History Lessons, Meaning Making, and Asian American Support for Reparations for Black Americans

What can Asian American history teach us about responding to injustice? A personal reflection on the paper, "Reminders of Japanese Redress Increase Asian American Support for Black Reparations."
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History Lessons, Meaning Making, and Asian American Support for Reparations for Black Americans
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When we started this project in the summer of 2022, my mind was far away from research. My grandmother, Anne had just passed away, and I found myself remembering all the time we had spent together. As an undergraduate in Berkeley, CA, I used to go over to her house in Oakland, CA to do my laundry, play video games, and eat a home-cooked meal. The last time I had seen her was about a month before when she was at my uncle’s house and under hospice care. In the confusion and exhaustion of those moments, she had spent a lot of time telling my brother and I how proud of us she was. It was important to her that we knew how she felt about us.

As I have grown up, I have learned more about what that means to me. I often think about how she grew up in a family of four in Camas Prairie, Idaho. How they were, perhaps, one of the only Japanese American families for miles and miles. I think about how tough that was, particularly in 1941 when the President signed executive order 9066 and marched Japanese American families into prisons throughout the US, because they were viewed as a threat to national security. I imagine the fear she felt when the government sent agents to take them away, and how only resistance from their community had allowed them to stay. I think about how the war with Japan must have been an ostracizing experience that cost them friends and made them feel unsafe. I think about how much it must have taken, and then, I think about the world that opened up for the rest of the family after enduring that.

The street where my grandmother grew up with my aunt and great grandparents in Camas Prairie, Idaho was named 'Yamamoto Lane' for a brief time in their honor. Photograph taken by the author.

In some deep sense, my own scholarship is rooted in this past history. I study the psychology of inequality, how people end up maintaining, consciously or otherwise, structures of inequality through relational strategies, narratives, and justifications around merit and deservingness. Viewing my career from the outside, it is hard to explain the research questions I have pursued without attending to this past family history. By connecting to my own past, I have learned a great deal about my own commitments to justice and equity as a scholar and citizen.

In this particular paper, we study how lessons of history can help Asian Americans make meaning of present injustice. Japanese Americans were not uniformly in favor of redress for incarceration and in fact, many families did not talk about that period of their lives. And if you were not Japanese American, chances are your history books did not say much at all about Asian Americans. These conditions mean that many people in the US, Asian Americans included, are not aware of a relatively recent moment in history when the US government made an attempt to redress past injustice. Without knowing about Japanese redress for the incarceration, Asian Americans may not know that redress is something they can or should expect from their government. As well, learning about redress for an Asian origin subgroup that is close to one's own group might create a moral framework in people's minds that other marginalized groups deserve similar justice and redress for past wrongs .

The experiments we conducted tested these broad claims. We asked whether learning about the civil rights struggle for apology and redress following the incarceration of Japanese Americans,  would elicit greater support for redress for another group experiencing injustice—specifically, whether Black Americans should receive redress for the grave injustice of past and contemporary racism that includes chattel slavery and Jim Crow. We sampled Asian Americans because we reasoned that Japanese American incarceration would hold special significance to this group of people, given their shared superordinate identity. We compared responses for those learning about Japanese redress to a control group that did not learn about it.

This is a visual from the intervention we created for the study. You can watch and listen to the actual intervention we used here

For more than 800 Asian American participants from a variety of origin subgroups (mostly Chinese and Indian American), learning about Japanese redress payments for the incarceration in 1941, versus a control condition that, for instance, reminded participants about the incarceration only, led to an increase in support for federal programs to repair past injustice, for cash payments for reparations for enslavement of Black Americans, and for the study of the effects and impacts of these reparations payments. Importantly, the level of support for cash reparations for Black Americans, observed in our intervention, was higher (63%) than in all other nationally representative polls on the topic conducted up until the study was fielded.

Support for cash reparations for Black Americans by year and polling source. Support for reparations was highest, relative to all other polling sources, for Asian American participants in our study who were reminded about redress for Japanese Americans. Photo created by author.

The experiments themselves make several contributions to our understanding of intergroup solidarity. First, they highlight how meaning making around history can be a tool for cross-group solidarity (for a review, see here). In this particular example, we used our intervention to change expectations about what people can expect in terms of government apology and redress, through reminders of past redress.

Second, the work underscores the critical importance of history in education, and in particular, whose histories are recounted in textbooks and included in records that are taught in schools. If more history textbooks took a critical eye to the racism built into US history and the reparations that are needed for a variety of groups for past injustice, people might be more willing to discuss redress as a policy solution.

Third, the work tells us about the important role that marginalization plays in forming bonds between marginalized groups. Though marginalized racioethnic groups in the US differ on many dimensions and have their own rich histories, they also have some shared sense of the experience of racism. Making meaning of these common experiences in a way that extends justice to more marginalized groups is a goal of our future research.

I think it has been around 15 years since I had a chance to visit Camas Prairie, Idaho. I saw the house where my grandmother grew up and where they worked on the farm. From time to time, I marvel at the journey from there to here. Critically, I see how important our memory of the past can be, both personally, and for reminding us that a more just future that faces, rather than ignores, past wrongs of racism and injustice, is possible.

Learn more about the research, conducted with Dr. A. Chyei Vinluan, here.

 

 

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