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Unheard Voices of Korematsu and AAPI students

Teach For America celebrates Fred Korematsu Day.

By Helen Chan

January 30, 2015

I became a teacher in 2010, the same year that California declared Fred Korematsu Day, marking the first day in U.S. history to be named after an Asian American.

Fred Korematsu was a Japanese-American living in California during World War II. When Executive Order 9066 was handed down, mandating the relocation of all individuals of Japanese ancestry from designated "military areas" to internment camps, Korematsu exercised his human rights and refused to go to the internment camps, instead going into hiding in the Oakland area. He was eventually arrested after being recognized as a “Jap” and was convicted, placed on 5-years’ probation, and moved to a war relocation center in Utah.

Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity. It took over 40 years before Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court, marking a pivotal moment in our civil rights history. 

I personally became more involved with Korematsu and this history because my mother-in-law, former Superior Court Judge Lillian Lim, worked with fellow lawyers to establish Fred Korematsu Day. Unlike most Americans, she received firsthand accounts from her father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran and Filipino, who had witnessed what he described as grievous acts of discrimination against his fellow Asian Americans. Up to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were relocated and incarcerated regardless of citizenship. 

It seemed natural to teach my students about Korematsu alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, both of whom are civil rights leaders with birthdays in January. During my first year of teaching, I ordered teaching kits from the Korematsu Institute for all the teachers at my school. Sadly, not only did none of my students know of Korematsu, but also many of my fellow teachers were unaware of his efforts in our civil rights history.  

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. From what I can remember, my own K-12 teachers never mentioned Korematsu, and his day is still recognized in only five states: California, Hawai’i, Utah, Illinois, and Georgia. This is deeply troubling. How can students learn what the adults in their lives don’t know?

Korematsu is famously known to have said: “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” I’m speaking up today, because like Korematsu, many students from Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have been and continue to be neglected. The wrongful internment of Japanese Americans is just one of many stories of how AAPI communities have been marginalized. 

AAPI students are often overlooked or left out of critical conversations about education. Many AAPI populations continue to experience very low rates of educational attainment. 34.3 percent of Laotian, 38.5 percent of Cambodian, and 39.6 percent of Hmong adults do not have high school diplomas or the equivalent. Yet these are statistics that we rarely hear.

And too often our AAPI students don’t see their culture represented in the classroom. From the less than 2 percent of teachers nationwide who identify as AAPI, to the lack of AAPI history and civil rights moments included in curriculum, the feeling of isolation and invisibility is very real for some.

We need more people thinking about these AAPI students when they engage in work around education and closing the opportunity gap. We need to hire more AAPI educators, teach AAPI histories in school, and ensure that AAPI students are included in our fight for educational equity.