Past Is an Ally in Quest for Racial Parity

The federal order to send more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans to inland relocation camps during World War II is one of the great tragedies of our history. Unfortunately for the children of many of those who were relocated, their parents found those times too horrid to talk about.

Law school professor Neil T. Gotanda of Fullerton says he and his two brothers were fortunate. “Our parents were willing to share with us what it was like, and what it did to their lives.”

They were stories Gotanda never forgot. His parents were already married when they were pulled from their Northern California home and sent to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark. His father was a doctor; his mother taught elementary school.

That personal history helped shape Gotanda’s dedication to finding a way to improve the lives of Asian Americans--and help America better understand its Asian communities.


Perhaps his parents’ past, he says, even influenced his decision to enter law. Gotanda earned his law degree from UC Berkeley, and his master’s in teaching law at Harvard Law School. Gotanda, 49, has taught at Western State College of Law in Fullerton since 1986. And his work, which focuses on minority issues, has undoubtedly shown his parents’ influence.

Gotanda was recently named the nation’s most outstanding minority law professor, receiving the Clyde Ferguson Award from the American Assn. of Law Schools. Ferguson was the first black law professor at Harvard.

Gotanda’s research has asked two basic questions: Is the U.S. Constitution colorblind? And do Asian Americans receive fair treatment in the judicial system?.

When I talked to Gotanda recently, much of what I heard him say was echoed by the American Bar Assn. on Monday, when it sought a temporary national ban on capital punishment, contending the death penalty is not applied fairly to minorities.


“For example,” Gotanda said, “in the state of Georgia, a minority person is four times more likely to be executed if he kills a white person than if he kills another minority.”

Gotanda was also one of the leaders in the protest against Proposition 209, the ballot initiative passed by voters that set aside government affirmative action in California (and is now tied up in a court fight).

“Colorblindness may be a worthy goal,” Gotanda said, “but it can have the opposite effect of what was intended. The Constitution should not operate in a vacuum that doesn’t include the reality of race as an issue.”

I read one of his papers on the subject in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. Most of it was in legalese and over my head. But Gotanda’s commitment to the issues he believes in was readily evident. The Clyde Ferguson Award not only honors Gotanda, but Western State, which is fortunate to have him on its faculty.

Peres Canceled: The Shimon Peres speech at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach on Sunday has been postponed.

The former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner sent word that he cannot leave Israel because of the military helicopter crash there Tuesday in which 73 people were killed. Peres is the opposition Labor leader.

Karen Green, one of the organizers of the event, says Peres will make up the speech, but no date has been set yet.

Up, Up and Away: A sore point with my wife is that I have a tough time saying “no” to anybody. But I said no to someone last week who wanted me to go parasailing along the Laguna Coast.


Twenty years ago, maybe I’d try it. But after 40 extra pounds and at age 49, parasailing ranked near the bottom on my list of things I wanted to try. She called again. “No,” I said again. . . .

So let me tell you about my parasailing experience along the Laguna Coast. Wow! I wouldn’t have said this last week, but you haven’t fully experienced what this county has to offer until you’ve been up with the chute. Just you and the birds. The exhilaration is something you won’t forget. We’re running photos on Page E-4 today of someone else sailing the same skies I did this week.

I don’t think Mike Perrin, a co-owner of Balboa Parasail at the Balboa Fun Zone, knew how nervous I was about this.

“Where do you live, Jerry?”


“If the line snaps, just point that baby toward Anaheim.”

Very funny.

I shot into the air just as I was about to say I’d changed my mind. What a rush. Truth is, it was completely safe. You sit in a swing-like harness attached to the parachute. The line tying the chute to the boat operates on a hydraulic winch. You can signal the driver if you want to go higher or lower. The line runs 600 feet, which can put you about 400 feet in the air. When you come down, the winch simply pulls you safely back into the boat. There are no difficult takeoffs and landings on the beach as you might have seen in Baja parasailing.


I wore my clothes, my shoes, my hat, a pair of gloves, and my glasses, and never got a drop of water on any of them.

Cost is $45; $75 if you want to go up as a couple--say for Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, Balboa Parasail is the only operation in the county right now licensed for the sport.

My next goal is to get my wife to try it. No luck so far; she says “no” better than I do.

Wrap-Up: I reached Neil Gotanda in Boston, where he is teaching at the Boston College Law School this semester, on sabbatical from Western State.

Gotanda says he finds the students there eager to explore the subjects of race and the Constitution that he’s interested in. I asked him how he felt about being singled out as the top minority professor. His reply:

“It’s a great honor, but what’s rewarding is to see my work being recognized.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by call-ing The Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail