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What being ‘anti-racist’ looks like for FDR’s descendants

Fred Korematsu and his family in a portrait.
The National Portrait Gallery
/
Smithsonian Institute
Fred T. Korematsu (center, left) with his parents and brothers at the Stonehurst Flower Nursery that the family owned and operated in East Oakland.

Amid ongoing discussions about racial justice, the Roosevelt Institute is reflecting on the repercussions of FDR’s policy that sent Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Imagine changing your appearance to avoid being forcibly brought to a concentration camp. That’s what 23-year-old Oakland native Fred T. Korematsu did in an effort to evade President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 during World War II.

His defiance of the order eventually led to one of the most significant Supreme Court cases of the 20th century — a precedent that has been widely denounced for its justification of racial discrimination.

This year, the Roosevelt family honored Korematsu with a posthumous award for his work as a civil rights activist. But the recognition was also an apology “to publicly acknowledge the harm FDR’s policy decisions caused the Japanese American community, and by extension, all Americans.”

Roosevelt’s order forced more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants in the West to relocate. This led to psychological trauma and a loss of generational wealth that has had consequences that persist today.

"The Japanese Americans received reparations by the Civil Liberties Act being signed by President Reagan in 1988," said Korematsu's daughter Karen, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute. "But really, what they wanted was the apology. You know, they not only lost their homes and their possessions, but their dignity — and that's what this is about."

Anne Roosevelt, granddaughter of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, said it’s important not to shy away from the past.

It is a terribly complicated and shameful chapter in our history,” said Anne, chair of the Roosevelt Institute. “We feel we're acting as they [Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt] would want us to to correct mistakes that they made. FDR’s executive order was political. That said, it had a deeply human damage, it created so much hurt and damage to citizens of the United States who were innocent and were terribly wronged.”

The apology comes amid ongoing discussions about racial justice across the country after the murder of George Floyd, the Atlanta shootings that killed six women of Asian descent, and so many other incidents. Now, many in the U.S. are discussing how to address a history of racism and support communities of color in healing.

There’s ongoing debate about the effectiveness of apologies in healing racial harm; many racial justice advocates say words without actions are not enough.

A number of companies have faced public skepticism after they released official apologies amid the 2020 summer protests against police brutality. Meanwhile, other public figures have been applauded for their efforts like the mayor of Antioch, Calif., who apologized for the burning of that town's Chinatown 145 years ago and promised to direct funds towards marking where that Chinatown once stood.

We can't just say, ‘Oh, stop it, that we've heard it. You know, it's the past. Well let’s move on.’ We can't do that,” Roosevelt said. “We actually need to remember and we remember through articulating the story.”

She sees the value of the apology for two reasons. First, Roosevelt said Korematsu’s daughter Karen found the acknowledgment meaningful. Anne and Karen had a live-streamed one-on-one conversation during the awards ceremony.

The other reason: Roosevelt said it’s an important practice of deference.

It’s giving us an experience of humility, of knowing what it is to say: that was wrong and we want to do right.
Anne Roosevelt

“It’s giving us an experience of humility, of knowing what it is to say: that was wrong and we want to do right,” she said. “It's that experience of being humbled and acknowledging a past mistake that hopefully will make us a stronger voice and certainly stronger actors in the future.

For Fred Korematsu, his family, and Americans of Japanese descent, the path to official acknowledgement of their wrongful imprisonment has been long and winding. Though the Korematsu decision and idea of internment have been denounced culturally, there has never been a court case that officially overturned the decision. However, Korematsu’s individual conviction for violating the relocation order was vacated in 1984 and members of the Supreme Court described his case as “gravely wrong” in a 2018 opinion in a separate case.

The thing that is bred in our bones, it is so deep in our history that we are complicit without sometimes even being aware of it,” Roosevelt said. “So we must become aware of it and we've taken that to heart. We are not always successful I am sure, but we're trying to.”

Roosevelt said the institute doesn’t have specific initiatives directed towards Asian American communities, but that much of the institute’s policy work benefits communities of color. The institute’s think tank has released reports on a range of topics from student debt cancellation to workplace safety.

When asked about the institute’s future plans, Roosevelt cited Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Anti-racist”, saying the organization is trying to focus all of our work through an anti-racist lens.

"If we're going to go forward in our country and address the social justice issues that we have, we need to make the apologies — purposefully — and have the redress so that we can move forward in education," Karen Korematsu said.

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Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Myong at Emyong@KERA.org. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @Elizabeth_Myong.