Ms. Geek Speaks: Does State Assembly Bill 1655 Put Asian Americans at the Back of the Bus?

I recently read that State Assembly Bill 1655 would make Juneteenth a paid-state holiday. That doesn’t seem quite right. Juneteenth has little to do with California history and there’s another day that California already recognizes that would seem more representative of state history: Fred Korematsu Day.  

Under Mexico, California banned the slavery of African Americans, and chose not to reinstate slavery (as Texas did) when it became part of the United States. There was slavery under another name, but it was practiced against Native Americans

The Fred Korematsu Day was signed into law by then-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on 23 September 2010, and was first commemorated in 2011 at the University of California, Berkeley.  The Day of Remembrance (19 February) is only officially recognized by the City of Los Angeles. Remember, Los Angeles is the place of a Chinatown Massacre. The Chinese, other East Asians, and Filipinos were driven out of towns across California and the West, and more Asians (and Latinos and Native Americans) were lynched in California than Black people. 

There is no paid-holiday that recognizes the history of civil rights struggles that took place in California and were spearheaded by people of Asian descent like San Francisco-born Wong Kim Ark (United States v. Wong Kim Ark) or San Diego-born  Fred Oyama (Oyama v. State of California). 

Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution is the first day in US history to be named after an Asian American. In terms of California demographics from, people of Asian descent alone are 15.5 percent of the California population compared to the 6.5 percent who are Black of African American alone. In addition, 39.4 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Let’s not forget that there were Latinos who were affected by the Japanese American internment. 

California already recognizes a day named after a Latino as a public holiday in addition to US Federal holidays: César Chávez Day (31 March). That is fitting because of the demographics and history of California. The day has been observed in California since 1995. César Chávez Day or Día de César Chávez is a US federal commemorative holiday (as proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2014). And yet, commemorations of that day often ignore the Filipino Americans in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee who began the Delano grape strike (in Delano, California) and were joined by the National Farmworkers Association led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. 

I looked at the State Assembly Bill 1655 and by the below statistical information, since the Korematsu case focuses on an event that affected Asian Americans and Latinos, it doesn’t make sense that Juneteenth would be more representative of their constituents. 

Assembly Members Reggie Jones-Sawyer (from Arkansas)

59th Assembly District of California Demographics: 2.6 White, 19.3% Black, 75% Latino, 2% Asian

Mia Bonta (from New York)

18th Assembly District of California Demographics: 23.96% White, 23.32% Black; 26.3% Latino, 23.5%Asian

Akilah Weber (From San Diego)

79th Assembly District of California: 33.47% White, 10.97% Black, 33.83% Latino, 18.96% Asian

Principal Co-Authors Senator Steven Bradford (from Gardena)

District 35 of California: 11.4% White, 21.31% Black, 52.97% Latino, 11.95% Asian

and Dave Cortese (From San Jose)

District 15 of California: 30% White, 3% Black, 35% Asian, 28% Hispanic 

Slavery was a bad thing, but in California, Juneteenth didn’t end it. Not for Native Americans and not for East Asian women who were brought here as sex slaves. Nationally and in California, we recognize the Civil Rights leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the South in January (and don’t forget he was inspired by Gandhi), but there is nothing that commemorates “the first and only major federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality” (the Chinese Exclusion Act) that set a “precedent for later restrictions against immigration of other nationalities.” And it seems that people, including Black people, are completely unaware of the rights they have because of the civil rights struggles of Californians of Latino and Asian descent. 

I love celebrating different days and I’ll eat soda bread and something green for St. Patrick’s Day and have Mexican food for Cinco de Mayo. I celebrate the Chinese New Year and the Persian New Year. Yet there’s something a little disturbing about being advised about the proper way to celebrate a national holiday by a minority from a specific geographical location. That wouldn’t be the case with a day about civil and constitutional rights.

The Korematsu v. US showed that the SCOTUS can be wrong and that years later, that wrong could be corrected. In the Korematsu case, information was withheld, but in 2018 in Trump v. Hawaii, the majority “effectively overturned the Korematsu decision.”  Since the internment of Japanese Americans, there have been other suggestions of internment.

More recently, Trump supporter Carl Higbie during a Fox News appearance (16 November 2016) said in regards to immigrants from predominately Muslim countries: ”The president needs to protect America first, and if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand ― until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from ― I support it.” The Korematsu case doesn’t just cover Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans because suggestions have been made to place  Arab and Muslim Americans in internment camps. 

One could use the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution to emphasize how California has led the fight for civil rights with such precedent setting cases as:

  • United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) defined citizenship
  • Perez v. Sharp (1948) percursor to Love v. Virginia (1967)
  • Mendez v. Westminster (1947) percursor to Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

And although in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Thind lost and originally applied in Washington and then Oregon, his lawyer was from California and Thind later settled in the Los Angeles area. 

I’ve never met the Korematsu family as far as I can recall. We are not related, but I know about the day because of my interest in legal cases and the history of my home state. I recently learned the Fred Korematsu Day  is recognized in perpetuity in California, Hawaii, Virginia, Florida and Arizona. It is recognized by proclamation in Utah, Illinois, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan. 

This is a time when Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise and measures should be taken to change the “forever foreigner” status of Asian Americans. One way would be by showing Asian Americans have made great contributions to California and the United States. Yes, the pronouncement of in perpetuity is nice, but words are cheap. A paid-holiday would be putting money behind words. 


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