On Black Reparations: Attorney Donald K. Tamaki


From the historic coram nobis cases to the state task force to study Black reparations, attorney Donald K. Tamaki has been at the heart of landmark social justice issues for the past 40 years.

The senior counsel at Minami Tamaki LLP sat down with the Nichi Bei News to discuss his current role as the only non-Black member of the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.

This second of two parts, which has been edited for length, discusses why Japanese Americans should support Black reparations.

Nichi Bei News: Why do you think it’s important for Japanese Americans to support Black reparations?
Donald K. Tamaki: Well, there’s no equivalence, of course, between what Japanese Americans went through, including four years in a concentration camp and losing their properties and their businesses and so on, to 246 years of enslavement, 90 years of Jim Crow and decades more of exclusion, racial terror and discrimination.

The experiences are not comparable, but we do know something about profiling, racial profiling.

We know something about exclusion, we know something about the vilification and more than that, the Japanese American redress reparations movement is one of the very few examples in modern history, where the United States government acknowledged a great wrong, apologized for it, and put some money behind it to atone for that wrong. And so, there are parallels that can be shared with the movement. I would also say that Japanese American organizations in particular, and the community itself, understands the healing that reparations provides. I’m not talking about just the money part. I’m talking about being acknowledged as a full and equal American, entitled to all the rights of the Constitution and our democratic system. And that’s something that, historically, has been denied to Black people decade after decade after decade after decade, era after era.

And so, to the extent that we can show allyship and I remember the Black community supported us — Congressional Black Caucus supported us,… Ron Dellums, and others supported our movement.
So as a matter of reciprocity, as a matter of justice, it’s important that we take a stand for them and that goes across to every other group that has benefitted from the progress fought for by Black Americans. I think without the Civil Rights Movement, Asian Americans, including Japanese Americans, Latinos, women, the disabled, LGBTQ organizations and people would not be where we are. And so, I think — reparations is really so much more than — it’s being characterized by, in particular, right wing media as just a handout. It’s really more about shining a light on this racial pathology that began in 1619 and continued through every chapter of American history thereafter, right to the present day. And so, I think it’s a responsibility of everyone to get involved in this and Japanese Americans, because of our personal experience, can offer help as well and allyship.

NBN: In what ways has Japanese American redress inspired the movement for Black reparations, and in what ways is it different?
DT: Well, in many ways, it’s totally different. I mean there is no equivalence again, between what happened to us and what’s happened historically, tracing back to 1619. … On the other hand, the movement for reconciliation, the movement for acknowledgment and some form of monetary atonement is directly applicable. The racial profiling aspect, the failure of democracy and the cultural norms that make racist, systemic exclusion completely normal and acceptable. That’s the same. So, I think there are certainly great differences, but certainly, there are great similarities. …
California entered the union in 1850 and 1860s, the California Legislature immediately went to work with laws excluding and targeting Black Americans. But there were very few Black Americans in the state of California at the time, so who became the target? Asian Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans. By the 1920s, the turn of the century, when Japanese Americans began immigrating into California. What did they immigrate into? A very, ultra racist period where … the Ku Klux Klan was a dominant force in the state of California and that in turn, led to laws against Asian Americans, Chinese Americans, whether it’s Alien Land Laws or just plain, old racial discrimination that created the Fillmore, but it also created Japantown and these other communities because people of color couldn’t live anywhere else. The racial hierarchy, however, you know, placed the value on white lives more than all others, and Black people on the bottom, and then everybody else in between. …

So, Japanese Americans have experienced that to a degree and we can relate to that to a degree. I would also say that racial pathology that comes out of that affects everybody. … The nation was horrified about the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin. On the other hand, Tyre Nichols in Memphis, the LA City Council debacle, in which people of color are talking about other people of color in a negative way. I think that dominant cultural thinking affects everybody and because this is America, among other things the first (thing) people see is race with all the bias and the stereotypes that come with it. So, this is a much deeper thing than just Black reparations. It really shines a light on how the country needs to fix itself. And so again, another reason why this is not just a Black issue, but it’s an American issue that we all ought to be reckoning with and because Japanese Americans have had direct experience, I think it’s incumbent upon us to get involved in this. …

NBN: What are the next steps in the Task Force’s work, and how can Japanese Americans be a part of the process?
DT: So, the next set of hearings will be March 3 and 4 of 2023 and I’m sure there will be hearings in April, May, June, right up to the Task Force, which currently sunsets on June 30, 2023. … (T)he organizations are asking for endorsements … and people and organizations can endorse at the level they feel comfortable with. That could be — it’s time to at least study reparations. Other organizations are saying, you know, we endorse the findings of the interim report. Again, that’s available online. Others are saying, we endorse the Task Force and its efforts. But I think Japanese American, Asian American groups, to the extent that they can make a public statement about this, is important. Hoping that by June, there will be hundreds of organizations, multiracial, civil rights groups, faith organizations, educational groups and community civic organizations all supporting reparations at some level. … There will be a Website on reparations. That’s going to be launched soon, where these endorsements can be found and I’d be glad to talk to anyone who’s certainly interested in this. I think so.

Every meeting there’s a period of one hour for public comment. But I think we need more than just the hearings and public comment for groups in the Japanese American community and other communities to make a stand. I’m an old guy so in our day, we used to have teach-ins. We used to do symposiums and groups are doing that now. We need more of that. The conversation about reparations opens up a discussion in terms of even in our own history and how this racial pathology has not only impacted Black Americans, but certainly us. And so, we need to have these conversations too and you don’t need to … wait for a public hearing to do this. …

So there’s a lot of ways to begin raising the public consciousness about this. Certainly, the hearings that are coming up are one way, but that shouldn’t stop any organization — I think even within San Francisco Japantown or in Los Angeles or other places. We can begin to have this conversation.

How can we support this movement? One way is to make public endorsements, another way (is) to speak about it. … So groups can urge their legislators to support those proposals that they think further the repair and further the consciousness.

The entire interview can be found at the YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/NichiBeiFoundation

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