BLACK ENTERPRISE celebrates the 45th anniversary of its roster of the nation’s most successful black businesses—The BE 100s. To commemorate the significance of this collective’s widespread impact on black business and economic development as well as American industry over four decades, we have presented 45 milestone moments. As part of this tribute, we continue our yearlong countdown.
1986: Black Business Leaders Clapback at Racist Statement
After making what many considered derogatory remarks about blacks and other American ethnic groups, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone got a strong rebuttal from some of the nation’s top black business leaders infuriated with the comments.
The controversy came in 1986 when the former prime minister was speaking to his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, reportedly telling them that blacks, Latinos, and, other minorities tug down the educational levels of the United States.
Responding to the Japanese leader’s speech suggesting that the racially homogeneous country was “intellectually” superior to the U.S. because of “black people, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans,” African American business leaders led by BE 100 CEOs including Clarence Avant, Comer Cottrell, George Johnson, Byron Lewis, and Earl G. Graves, pressed for an apology and reciprocal trade in a full-page ad in The New York Times.
Nakasone apologized for his remarks a week after making them. “Let me make one thing very clear,” Nakasone said in the apology. “I have always firmly believed that America’s greatness derives from the dynamism and achievements of her many ethnic communities. It was not my intent whatsoever to imply any racial discrimination nor to criticize any aspect of American society.”
Still, Nakasone never recanted his statements, attracting strong negative reactions from African Americans across the country and members of Congress. At the same time, the then Reagan administration did not offer an immediate reaction, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, urged Nakasone to retract the statement. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a telegram to the Japanese Embassy in Washington asking for an urgent clarification of the remarks.
Prominent black leaders, including Earl G. Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise; Clarence Page, a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board; and, civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, were among those who denounced Nakasone’s statements.
Some Japanese-Americans joined black, Hispanic, and other leaders in demanding an apology from Nakasone. During a meeting at the time with the Japanese Ambassador, Nobuo Matsunaga, the leaders, spearheaded by Jackson, called Nakasone’s remarks an ”insult” to all Americans, but especially the mentioned groups, and demanded an immediate apology.
”Whether the meaning of the words had to do with intelligence or literacy, it was an insult,” Jackson said in a letter delivered to Ambassador Matsunaga. ”We in this country have spent too much time fighting stereotypes, including those against Asian-Americans, to tolerate the perpetuation of stereotypes from Asians against our own people.”