Why Japanese-Americans Received Reparations and African-Americans Are Still Waiting

By Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E.; Emeritus, Professor et al. | The Canadian Press, July 18, 2019 | Go to article overview

Why Japanese-Americans Received Reparations and African-Americans Are Still Waiting


Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E., Emeritus, Professor, Department of Political Science, University, Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Press


Why Japanese-Americans received reparations and African-Americans are still waiting

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University

In June, the United States House of Representatives held a debate about reparations to African-Americans. One of the questions in this discussion is why Japanese-Americans received reparations for their internment by the U.S. federal government during the Second World War, yet African-Americans have yet to receive reparations for their ancestors' enslavement or for other crimes committed against them.

I published an article comparing reparations to Japanese-Americans and African-Americans in the journal, Social Forces, in 2004 after a colleague, Rodney Coates, professor of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, asked me this question.

The answer lies in social movement theory.

My explanation is not a moral judgment on whether African-Americans should receive reparations. I believe that they should. My explanation is a scholarly interpretation of the differences between the two movements. These differences explain why it will be more difficult for African-Americans than Japanese-Americans to receive reparations.

Conditions for reparations

It is much easier to obtain reparations under the following conditions:

-The number of victims is relatively small.

-The victims are easily identifiable.

-Many of the direct victims are still alive.

-The injustice took place during a relatively short time period.

-The perpetrator is known.

-The injustice is easily identifiable.

-The injustice offends values of equality, personal safety and/or the right to own property.

-There is a symbolic victim around whom advocates for reparations can rally.

-The amount of reparations asked for is not so large that the public will find it unreasonable.

The number of Japanese-American victims was relatively small, about 120,000. They were also easily identifiable as people of ethnic Japanese descent, whether citizens or not. The injustice took place between 1942, when the Japanese were first interned, and 1945, when the war ended.

The perpetrator, the U.S. government, was easily identifiable. The internment of Japanese-Americans violated the values of ethnic equality and ownership of property, since their property was confiscated. The Japanese-Americans were not tortured or murdered, however.

Quite a few former internees were still alive in 1988 when reparations were offered. U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga became symbolic victims. They were both Second World War veterans and Inouye had lost an arm in battle. Finally, the amount paid was relatively low, $20,000 for each of 80,000 living survivors, for a total of about $1.6 billion.

Wider, more severe injustices

Compared to Japanese-Americans, enslaved African-Americans and their descendants endured much more severe injustices. Enslavement violated all norms of personal safety; owners were permitted to beat and torture enslaved people, and in some cases even to murder them. …

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