Being an American has always been complex. The face of America is continually changing. But the push for equality for all citizens under the law remains constant. Our first task must be to recognize when laws fall short of equality. Our next task then becomes creating the remedy for the injustice.
Americans have continually recognized and corrected injustices such as ending slavery, giving women the right to vote, overturning the racist Jim Crow laws, and providing an apology and reparations for Japanese-Americans wrongly incarcerated during World War II. However, injustices like these would not have been rectified had it not been for the pioneers of the civil rights movement who fought for them.
Despite substantial progress toward equality, inequality looms. For example, the founders of this nation left their homeland for religious freedom only to subjugate the indigenous people of the land they sought to occupy; women generally still earn 80 cents on every dollar earned by a man; and gays and lesbians are able to offer their lives in service for the country so long as they remain silent about their sexual orientation.
More recently, American citizens in Arizona are forced to carry passports in order to prove their citizenship. Locally, same-sex couples and their families are denied access to rights provided heterosexual couples that choose to marry.
Democracy mandates that we challenge our government to reconcile injustices. President Barack Obama once said, "When our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expression of patriotism."
Dissent is something we can appreciate from history—the Founding Fathers’ rejection of Great Britain to create a democratic America, Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, and in more recent years, Lt. Ehren Watada’s commitment to stand against an unjust war.
The Japanese-American community’s experience from World War II reflects this constant struggle for equality and the tradition of patriotic dissent. Less than a century ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcibly uprooting over 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans, and over 2,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and incarcerating them in evacuation camps. Despite the intense wartime hysteria and racial prejudice, thousands of nisei risked and gave their lives to serve America in segregated units including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service.
Other Japanese Americans—Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Korematsu—challenged the lawfulness of the forced evacuation and curfew orders, which were ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another group of more than 300 nisei resisters of conscience were prosecuted as draft resisters for qualifying their willingness to serve in the military only if their incarcerated families were freed and had their full constitutional rights restored.
Our past serves as a reminder that we must be vigilant and speak out for what is just. Without justice for any one of us, there can be no justice for all. A society based on equality and fairness cannot exist without an active and engaged population. As Americans, we are proud to defend and exercise these most precious of American freedoms: the right to equal participation and treatment, and the right to dissent from government policy or action. These quintessential American traditions, arising out of our nation’s birth, continue as the lifeblood of our democracy today.
The JACL is the Japanese American Citizens League.