Uncomfortable Monument

The Troubling Legacy of Fred Korematsu

by zarko perovic

The first Fred Korematsu Day was celebrated this Jan. 30th in our very own
Wheeler Hall. Attendees included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Korematu’s daughter Karen,
several Congressmen, as well as other dignitaries and students. All had gathered
to honor the memory of Fred Korematsu, to discuss the ordeals that he faced on
account of his ethnicity during World War II., and to remind people of the grave
wrongs committed against Japanese Americans during that turbulent time. All of
this was very admirable.

However, in the eyes of the law, little has actually changed. He was cleared,
but the court’s decision has never been officially overturned. We may have a
Korematsu Day. Yet, this man is still technically a criminal. He is a monument
to the fact that individuals can still be racially profiled during times of
emergency.

The U.S. Supreme Court Case, Korematsu v. United States is still on the
books. The case revolves around President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066,
which forced all people of Japanese descent to move to internment camps. Under
the law, it did not matter whether they were American citizens or not. All
people of Japanese descent were viewed as potential insurgents and as security
threats. For his part, Korematsu had been born in Oakland to Japanese immigrants
and had spent his entire life in the United States. He defied the order and was
apprehended by the U.S. Army. In his defense, Korematsu argued that he was a
fully fledged American citizen entitled to the rights of the U.S. Constitution.
But the Supreme Court disagreed.

The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Hugo Black, decided that Korematsu did
not have those constitutional rights that he claimed – at least not
during the war anyways. The court claimed that in times of crises the government
can suspend certain rights. If military necessity calls for it, the government
can justifiably engage in racial profiling. As a result, Korematsu was taken and
sent to an internment camp until the end of the war.

After almost 70 years, some could argue that we have moved past this type of
racial discrimination. We do after all now have things like the Civil Rights Act
of 1964, Brown v. Board of Education, and general improvement in relations
between people of different races. Despite all of these things, however,
Korematsu is still a loaded gun – potentially able to go off at any moment.

It may not be used against Japanese Americans anymore, but the case could
find a target. The events after 9/11 were probably the biggest scare. There was
a fear that individuals of Middle Eastern descent might be apprehended or
detained much like their Japanese counterparts in the 1940s. Of course, nothing
on that scale happened. However, there were a few flare ups. Hamdi v. Rumsfeld
was a notable one. In 2001, Yaser Hamdi was an American citizen who was
apprehended in Afghanistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay. His rights as a U.S.
citizen were stripped, and he was held indefinitely without any hope of a
trial.

True, Korematsu and Hamdi are different in many ways. Korematsu was a regular
citizen going about his daily business. Hamdi was involved in terrorist
activity. Yet, despite the technicalities, the question still remains the same.
Can the government strip American citizens of their rights under the U.S.
Constitution? Whether they are Asian or Middle Eastern, a working-joe or a
suspected militant, do these individuals as American citizens retain certain
rights at all times? And more importantly, can an individual’s ethnic or racial
background be used as a basis in depriving them of certain rights?

The law is unclear – something which is quite unsettling. It is easy to
imagine some dark future where Threat Level Orange finally ends up meaning
something really big. In such a case, would the United States, equipped with a
conservative bench on the Supreme Court and a Republican Congress, stay true to
the principles of the United States Constitution? Is there even a slight chance
that we could swing back to the old days of Korematsu?

If anything, I hope that was the one achievement of Korematsu Day – to ensure
that something as severe as internment never happens again. To ensure that in
the United States, we need to stick to at least some sort of principles.
Principles that can assuage us of fear during times of war – principles that can
ensure we do not commit grave wrongs to our fellow citizens again. And
principles that make sure we do not abandon the ideals of tolerance that have
guided us for the past 50 years.