Perception and Reality in Japanese-Black Relations

February 16, 1992|By Arch Parsons

Some 35 Japanese business executives went to school one evening last week to learn about black America. But for some in the group -- those engaged in manufacturing Japanese automobiles -- the lesson may have come to late.

The subject of the session last Monday -- the same subject that some of the executives and other Japanese participants have been pursuing now for nearly two years -- was "Perceptions vs. Reality: A Discussion of Japanese-Black American Relations."

"In recent times, that relationship has been subjected to some extraordinary strains," wrote Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in the foreward of a pamphlet -- a primer of sorts -- prepared for the discussion course. The strains, Mr. Williams added, have been "fueled by a number of highly publicized racial slurs lobbed across the Paciofic by Japanese leaders, and by charges of racial discrimination in Japanese companies operating in the United States."

The Joint Center, the highly regarded black-issues think tank, sponsored Monday's program along with the Japan Commerce Association, a loosely knit, Washington-oriented group of nearly 200 Japanese corporate representatives and individual business executives.

Against the background of Mr. Williams' primer, the executives spent Monday evening sharpening their preceptions of black America: Seated in the ballroom of a Washington hotel, they viewed a portion of "Eyes on the Prize," the award-winning film about the civil rights movement, and heard a lecture on "the black experience" by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Georgetown Unilversity law professor who is also this city's non-voting delegate to Congress. The next day, they received a stiff jolt of reality.

Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told NAACP members that he was fed up with trying to negotiate with Japanese car manufacturers to make more dealerships available African Americans. He urged the NAACP's 400,000 or so members -- and all other blacks -- to "buy American" from now on when it came to the purchase of cars.

Mr. Hooks came as close as he could to calling for a black boycott of Japanese cars without using the word. He was being cautious, he said, because he feared that an outright appeal for a boycott might leave him open to being sued. Mr. Hooks, besides being the NAACP's director and a Baptist minister, is also a lawyer.

To the Japanese executives who had attended "school" the night before -- particularly those in the car-manufacturing business -- Mr. Hooks' threat had to send some chills up the spine. The portion of "Eyes on The Prize" that they saw portrayed the day in 1956 when Rosa Parks had simply had it with being consigned to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her refusal to take a rear seat precipitated the black boycott of the city's bus system which paralyzed the system and brought about Montgomery's capitulation to open busing. (Mrs. Parks' action also set off the civil rights movement -- and introduced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the world.)

The lesson was there for the Japanese executives to read: A black boycott, whether of a city bus system or of Japanese cars, could be devastating -- if successful.

There was no immediate indication of how hard Mr. Hooks would push his "Buy American" campaign against the Japanese car manufacturers.

"This is not Japanese-bashing," he said at the Baltimore-based NAACP's 83rd anniversary celebration. "We don't hate anybody. But we want to take care of our own.

While there were 359 minority-owned dealerships among the Big Three U.S. automakers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- there were 11 such dealerships among the major Japanese car manufacturers, he said. According to NAACP estimates, about 30 percent of black car owners bought Japanese cars -- a figure said to be roughly comparable to overall U.S. car ownership.

"We've been pushing the Big Three for the last several years to get black dealers and we've gotten some response," Mr. Hooks told reporters. But he said there has been little response from Japanese car makers.

"Only smiles and politeness," said another NAACP official last week."

Among those attending Monday night's discussion program was Toshihiro Iwatake, deputy general director of the Washington office of the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Mr. Iwatake showed no awareness of what Mr. Hooks had in store for him the next day. Instead, he was expressing some satisfication with JAMA's efforts to control the damage created recently by the speaker of Japan's House of Councillors, Yoshio Sakurauchi, who described American workers as lazy and slipshod.

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