by Madhavi Sunder
(Editor’s note: this is the speech delivered by School Board President Madhavi Sunder at the Vanguard 10th Anniversary Party on Sunday night)
It’s an honor to speak here tonight, especially with the inimitable Robb Davis. Having a leader with a strong moral compass is more important than ever right now. It is equally important that we have media that holds our elected officials to account, especially when they use their power to abuse the rights of minorities in their community.
I want to tell you a story that highlights the lack of both leadership that demonstrates concern for minorities, and a critical press that sounds the alarm at such failings.
More than a decade ago, I along with my husband and fellow law professor at the UC Davis School of Law Anupam Chander led a campaign to name our newest elementary school in Davis after the civil rights hero Fred Korematsu. Fred Korematsu was an Oakland-born Japanese American who grew up an all-American kid, hanging out with his friends and girlfriend in the Oakland Hills, a proud American citizen with equal rights under the U.S. Constitution, which he studied in school.
But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, everything changed for Fred and his family, and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans in California and the Western states, including women, children, and the elderly. Executive Order 9066 sent all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the Western states, including American citizens, to live in internment camps behind barbed wire. This was one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history.
Fred Korematsu was one of a handful of Japanese Americans who refused to report to the internment camps – he sought to vindicate his right as an American to equal protection of the laws, instead. With help from a lawyer from the ACLU of Northern California, Fred challenged the constitutionality of internment in the courts.
But the legal process is long and tedious, and Fred was sent to live in the internment camp in Topaz, Utah with his family while his case wound its way through the federal courts for years. When his case finally did make it to the highest court of the land, Fred lost. Despite no evidence that a single Japanese American had been involved in espionage or treason, in 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the racial profiling of a whole group of Americans (including American-born citizens) on the basis of race alone in the name of national security.
But Fred never gave up on his belief that what our government had done was wrong. Decades later, Fred had his day in court again. In the 1980s, a federal district court in San Francisco vindicated Fred in a decision that laid the groundwork for reparations for all Japanese Americans who had been interned. In 1998 Bill Clinton awarded Fred the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He is often referred to as the “Asian American Rosa Parks.”
Fred died in 2005, the same year I was asked to serve on a committee to name the newest elementary school in my East Davis neighborhood. I learned a great deal about Davis and our community’s history while leading the effort to name the new school after Korematsu in that summer of 2005. Though I was 8 months pregnant, I went door-to-door in the August heat to talk about Korematsu and why he would be a powerful role model for our children. Fred’s life and message particularly resonated with the plight of Muslim and Sikh Americans after September 11. More than 300 citizens signed a petition to name the school after Korematsu. This was my first campaign!
As I walked neighborhoods and our committee organized citizen hearings, I met myriad Davis citizens who came forward to recount how internment had affected them personally. We heard from:
- Alice Nishi, the first Asian American to serve on the Davis School Board and at the time a 37-year Davis resident, spoke of her years as an internee;
- Grace Noda told of her family’s forced separation: her father was sent to one camp, her mother to another, and she and her four sisters to a third. Her youngest sister graduated from high school in “camp”;
- Jerry Kaneko, former Davis city councilmember, recalled being interned at a racetrack, forced to sleep in horse stalls; and
- My own neighbor Kim Welborn told us her father was sent to an internment camp as a newborn, essentially born into a prison in a nation that stands for freedom.
Their testimonies made it clear: Korematsu represented our own neighbors and civic leaders in Davis. In all, 1300 people from Yolo County were evacuated to internment camps.
But the then-school board was still not convinced there was enough of a local connection with Korematsu.
Then we learned a dark Davis secret. Anupam’s and my research revealed that in 1943 the Davis City Council led by then-Mayor Covell unanimously passed a resolution that not only supported the federal internment order, but also demanded that internees of Japanese descent be prohibited from returning to Davis once the war ended. Our Davis leaders had said to Japanese Americans: don’t come back.
Upon hearing of this injustice, Jim Provenza, now county supervisor, cast the third vote on the Davis School Board in favor of naming the school after Korematsu. The following year, the City Council formally rescinded the 1943 resolution.
The story is not only about the absence of moral leadership in our community in 1943—but the absence of a critical press. The Davis City Council resolution in 1943 was passed unanimously—and was reported in the local paper without any apparent concern for its display of virulent racism.
Today, there have been those who have targeted the Muslim members of our community as being particularly suspect. We have seen law enforcement act with lethal force against innocent African Americans.
This week, one immigrant lawyer sought to draw attention to the efforts of some to treat people differently on the basis of religion. Speaking to the nation at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan, a Pakistani American lawyer whose son was killed fighting for the United States in Iraq asked a politician who had sought to treat Muslims differently than others: have you even read the Constitution?
Here in Davis we must command the moral leadership that stands up to racism and xenophobia that threaten our neighbors and children. As President of the Davis School Board, I ask that we commit our Board and district to Principles of Community. From Orlando to Davis, our kids are watching, and we need to do everything we can to ensure all of our kids feel safe, included, and loved.
I want to commend the Davis Vanguard for its decade-long focus on social justice in our community. The Vanguard has focused a great deal of attention on the criminal justice system, as well as on our educational system—to ensure equality of opportunity and treatment for all members of our community. Thank you, David Greenwald, for the early mornings and the late nights reporting on our community. Your voice—and the forum you give to amplify all of our voices—makes our community better. Happy 10th Anniversary to the Davis Vanguard!