Amy Iwasaki Mass knows the power of apology and reparations. She was in the first grade when her family and more than a hundred thousand other Japanese Americans were rounded up by the federal government and sent to internment camps in response to Japan bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“They didn’t have their guns out protecting us from the outside. They had guns pointing at us,” the 88-year-old California native recalled to CNN. “It was a pretty scary time.”
Four decades later, in 1981, she testified before the congressional committee on wartime relocation and internment of civilians – part of a Japanese American redress and reparations movement.
“Although we may be seen by others now as model Americans, we paid a tremendous psychological price for this acceptance on the surface,” Mass said in her interview with CNN. “Our scars are deep and permanent.”
Japanese Americans eventually won redress, with the US government granting an apology and $20,000 to those citizens who were incarcerated during World War II. Mass is part of a growing wave of multiracial support for Black American reparations – with many Jewish and Japanese organizations among them.
“When we were having trouble, Black people were being good to us,” Mass said. “It’s not the race. It’s just human beings.”
Deep blue, liberal California – and separately the city of San Francisco – has formed panels to examine reparations as a way for these governments to contend with systemic discrimination that historically held Black people down and pushed them out.
More than 200 multiracial organizations have signed on to show support for California’s reparation proposals, including bar associations, philanthropies, academic organizations, and social services and civil rights groups, said Don Tamaki, a member of the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
“There is no equivalence really between four years in a concentration camp and 400 years of systemic exclusion and discrimination,” Tamaki said. “But I do think Japanese Americans as a group do understand what it’s like to be excluded on the basis of race.”
Passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 gave affected Japanese Americans the $20,000 payment and a formal letter of apology from President Ronald Reagan.
Mass said she is thankful for her payment, but the apology has the largest meaning for her.
“If we didn’t get reparations, if we felt we are still being put down by the government, I think that for me it would be hard to fight,” Mass said while looking at family photos from their time in the concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. “The fact that I got the letter from the president … that was very important.”
Tamaki’s parents – natives of the San Francisco Bay Area – were also in an internment camp. Among an album of family pictures, he has a copy of the $20,000 redress check his mother received. Also among his keepsakes is a mailing tube addressed to his father from the University of California, Berkeley. His father was about to graduate when he and other Japanese Americans were rounded up at gunpoint, he said, and forced to live at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California. The university dutifully sent his degree to “Apt. 5” at the racetrack.
“That address was a horse stall into which the Tamaki family was forced to live for several months before being shipped to Topaz concentration camp in the Utah desert,” he wrote to CNN in an email. “Metaphorically, the diploma was the promise of America; but the mailing tube encircling and constraining that promise was the reality for Japanese Americans.”
Tamaki believes there’s a “growing realization” among other demographics that while slavery ended in 1865, the bias didn’t go away, instead morphing into different forms of discrimination that ultimately kept a target on Black Americans and quickly enveloped other people of color who all benefited from the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“If it wasn’t for the Black civil rights movement, would I be a lawyer? Probably not. Would my parents still be living in segregated communities and me too? Probably,” Tamaki mused. “I mean all of the changes that happened in American society that in the modern era began to cause at least legally enforced segregation to end was a result of the Black civil rights movement and I think there’s a sense that African Americans opened the door and everybody else walked through it and there’s a certain truth to that.”
Just the talk of reparations is serving as an opportunity for other people to learn about how Black Americans have been impacted by decades of discriminatory practices, said Timothy Alan Simon, a native San Franciscan and the chair of the California African American Chamber of Commerce.
That’s especially evident when it comes to affordable housing.
“I can remember coming up in the 50s and 60s seeing communities that once upon a time had significant Black populations and now they no longer exist. I think there’s a real economic and cultural and moral impact that faces cities that are dealing with gentrification and outward migration,” Simon said to CNN.
The data supports his claim. Black people have left the city by the bay. In 1970, 13% of the population in San Francisco identified as Black. That number stood at 5.7% as of July 1, 2022, according to US Census figures.
“San Francisco has lost the brilliance to a large extent, the cultural value, the economic contribution and innovation – all that’s come out of the African American community and other cities in the Bay Area,” Simon added, noting that the city is not as family-friendly as it was when he was growing up, due in part to the tech boom that attracted people from all over the world for high-paying jobs, leading to soaring prices in a housing market without enough supply.
“In terms of attracting families back to San Francisco, without the proper housing stock, it’s just simply not going to happen.”
While the California reparations task force says it won’t recommend an amount for individual compensation, it did hire a panel of experts including economists to calculate what Black Californians have endured. Through their formula, they determined that an eligible person could be owed up to an estimated $1.2 million.
The task force created to consider reparations recommendations has also called for restoring historical sites, supporting education and offering free legal aid and other services.
Other recommendations include updating language in the state’s Constitution, removing racial bias and discriminatory practices in standardized testing, compensating people deprived of profits for their work, investing in and creating free health care programs, and apologizing for acts of political disenfranchisement.
It is not yet clear how and if the state Legislature will put all or some of the recommendations into place. The task force next meets at the end of June.
“We think America should know how horrendous the harm is when you put an economic number on it,” Tamaki said, adding that the task force is suggesting more than 100 proposals for California to address longstanding issues such as health harms, mass incarceration and over policing as well as housing discrimination.
Tamaki and Simon agree that arguments against reparations fail to acknowledge the cost of being part of a society.
“We pay for wars. We pay for public works projects. We pay for human caused harms – whether they be lead poisoning or pollution. We recognize these things as collective obligations,” Tamaki explained.
Added Simon, “I think that argument, ‘Well, I wasn’t here at that time so therefore, I shouldn’t contribute to the public trust to try to correct the wrongs’ … It’s a very narrow and not worldly view, in my opinion. You’re paying for things whether you like it or not. That’s called being a citizen.”
Tamaki agrees that the work to repair the damage done to Black Americans is expensive and arduous, but it must begin at some point.
“It’s really an American issue that until we address this, this country is going to continue to churn and recycle this sort of toxic bias that continues to happen,” Tamaki explained. “I think each time that America has owned its wrongs, acknowledged them, repaired them, it’s gotten better.”