Today, California celebrates Korematsu Day, in honor of Japanese American patriot Fred Korematsu. During World War II, Korematsu defied an Executive Order requiring the mass incarceration of over 100,000 innocent Japanese Americans on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Korematsu was convicted for this act of civil disobedience, but later in life worked to overturn it. He also spoke publicly about his experience and that of his fellow Japanese American internees, in an effort to prevent us from ever returning to such dark times in our nation’s history. He famously lived by the simple but powerful conviction, “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.”
Now, as our nation grapples with a new set of Executive Orders targeting people based on their national origin, ethnicity and religion, we must preserve Korematsu’s legacy by speaking up against injustice.
Like the political climate during World War II, where there was rampant xenophobia against Japanese Americans arising from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we are now in an era of rising Islamophobia harkening back to the 9/11 terror attacks. Since that time, we have seen a steady rise in hate violence against Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian (AMEMSSA) American communities. This past year, prompted by the hateful anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric, hate incidents against AMEMSSA communities spiked, reaching the highest point since 9/11. At the same time, we have experienced the unfettered growth of the “national security state,” with official and unofficial government policies that target and profile AMEMSSA communities based on the xenophobic premise that they are inherently dangerous to our national security. For example, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the President’s national security advisor, has called “Islamism” “a cancer” that has to be “excised.”
Playing on xenophobia and latent national security fears, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Friday, January 27, that bans entry to the U.S. for 90 days of nationals from seven majority Muslim nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The Administration has not ruled out adding more countries to this list. It also suspends the US refugee program for at least 120 days. The Executive Order goes well beyond any rational basis for protecting our national security. None of the banned countries have anything to do with the 9/11 terror attacks, and the other provisions of the Order do not address any new or imminent threat to our security. Rather, the Executive Order is effectively the first step in Trump’s campaign pledge to institute a “a total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States,” which is blatantly unconstitutional, particularly with respect to our core national commitment to religious freedom.
Korematsu died in 2005, several years after the 9/11 terror attacks. During the last years of his life, he witnessed our country regressing back to that dark period where we allowed fear to irrationally target fellow Americans whose only “offense” was to resemble the 9/11 hijackers. Korematsu spoke out quickly and strongly against such government policies as the NSEERS program, which targeted immigrant men from 25 Muslim majority countries, subjecting them to registration requirements and leading to 13,000 deportations for technical visa violations. As with the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, the NSEERS program disrupted the lives of innocent people, forcing them to abandon educational and career opportunities, shut down their businesses, and in some cases to separate from their families. The program never resulted in any prosecutions for terrorism. After vocal advocacy by advocates, the Obama Administration acknowledged that the NSEERS program was an ineffective national security tool, and finally dismantled the NSEERS program early this year.
As we enter this new political climate where we are regressing back to that dark time Korematsu feared in the days after 9/11, Korematsu’s legacy serves both as a chilling cautionary tale, as well as a beacon of hope that we can and must speak up and defend our core Constitutional values. Now at this crossroads, we must decide whether we will follow the path Korematsu took, by not only defying an unjust Executive Order, but also speaking out early and often “when we feel something is wrong.” At Advancing Justice, we are committed to following Korematsu’s charge and standing on the side of justice. We hope you will be with us.
To learn more about Fred Korematsu, click here: AdvancingJustice-LA.org/Korematsu. His story is featured as part of our "Untold Civil Rights Stories" of the Asian American community, which includes background and school lesson plans that are available here: AdvancingJustice-LA.org/UntoldStories.