By AUDREY FISCHER
It is a long way from a Japanese internment camp to the president's Cabinet. It is a journey that has been made by only one man—U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta. When Mr. Mineta was appointed secretary of commerce under President Clinton in June 2000, he became the first Asian American to serve in the Cabinet. He was honored a second time, on Jan. 25, 2001, when he was appointed by President Bush to his current position as secretary of transportation.
"I am very proud to stand before you as a member of a presidential Cabinet, not once but twice," said Mr. Mineta, who delivered the 2001 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month keynote address at the Library on May 9. Invoking this year's theme, "Asian Pacific Americans Emerging Together," he said, "It is possible to be able to go from there to here … together."
"Events like this hold a special significance for me," said Mr. Mineta. "While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of California, I worked with Congressman Frank Horton from New York on a bill that designated May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It provides an opportunity for Asians to explain who we are, the diversity in our community and how our experiences have shaped us and the nation we love."
In a brief history lesson, Mr. Mineta explained that the month of May is significant since May 1843 marked the first wave of Japanese immigration. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in May of 1869, thanks to the work of Chinese laborers.
Despite this and other contributions by Asian immigrants, Alien Land Laws kept Asians from owning land and, in 1924, the Oriental Exclusion Act put an end to Asian immigration.
"There was a belief that Asians were not truly Americans," said Mr. Mineta. This belief was undoubtedly behind the internment of innocent Japanese Americans during Word War II.
"More than120,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes," recalled Mr. Mineta. "My family and I were among them. "We were kept behind barbed wire for no reason other than our race. No charges were filed, no trials were held, no one spoke out on our behalf. We were told it was for our own protection."
Even at the young age of 11, this seemed incongruous to him. "If it was for our own protection, then why were the machine guns pointed at us?"
During this dark period in American history, the Mineta family remained strong.
"My family did not give up hope and did not allow me to give up hope on this country," he said. "This experience taught me that our Constitution and the rights and freedoms we hold dear are only as secure as the commitment we bring with us."
That commitment was demonstrated by leaders in the Asian community who got together after the war to right the wrongs they experienced. In 1952 the discriminatory laws aimed at Asian Americans were repealed.
The following year, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Mineta joined the Army and served as an intelligence officer in Japan and Korea. He joined his father in the Mineta Insurance Agency before entering politics in California. He served as a member of the San Jose City Council from 1967 to 1971 and its mayor from 1971 to 1974. This gave him the distinction of becoming the first Asian Pacific American mayor of a major U.S. city.
During his tenure in Congress (1975-1995), he co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and served as its first chairman. He was also the driving force behind passage of H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially apologized for and redressed the injustices endured by Japanese Americans during World War II.
"It was a long effort, but it succeeded because we reached out to Americans from all walks of life with a wide variety of viewpoints," he recalled. "They understood. This was proof to me that as Americans, regardless of background, we are really more alike than we are different. Each of us has an obligation to stand up for the rights of fellow Americans—not with rancor or bitterness, but with pride and resolution."
While changing the laws is difficult, the process of changing minds, hearts and stereotypes is even harder, according to Mr. Mineta. A recent survey found that 25 percent of the American public hold views about Asian Americans that are characterized by the pollster as "very negative" and 43 percent hold views that are "somewhat negative."
According to Mr. Mineta, President Bush has emphasized the goal of becoming a "welcoming society." "This welcoming spirit is the heritage of this immigrant nation and the commitment of this administration," he said. "No one should be subjected to unfair treatment because of their ethnic group. This belief is central to good and decent government."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.