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Everyone Counts, No Exceptions: What Does Japanese American Internment Have to Do With the Census?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

By Daniel Lau, Program and Events Manager, Northern California Grantmakers

The announcement came as we were pulling into our halfway point: “We’ll be stopping for about 15 minutes. We’ll also be distributing t-shirts, feel free to use this time to change.” Yes, I thought! I had been eyeing the black t-shirts with ‘Solidarity By Any Means Necessary’ in big block letters since we had gathered in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and gotten on the bus in the wee hours of the morning.

My friend Christine and I were on our way to Manzanar, one of the ten American concentration camps where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated between 1942-1945. An annual Manzanar Pilgrimage is held on the last Saturday of April to commemorate the experience of Japanese Americans, reflect and heal from the legacy of racial persecution, and draw parallels to current-day racism and xenophobia. April 27, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and through the organizing efforts of our regional PSO (Philanthropy-Serving Organization) counterpart Southern California Grantmakers; Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation - Los Angeles; and Vigilant Love, I was able to join along. Through the experience, I was not only able to deepen my personal practice of equity and social justice, but also connect it to NCG’s Public Policy efforts and one of the most important democratic activities of our country - the decennial census.   

Now wearing my new t-shirt, we continued on our way to Manzanar. We passed beautiful open landscapes and sweeping mountain ranges, but I could already feel the somberness and sacredness of our journey. We reached the Manzanar Historic Site and Landmark just as the program was getting started. A former incarceree shared the terror and confusion that existed around internment, and was honored for their endurance and resilience. Younger Nikkei organizers and activists took the stage, demonstrating their leadership and courage. The annual pilgrimages have thrived through Nikkei (descendants of Japanese emigrants), searching for truth of what happened to their ancestors, why it must never be forgotten, and how to make sure it never happens again.

In the spirit of never again, representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations demonstrated cross-racial solidarity with their moving remarks. Since the events of 9/11, Muslim Americans became aware of the incarceration of Japanese Americans and have participated in the Manzanar Pilgrimages to show up together and promote awareness of civil rights protections in the wake of increased suspicions. One of the speakers reminded us that we are all in the struggle together. If it happens to one of us, it can happen to all of us.

My experience was unmistakably reminiscent of NCG’s travels to Alabama and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum, just earlier this year. I was immediately transported back to other events in America’s troubled history with government-sanctioned racial terror towards African Americans and the need for truth, healing, and reconciliation in the pursuit of justice.

So what’s the connection to the decennial census? During World War II, 1940 census data was the most important single source of information to locate and remove Japanese Americans from their homes. This misuse of information and violation of civil rights towards Japanese Americans directly led to the instatement of federal law and protections to prohibit Census Bureau employees from releasing census data identifying individuals with other government agencies until 72 years after the data is collected.

Today, as we prepare for the 2020 Census, Japanese Americans are speaking out about the proposed addition of a citizenship question, and the implications it has on a fair and accurate count. Despite the challenges, we have huge opportunities with the 2020 Census to influence federal funding in the billions of dollars and political representation at all levels of government to further our goals of equity and social justice.

Here at NCG, we have come together with our philanthropic membership to form the Bay Area Census Funders Collaborative to pool our resources and efforts towards a complete count. We’re taking a regional approach to a regional issue, and we’ve simplified the process for community-based organizations to access grants for census outreach and education. It’s going to be a ground game with all hands on deck. Be sure to stay updated on ways to help get out the count as census day (April 1, 2020) approaches.

Everyone counts, no exceptions. Let’s remain vigilant in how we remember and honor the past, and advocate and unite for the future.

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