Midway through his talk on Japanese-black American relations on Friday afternoon, Percy R. Luney Jr. leaned on the huge rectangular table and passed around a book of ethnic jokes and pieces of "black memorabilia," stereotypical images of blacks that he had acquired during his years as a scholar in Japan.
The Japanese-made memorabilia, he said, date back as far as the late 1940s and the American occupation of Japan after World War II.
In the book, "It's Only a Joke," a contemporary publication in Japan by an American, one joke asks, "Why are colored kids so easy to babysit for?" The answer given: "You can just wet their lips and stick 'em to a wall."
Luney is a graduate of the District's Coolidge High School and Harvard Law School, an expert on Japanese constitutional law, and a law professor at North Carolina Central University and Duke University. He linked the crude, racist caricatures of blacks that are still pervasive in Japan and the ongoing racial slurs by Japanese government officials to Japanese history and American attitudes.
Speaking at a Joint Center for Political Studies symposium, he noted that during the 1930s, when Japan was becoming an imperialistic nation, its leaders adopted homogeneity and purity as a way of beefing up Japanese pride. "Racial and cultural purity became fused in the exclusionistic rhetoric of Japanese nationalism, which permeated government policy and thought during the '30s and '40s," he said.
Because the current leaders of Japan were educated and grew up during the peak of this nationalistic movement, he said, their tendency toward racially biased and insensitive statements is not surprising.
Seiroku Kajiyama, Japan's new justice minister, made the most recent public slur in September when he compared the flight of shoppers and businessmen from a wealthy section of Tokyo because of increasing prostitution to the flight of whites from cities in the United States due to increasing numbers of blacks. He later apologized for his inappropriate comments on race relations in the United States, not his insensitivity.
Typically, Luney said, Kajiyama did not understand the problem in context. "He indicates it is because blacks are bad that whites move out, not because some whites are racist and just don't want to live near blacks," he said.
In addition, Luney said, "A lot of their attitudes toward foreigners, particularly black Americans, are learned attitudes that have come from contact with white Europeans and white Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries."
Moreover, such television programs as "Sanford and Son," which has been broadcast in Asia, contribute to stereotypes. "Americans understand the context of such a program, but in Asia, they say, 'Oh, blacks live in junkyards. It's obvious they have no status in American society.' " Currently, several Japanese authors are using blacks in their literature, and the sexuality and physical aura of the black male are emphasized, he said.
While there was a great deal of interest in the historical antecedents of the problems, Luney's audience also wanted to hear about how to stop the seemingly unending wave of racist rhetoric emanating from Japan.
Because Luney sees the image of blacks in Japan inextricably linked to the status of African Americans in the United States, he thinks changing attitudes in Japan has a lot to do with blacks' succeeding in America. Citing recent Supreme Court decisions overturning gains made in the l960s and pushing blacks backward, not forward, Luney is pessimistic.
Like Luney, black leaders and businessmen are still criticizing Japanese attitudes. Reginald F. Lewis, chairman and chief executive officer of TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., said, "The real disappointment is the mild rebuke of responsible Japanese leaders to this most recent incident . . . . Slandering a community that indirectly but significantly helps power the Japanese economy suggests that the Japanese still do not know on which side of the Pacific their bread is buttered."
Eddie N. Williams, president of the center, has called on President Bush to "condemn unequivocally" the derogatory statement, which he called an affront to our nation. So far, the White House has been mum on the Japanese slurs.
Luney agrees with Williams that presidential intervention is urgent: "Every time you have a comment and there is no condemnation from the American president, that says something in itself."
And what it says, while not surprising in that it is typical of George Bush, is that the president of this country does not care enough about 30 million Americans to stand up for them in one way that would be important.