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Too Soon to Forget: Philanthropy Answers Back

Tuesday, February 21, 2017
By Chris Punongbayan, Director, Equity and Social Justice, Northern California Grantmakers

“No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.” - Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu, a Bay Area native from Oakland, California, was a national civil rights hero whose story has particular import today. Korematsu resisted President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which was issued in 1942 in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and authorized the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Korematsu did not believe this was fair, and he decided to stand up for what he thought was right. Amidst the fever-pitched panic of the day, his case ultimately reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1944.

He lost.

The high court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the mass incarceration did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The majority found that the federal government held sufficient justification to discriminate against Japanese Americans because of their race due to the “military necessity” of the time. The case is still good law today.

History would eventually vindicate Korematsu who decades later would bring a legal challenge to his own individual criminal conviction for defying Executive Order 9066. In 1983, federal judge Marilyn Hall Patel wrote in her favorable opinion, “[This case] stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability." 

February 2017 was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. While this may seem like ancient history, the issues of unfair treatment based on characteristics like race, religion, and national origin are still at play today as yet more Executive Orders are issued from Washington, DC. During this time of great national division, it is instructive to look to the unifying values and beliefs that can be our compass. Here are some examples articulated by California funders, in their own words.

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation: “We resolve to continue fostering a fairer, more just America and world. We remain steadfast and unyielding in our support of the institutions and leaders fighting injustice and addressing inequality of every kind and category.”

Dr. Bob Ross, CEO of The California Endowment: “We believe in inclusion, and the widest possible circle of human concern and compassion. We believe in the dignity of health for all.”

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of the General Services Foundation: “[This is a time of] seeing the intersections between all affected communities and the various issues that we are fighting for. It is a time for us to work together across our institutions to advance shared values.”

Jacquelyn Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation: “America is—and has always been—a country of immigrants. Deportations and raids are not just un-American—they are a threat to our livelihood and economy.”

Daniel Lurie, CEO of Tipping Point Community: “Regardless of whether someone was born in Bayview or abroad, we don’t distinguish between those in need. We welcome people. We run to help.”

Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation: “We stand in support of immigrants and the preservation of their families who have made the Bay Area their home. We stand with and are in support of constituencies targeted with Islamophobia.”

Jeff Malloy, COO of the Heising-Simons Foundation: “We are standing up for the things that make this region, and all of the people who live here, worth fighting for. Things like income equality, racial equity, LGBTQ rights, safe and accessible health care, a thriving arts community, a healthy planet, a free press, and a robust democracy.”

Fred Korematsu also said, “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don't be afraid to speak up.” I hope Mr. Korematsu would be proud of all the people who are speaking up today. The millions of people who have joined a rally or formed a group. The lawyers who safeguard our democracy by asserting legal and constitutional rights. Funders who have responded swiftly and courageously to the changing times. Together, we can make sure that the lessons of Japanese American incarceration are never forgotten and that, when we look back, we stand on the right side of history.