Last week, Congressman Peter King dropped a bomb when he referred to Japanese as "Japs" on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
"National defense and homeland security are issues that mean the most to me and there's real issues with him, real problems with his views," King said. "I don't know if he's thought them through, or it's just like the guy at the end of the bar that says, 'Oh screw them, bomb them, kill them, pull out, bring them home. You know, why pay for the Japs, why pay for the Koreans?"'
King brushed off the ensuing uproar over the use of the racial slur by stating that "we're getting too politically correct" and "oversensitive".
Irony of ironies, I was attending an All Camps Consortium Conference when I got word of King's statement. Participants represented organizations from all ten concentration camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. The work of the conference was to make sure that the injustices perpetrated primarily on the Japanese population -- 62 percent of whom were American citizens -- are not inflicted on another group of people.
On the very day we met, the headlines were again filled with the word "Jap." Hate speech from 75 years ago. King's demagoguery was not a simple matter of political incorrectness. He used the same dehumanizing term that turned an entire nation against loyal Americans. For those at the conference, the word drained the blood from our faces and brought back the nightmare of numbers instead of names, of horse stalls and desolate prisons, and of a destruction of property, assets, community, heritage, culture and language. Even if King had apologized, he could not erase the impact of his racism. But he did not apologize.
For decades, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) has worked to expunge the term "Jap" from American speech, signs, names, advertisements - you name it. Why? "Jap" is and has been a racial pejorative that has been long viewed by the community as a word associated with civil rights injustices, discrimination, hate crimes, and persecution that spanned over a century. It is a word that was flaunted in anti-Japanese persecution of World War II and in the yellow Jim Crow environment of the late 19th and the 20th century. It was a word hurled at Japanese Americans as they were forcibly removed from their homes by armed soldiers and sent to remote prisons in 1942 and by a white supremacist who bombed the Sacramento office of the JACL in 1993. It was the word used by politicians as they passed laws to deny citizenship, deny property ownership, deny the right to marry an American citizen, and create segregated schools.
Let me be clear. "Jap" is hate speech. "Jap" is a repugnant reminder of anti-Asian racism and of episodes that represent America at its worst. We as Americans should aspire to the ideals of a democratic nation, and those who choose to revert to usage of "Jap" must understand the burden of that word.