How a New Reparations Effort Changed an Expert’s Understanding of History


When California set up a reparations task force in 2020 to study the generational effects of slavery and other racist policies in the state and propose specific policy ideas for restitution, it was the first such statewide effort in the nation.

The nine-member team included lawmakers, scholars, community leaders and lawyers. Eight of the nine members were Black. The ninth was Donald K. Tamaki, a Japanese American lawyer with valuable experience to share.

In the 1980s, Tamaki worked pro bono on the legal team that reopened the landmark 1944 Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States. The court’s decision in that case had been used to justify the federal government’s forced relocation and internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Tamaki and his colleagues persuaded a federal court in 1983 to overturn Fred Korematsu’s conviction for refusing to comply with the internment order, paving the way for Japanese Americans in 1988 to obtain redress, which included $20,000 for each survivor and an official apology from President Ronald Reagan. It remains one of the few examples in the U.S. of a successful reparations effort.

The Japanese American redress movement has taken on a fresh relevance as state lawmakers — acting on guidance from the reparations task force — consider a Black reparations legislative package.

Last month, I visited Tamaki at his home in Piedmont, hoping to hear more about the insights that he had shared with the task force. But over the course of our 90-minute conversation, it became clear to me that Tamaki had learned just as much from serving on the task force as he had contributed.

“I thought I knew something about American history,” Tamaki said over peanut butter cookies and coffee. “But I realized after taking a deep dive into this that I really didn’t know a whole lot.”

Tamaki left the sunroom where we were sitting and came back a few minutes later with a hardback copy of the task force’s doorstop report. It shows how Black people were enslaved in California even though it had joined the union as a free state. And it details how discriminatory housing, voting and criminal justice policies have hampered the ability of Black Californians to accumulate wealth for generations.

Tamaki said that working on the report had transformed his view of race and racism in America. For years, he said, he would start his talks on Japanese American incarceration by referring to the alien land laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Asian immigrants were banned from buying or leasing agricultural property. Or he would talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively banned immigration from China.

But these days, Tamaki said, he begins his lectures by reaching much farther back into history, to 1619 — when a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia.

“I now see these things that happened to us in our community as essentially a subchapter in a racial pathology that began long before we arrived on these shores,” Tamaki said. “And that origin is not 1882 — it’s 1619.”

Decades ago, his parents had come to a similar conclusion, Tamaki said.

In 1942, 8,000 Japanese Americans from the Bay Area, including Tamaki’s parents and his extended family, were rounded up and sent to temporary detention facilities at Tanforan Racetrack, now a shopping center in San Bruno.

One of the first things his parents noticed after arriving at the racetrack were the signs reading “white” and “colored” hanging above the segregated toilets and drinking fountains, he said.

“They didn’t miss the irony that basically what began as anti-Black sentiment and animus, that whole construct — it just shifted to include this population,” he said.

Known as 4/20, the annual April 20 pot party has been celebrated for decades across the nation. But where did it come from?

The answer: a group of teenagers at San Rafael High School in Marin County.

In the early 1970s, the group, who called themselves the Waldos, would meet at 4:20 p.m. to smoke marijuana and scour the Point Reyes National Seashore for marijuana that had been surreptitiously planted there, according to the History Channel. Soon “420” became their shorthand for weed, and the term took off.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Monday.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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