[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]
Two things that the 1988 Civil Liberties Act got very right, and one way it came up short.
1) Education for the future: The 1988 law, entitled “Restitution for World War II internment of Japanese-Americans and Aleuts,” included a number of initiatives dedicated not only to redressing that past but also to influencing the future. For one thing, the law appropriated monies “to provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event.” More broadly, it included among its purposes the goals of “discouraging the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future” and “making more credible and sincere any declaration of concern by the United States over violations of human rights committed by other nations.” Apologies for the past have to include a sense of relevance and meaning in the present and future as well, and the CLA did so pitch-perfectly.
2) Reparations for the past: They can’t only address those present and future concerns, though—not without becoming too purely symbolic. I greatly (and obviously) value symbolism and collective memories and national narratives, but there’s something—really a great deal—to be said for accompanying them with meaningful action as well. In the CLA, that meaningful action took the form of substantive financial reparations for every living survivor of the internment camps, a community numbering more than 82,000 individuals. It’s easy, and not inaccurate, to argue that money paid in 1990 (when the payments began) can’t possibly ameliorate wrongs done half a century earlier, much less the cumulative effects and aftermaths of those wrongs. But without a time machine, action could only be taken in the present—and the financial reparations both gave the symbolic apology teeth and undoubtedly aided these Japanese Americans and their families.
3) A messy and partial aftermath: Support and opposition for the CLA largely fell along partisan political lines, and such political debates continued to impact the establishment and work of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, created to fulfill the purposes discussed above. The bill had authorized $50 million for the fund, but years of budget battles both held the monies up in committee and reduced the sum to $5 million as of 1994. The CLPEF was finally able to begin distributing the funds in 1997, but only did so for one year before (as the archived website at that above hyperlink notes) closing its offices permanently in November 1998. A great deal of good was done in that year to be sure, but these ugly realities nonetheless remind us that apologies and laws require continued work and diligence, and that the battle to remember our history more fully and accurately is not one that will have ever definitive or conclusive victories. Yet the CLA was a victory all the same, and one worth its own collective memory and emulation.
Next internment image tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?