Norman Mineta, a former California congressman and secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush ’68, spoke to a full house Thursday at the Asian American Cultural Center about a life committed to public service.
The talk, which also included dinner and dessert, came a day after Mineta delivered the semiannual Chubb Lecture at the Whitney Humanities Center, where he spoke on “U.S. Security Concerns from Japanese-American Internment to 9/11 and ISIL.” Mineta, who is this semester’s Timothy Dwight Chubb Fellow, was the first Asian-American to hold a position in a Presidential Cabinet, and he is the fourth person in U.S. history to hold a cabinet position under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, those of Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and Bush. In May of 1994, Mineta founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, a bicameral group committed to advocating for the concerns of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. During his time in the House of Representatives, he co-sponsored a 1988 bill that provided reparation measures for Japanese-Americans who were affected by internment.
Mineta had first-hand experience with internment; during the talk — which drew roughly 70 Yale students, faculty and administrators — he spoke extensively about his experience as one of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.
AACC Director Saveena Dhall began the talk by asking Mineta how he managed to cultivate loyalty and love for a nation that had so shamefully violated his and so many others’ rights as people and citizens. In response, Mineta described his memories from that period in his life and his subsequent reaction to those events.
“I’ve only seen my dad cry three times,” Mineta said. “Once was on the 7th of December, because even though he was an immigrant from Japan, he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth was attacking the land of his heart. He came to really love the United States of America.”
Widely recognized for his work on civil rights, Mineta was the primary force behind the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, or the Japanese reparations bill, which was the first time the United States formally apologized for its treatment of its Japanese citizens and immigrants during the war. Mineta described how powerful a statement it was for then-President Ronald Reagan to sign the act, which provided $20,000 in redress for every living detainee.
“It was a great moment when that bill was signed into law,” he said. His voice faltering, he continued, “To me, the most striking part of that legislation was the part that said, ‘And the Congress, on behalf of the American people, apologizes for those people’s mistreatment who were evacuated and interned.’”
Mineta also played a crucial role in responding to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As secretary of transportation, it was Mineta’s call to ground all 4,546 airplanes flying over the U.S. at the time. He spoke about Bush’s emphasis on avoiding racial and ethnic profiling in the aftermath of the attacks. Referring to a cabinet meeting on Sept. 13 where concerns over the civil liberties of Muslim and Middle-Eastern Americans rose to the forefront of the discussion, Mineta recalled the president saying, “We don’t want to have happen today what happened to Norm [Mineta] in 1942.”
The abuse of rhetoric toward immigrants and minority communities — specifically Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans — in the current presidential election, however, was a cause of concern to Mineta. Citing a generally optimistic arc of progress in the country, he said he found it difficult to reconcile present political acrimony with the authentic concern for those vulnerable to exploitation he had experienced in the White House.
His memories of his experience in government, though, kept Mineta positive about the state of the nation.
“Here’s a country that is willing to admit its mistake and bring some kind of redress to that wrong,” he said, referring to the Japanese internment reparations. “When that legislation passed, the burden of shame that Japanese-Americans had carried from the time of evacuation — that their own government wouldn’t trust them, that their own government would treat them this way — that yoke was taken off their back. When you get a country to admits its mistakes and make redress, then you know you have a great country to live in.”
Afterwards, the floor was opened for members of the audience to ask questions, with Mineta staying long after the formal portion of the event to chat with students and administrators. Students interviewed at the event were uniformly impressed by Mineta’s storytelling, breadth of experience and powerful message.
Katherine Lin ’18 said she found Mineta inspirational.
“To see someone who has done so much and had such an impact on the society we live in is really inspiring, I think especially since he’s obviously been a minority in many situations, and has forged his way to the person he is now,” she said.
Mineta’s talk comes in advance of Feb. 19, the formal Day of Remembrance commemorating Japanese-American internment.
In December of 2006, Mineta was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.