Honorary Degrees as Apologies

by on November 9, 2009 · 10 comments

in Civil Rights, From the Soul, History, San Diego, War and Peace

Japanese internment

San Diego Japanese-Americans on their way to an internment camp.

Once upon a time, at the outset of World War II, Japanese American students at CaIifornia State Universities were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps.

Now those Institutions of Higher Learning would like to grant honorary degrees to the students who suffered such indignities.

And I guess that although an honorary degree might not be as profitable as getting a home to replace the one you might have lost or as powerfully emotional as being reconnected with an old pal you were separated from and have never seen again – it’s never the less a nice gesture, a needed touch, perhaps, in making the world a better place.

Charles B. Reed, the California State University Chancellor, views the granting of honorary degrees as a way to hopefully “achieve a small right in the face of such grave wrongs,” seeing the internment of the students as representative of “the worst of a nation driven by fear and prejudice.”

And I know of what he speaks. I was on the scene. The times were mean. As a child back then shooting “Japs” (the first derogatory expression I ever learned other than “Nigger” which referred to me) was the theme of most of our games at play. And I’ll always remember the day, in ’46 or ’47, that I first saw a Japanese person live. In this case a little boy like me. Allen Hasegawa.

Allen and I were about to step through the doorway of the downtown Tucson YMCA but our feet never touched the floor because the moment our eyes met we took off in the opposite direction like jet engined hydroplanes flying along smooth unbroken waters. The Roadrunner had nothing on us. The Y director that finally calmed us down must have used one of those tail hooks that bring jets to a halt on aircraft carriers. “Horrified” doesn’t even begin to describe our prejudiced fueled fears. I’m assuming, based on how I felt at the time, that I must have looked much like Allen looked and he had a look on his face that you would expect to see on the face of someone who, say, discovers some alligator eggs and looks up at the mama alligator just as she rushes towards you to protect her nest.

Allen and I, as innocent children, were the victims of our nation’s fears and prejudices. When I saw him I knew that if I didn’t vacate the scene it was over for me because society had convinced me that people like him had only one goal in life: to kill. And it sure didn’t help that they would kill themselves, with no second thoughts, if that’s what it took to kill you. That was the story. The terms of suicidal killings, “kamikaze” and “banzai,” were as much a part of our war games as “Mother, may I” and “Simon says” were in our more benign games.

Now Allen knew he was a goner because his image of “Negroes” revealed us as wild savages with long scary tails who, as “dummies,” pretty much didn’t know our ABC’s.

Oh, let me tell you, intolerance is easy to come by. I was taught by all the “squinty eyed buck toothed” portrayals of Japanese Americans and immigrants in the movie newsreels and posters around town to hate people I had never seen. And I hadn’t seen them because my government had rounded them up like they were so many cattle on the range.

As I reflect on those days of my life’s history I’m glad I survived them and managed to shed the dreadful stereotypes of Japanese people that were passed on to me and, in that spirit, I find myself applauding the idea of honorary degrees being bestowed on anyone who endured one of humankind’s great lapses in “doing onto others what you would have them do onto you.”

It seems to me that any form of reaching out and making amends contributes something to helping human beings discover better ways of relating to each other.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how many internees are still around. I’m thinking that the honorary degrees, if they can find the families, are going to end up with younger generations of these people’s family trees.

And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be because any making of a better world, in the 21st Century, will most definitely need the energy of the younger members of humanity: children like Allen and I used to be.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Sherry Engberg November 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Great article, Ernie.
You’re right about Japanese Americans losing homes and property, as the Chino family did in the north county. But after internment they started over with their now famous farm in Rancho Santa Fe. A college friend went to “camp” as he calls it when he was only a baby. Undeterred he went on to graduate college and dental school and is now ouor grand-daughter Elsa’s pediatric dentist.


avatar Ernie McCray November 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Hi Sherry:
Thanks. You can’t get some folks down. That’s one of the beautiful aspects of the human experience I think.


avatar Tanja November 9, 2009 at 8:23 pm

As usual, your magic pen works wonders.
It is remakable how your memories are so crystal clear and powerful.
I wonder how many people REALLY overcame their fears, as you did.


avatar Ernie McCray November 10, 2009 at 12:32 am

I’ve run into a few folks from my parent’s generation who still have a beef with Japanese people, unable to get 12-7-41 out of their minds.


avatar lane tobias November 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm

an honorary degree can’t throw out the horror of being forced into a camp, but it will probably do a lot in measuring the progress of Japanese-Americans in the years since. As someone whose family was devastated by the holocaust, I always found it especially offensive that our country could do basically the same thing the germans were doing while the war was raging halfway across the world.

ernie you have a gift of vivid description. Its as if everything you write is playing on a screen right in front of me. thank you.


avatar Ernie McCray November 10, 2009 at 12:37 am

My memories, what little I have left, kind of play on a screen in front of me. That was a scary time and at the same time an exciting time for me since so much of my childhood play was shooting “the enemy,” cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians…


avatar lane tobias November 10, 2009 at 9:50 am

ah, the benefits of being young and uninformed….theres always a good guy and a bad guy.

now its more about who is “less bad”.


avatar Brian November 10, 2009 at 12:31 am

I don’t know that it’s fair to characterize it as “basically” the same thing. Internment camps were certainly wrong… but, as far as I know, the US didn’t commit genocide.


avatar lane tobias November 10, 2009 at 9:49 am

i think rounding up ethnic minorities and forcing them to live in a camp against their will is similar to what the germans did. sans ovens, of course. Believe me I know the difference – but as an allied force during WW 2, weren’t we supposedly on a higher moral ground than the “axis” powers?


avatar Ernie McCray November 10, 2009 at 10:24 am

We sure talked as though we were on a higher moral ground and we still carry ourselves as though we are more than “less bad.” It seems that all that’s left for us is to truly seek a “higher ground” and shoot for it so our children can have a chance at creating those “Good Old Days” I’ve heard about ever since I arrived on the planet.


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