June 24, 2014
By Chris Punongbayan, Executive Director
*This article originially appeared on the Huffington Post on June 23, 2014.
Civil rights hero Yuri Kochiyama recently passed away at 93 years old. She came to my college campus in 1995 in Providence, Rhode Island and keynoted our Asian American Pacific Islander History Month celebrations. Having grown up in a rural community in Massachusetts with very few people of color, I had so much to learn about radical activism and the tenacity of the human spirit that has come to define Yuri’s legacy.
Her talk to the students who gathered transformed me.
Now, almost 20 years later, I find myself in a position where I can continue to fight the good fight . Yuri’s passing, and the passing of Maya Angelou last month, has given the country pause as we remember their legacies and has rekindled the fire in me to fight even harder to keep her legacy alive.
In the decades since the social unrest of the 1950s and 1960s that led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the racial justice movement has been disempowered. Conservatives had a banner decade in the 1980s when they began the successful rollback of hard fought wins in law and policy. Our most vulnerable communities – the poor, immigrants, people of color – are bearing the brunt.
For instance, take the state of civil rights in the national security context. After September 11, Yuri stood tall with the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities. From her experience as an internee in a Japanese concentration camp, Yuri recognized the impending injustice to be wrought against these new faces of the national security boogeyman. We have witnessed these communities be profiled and subjected to a virtual state of government surveillance. Yuri fought this paradigm.
Or, take the example of immigration. Make no mistake that fears underlying opposition to immigration reform are that of becoming a country that is majority people of color. Two million people have been deported since 2008, 250,000 of which are Asian Americans. There are 11,000,000 undocumented community members in this country because our broken immigration system offers them no path to legalization.
A final case study is our criminal justice system. The United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world. The majority of those incarcerated are African American and Latino men. Yesterday was slavery; today is incarceration. Anti-black racism today has evolved and now escapes the reach of our civil rights statutes and the Equal Protection provisions of the constitution. Our work is undone.
We need to remember what Yuri Kochiyama taught us about building multi-racial alliances, about true democracy, about conviction, and about racial progress. We owe it to ourselves to never forget.