Emil Guillermo: Happy FK Day! FK Day? For Fred Korematsu, of courseJanuary 29, 2015 7:52 PM
According to the award-winning documentary Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story, Korematsu was on a date with a Caucasian woman at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing. He saw himself as an American and didn't think his country would do anything to him just because of the war.
Wrong. His U.S. government soon regarded him as the enemy because of his race.
Korematsu defied the internment order for a while, and even had plastic surgery to see if that would allow him to look more Caucasian and avoid scrutiny. But his ultimate arrest was accompanied with sensationalistic media coverage. The slur "Jap" was used to describe both Asians and Asian Americans.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the government arguing against the 14th Amendment and justifying the internment of Japanese Americans as a "military necessity." Critics have said the Court seemed unwilling to go against the government and President Roosevelt, which might explain why civil rights stalwarts like William O. Douglas and Hugo Black were part of a 6-3 majority against Korematsu.
To this day, that 1944 decision still stands.
Korematsu lost. Ultimately, he would spend time in an internment camp. But he also found that not only was he shunned by general society and his country at war, he was also shunned by other Japanese Americans in camp who believed he should have shut up and cooperated.
It only took 40 years to be vindicated.
In 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, a legal historian, discovered government memos that were kept from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents revealed an internal struggle within the government on how to present the case. Would it go with the Army's contention that Japanese Americans were a threat to national security? Or would it also present information from the FBI and other military intelligence that contradicted the Army?
The Army's perspective prevailed. But Irons said a statement in one document continued to haunt and fuel the protest. It read: "We are telling lies to the Supreme Court. We have an obligation to tell the truth."
The suppressed information was enough for a group of attorneys, mostly young Japanese Americans, to reopen the case and overturn Korematsu's conviction in 1983 in a federal district court in San Francisco.
But it was far from a total victory.
"We were stuck at the district level," said lead attorney Dale Minami. "But we did undercut the factual and legal basis for what the Supreme Court did."
But is that enough? Minami told me it would be ignorant for anyone to use Korematsu as a precedent today for the wholesale imprisonment of people because of their race.
But then what do you say to all those post-9/11 incarcerations of Muslims at immigration holding cells from New York to Guantanamo? What about the proclivity of the government and law enforcement to use racial profiling?
* * *
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.