democracy that can sometimes go awry, as it did during WWII. Honda insisted that change needed to come from within, and it was possible to turn the tide on racial profiling by all of us speaking out to end the violence and hatred.
In a candid moment, Honda even spoke of his own homophobia that he overcame in order to help guard against it in others. In speaking out, he demonstrated how we all have the power to do the same.
It’s too bad that discussions such as these are limited to small auditoriums, but if we are really going to alter how people think and act towards one another, we must continue dialoguing on subjects as important as these. Hopefully, we can all use our individual voices to turn the tide against hate and violence. We just have to remember that it starts by speaking out.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.