An ING Tribute to Norm Mineta

ING Staff

June 17, 2022

Our country lost a hero on May 3: Norm Mineta, a Japanese American who broke through barriers of racism and bigotry to become a champion of the rights of all people. The City of San Jose, his hometown, gave Mineta a well-deserved tribute by declaring June 16 as Norm Mineta Day and celebrating a moving memorial at which such notables as former President Bill Clinton, former Congressmen Mike Honda and Leon Panetta, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, and current San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo all offered their reminiscences of Mineta as a principled fighter for justice for all people.

Mineta’s passion for justice was stoked by his own experience. Born in San Jose to immigrant Japanese parents in 1931, he and his family were forced at gunpoint to move to a Japanese incarceration camp in a remote part of Wyoming during World War II. Mineta acknowledged that experience of racist injustice as a source of his determination to stand up for all marginalized people. “He decided that he would find a way to make sure it never happened again,” Clinton declared at his memorial. “Mineta spent a lifetime trying to be a builder, not a breaker. A uniter, not a divider.”

Mineta showed his ability to unite and bring people together throughout his extensive career, as he broke through barrier after barrier. In 1967, he became San Jose’s first Asian American city council member. In reference to that breakthrough experience, Mineta said, “Because I was the first non-white person on the City Council in the city’s history, I wanted to be representative of those who had not been represented or who were underrepresented.” In 1971, he was elected mayor of San Jose with a whopping 67% of the vote, becoming the first Asian American mayor not only of his hometown but of any major US City.

In 1974, he won election to Congress, where he founded and chaired the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Reelected ten times, he broke through yet another barrier as the first Asian American to join a Presidential cabinet when President Clinton appointed him as Secretary of Commerce. He then became the sole Democrat in the cabinet of President George W. Bush, serving as Secretary of Transportation. It was in that position that he took the single most consequential anti-racist action of his career.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as soon as it became clear that Al Qaeda had perpetrated them, Mineta called on US airlines not to discriminate against Muslims or people of Middle Eastern backgrounds—a deeply courageous move under the circumstances:

  • While many were calling for racial profiling of Muslims, he appeared on major news outlets strongly rejecting the idea, citing his family’s experience with World War II Japanese incarceration.
  • In creating the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), he insisted that all its policies apply equally to all travelers regardless of their background, a policy that became a model for all post-9/11 law enforcement.
  • His stance for fair treatment and equality of all people alleviated and prevented harm to Muslims who at the time were suffering the worst outbreak of Islamophobia in the history of this country.

Panetta, a lifelong friend who served in Congress with Mineta, summed up his friend’s character: “Imagine a young boy, American citizen suddenly made a prisoner in his own country for no reason other than that he was Japanese American. For most of us, what happened would have resulted in a lifelong rage. Not Norm. It made him fight even more for a better America for the rest of his life.”

Despite the political heights he reached and the barriers he brought down, Mineta is remembered by those who knew him as a modest and unassuming person of warmth and humor—though he showed fierce determination to accomplish a goal once he had set his mind on it. It is fitting that the city of San Jose named its international airport after Norm Mineta; he spent his life and career leaping over barriers and building connections among diverse peoples.

He was truly a hometown hero for San Jose—and for us at ING, for whom his memory is a continuing inspiration for our work of peacemaking across lines of difference. We are indebted to him for his courageous stance against racial profiling after 9/11. Thank you, Norm Mineta.

Rest in peace, friend.