We are a group of parents and community members who are deeply disturbed by the reasoning and tactics employed by a segment of our parent community who objected to naming a Palo Alto middle school after Fred Yamamoto, a Palo Alto High School graduate, survivor of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps and decorated war hero who died fighting for the American values that we all hold dear. To address these concerns, we put forth a resolution for the Board of Education's consideration.
Community members who objected to renaming a middle school after Fred Yamamoto argued that it would bring back painful memories due to their association of the name Yamamoto with World War II Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, even though they are not related. Yamamoto is the seventh most common last name in Japan and is shared by five families in our school district.
If there were a German, Chinese, Confederate or Middle Eastern historical figure who committed heinous crimes, does that prohibit us from naming a school after an accomplished American who happens to have a common last name that is similar to the historical one? The answer should be a resounding "no." We should judge a person based on their own accomplishments and not penalize them for the wrongdoings of unrelated individuals who happen to have the same last name.
The logic here, best described as "guilt by association," mirrors the logic that led Fred Yamamoto, along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese heritage, to be incarcerated during World War II. That same line of reasoning is now being used to justify a "Muslim ban" with direct reference to Supreme Court decisions that have yet to be overturned.
The deployment of that logic in this campaign -- and the impact it had on our school board's decision-making -- is troubling, as were some of the tactics used. Those tactics included the distribution of unauthorized anti-Yamamoto flyers directly to students at Jordan and Terman middle schools on the Friday prior to the board meeting at which the new names were chosen.
There is no question that the Japanese army committed terrible atrocities during World War II, and we understand that this history has left some in our community with deep scars. We do not intend in any way to dismiss or diminish this pain, but we cannot allow that pain to be deployed in a way that perpetuates further cycles of prejudice and bigotry in present-day America.
In a community as diverse as ours, with citizens from around the world calling Palo Alto home, public officials should demonstrate understanding and empathy towards immigrant communities' past experiences, but they must not do so in ways that undermine our core democratic values.
Our goal has never been to reverse the school board's decision to rename our schools after other worthy individuals; it has been to ask the board to explicitly reject the faulty reasoning and questionable tactics employed by the opposition campaign, as well as undertake positive initiatives to create the conditions necessary to ensure we live up to our reputation as a compassionate, just and welcoming community.
The original resolution we proposed has unqualified support from over 150 community members of many backgrounds, including both Japanese- and Chinese-Americans, non-Asian Americans, immigrants and non-immigrants alike, academics and leaders from multiple organizations committed to the protection and advancement of civil rights. All have understood the dangers of the "guilt by association" reasoning and that the danger is not limited to the five families in our school district with the last name Yamamoto or to the broader Japanese-American community in Palo Alto schools. This issue affects everyone.
The full resolution is needed because the arguments made against naming a school after Fred Yamamoto pose threats to all who are commonly viewed as being "foreign" or "other," such as people of color, immigrants or other vulnerable groups. This has played out throughout U.S. history, including the targeting of Chinese-Americans with the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese-Americans with their incarceration in World War II, African-Americans through government-sanctioned segregation and Native-Americans through their mass extermination and relegation to reservations. More recently, the same rationale was used post-9/11 to justify the profiling of Muslims.
Our resolution recognizes that prejudice and discrimination is wrong no matter which group is on the receiving end. When we are aware of discrimination and do not speak up, the cost of our silence is borne by the victims of this discrimination.
The formation of a district committee to address human rights issues in our schools is critical. It is equally critical that we do not paper over the "guilt by association" line of thinking that informed the anti-Yamamoto campaign, sacrificing community values and norms in an attempt to "keep the peace." Appeasement is not without costs and consequences.
We believe that the full resolution we originally put forward is the necessary first step -- that by drawing a firm line in the sand, we have the best hope of restoring community norms and bringing about genuine healing to the community as well as preventing future harms that would be the unintended consequence of leaving this line of reasoning unchallenged.
We will be judged in future years on how our community and those who lead it respond to this. Our community needs strong leaders who will stand up for what is right even if it is difficult or controversial. We are confident that our school board is made up of the courageous, principled and sophisticated community leaders that this moment requires.
Michelle Higgins, Satomi Okazaki and Rika Yamamoto are parents of current Palo Alto Unified School District students.
Steven Lee is a third generation Chinese-American who currently sits on the city of Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.
Eimi Okano is a co-founder of the nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement.
Dana Tom served on the Palo Alto Board of Education from 2005-2014, including as board president.
The school board will take action on a revised "community relations" resolution on Tuesday, June 19. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. View the agenda here.