Friday, February 19, 2016

Our worst demons come out when we're scared

In this moment of exaggerated panic about vague foreign threats, while the Donald bleats for a registry of Muslims in the USA, we should recall we've been here before -- and we're mostly ashamed about it.

On February 19, 1942, two months after the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that permitted military authorities to declare areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." General John L. DeWitt used this authority to force almost all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. Two thirds of the approximately110,000 persons sent to the camps were born in the United States and therefore were citizens; 30,000 were children; the rest were legal residents.

The military internment unleashed unabashed nativism and racism. Japanese ethnicity was rapidly made into a race in the classic white pattern. One of those military authorities, Major Karl Bendetsen, explained his plans:

"I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp."

This racializing of an ethnic group had broad consequences in the internment orders:

These edicts included persons of part-Japanese ancestry as well. Anyone with at least one-sixteenth (equivalent to having one great-great grandparent) Japanese ancestry was eligible. Korean-Americans and Taiwanese, classified as ethnically Japanese because both Korea and Taiwan were Japanese colonies, were also included.

And it is inadequate to think of the internment only as the mass imprisonment of families in hastily converted stables and remote tent camps; this was also about envious white neighbors seizing the property of the more prosperous Japanese-Americans. Many white residents of California and parts north had always resented their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, spelled out his views to the Saturday Evening Post:

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.

Internees lost their businesses, their savings, and their even their personal property.

In Hawaii, which had suffered an actual attack and sat in the midst of the Pacific battlefield, only 2000 of 157,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were placed in camps. The military there needed Japanese American labor in the fields and ship repair yards!

On the mainland, although by end of the war many Japanese Americans had been released and even recruited into the military,

... the exclusion order was not rescinded until January 2, 1945 (postponed until after the November 1944 election, so as not to impede Roosevelt's reelection campaign).

Most Japanese Americans never got their property back, but they campaigned long and hard for legal vindication and even reparations. In the late 1980s, Congress ordered payments of $20,000 to surviving detainees.

Hardship and mistreatment aren't good for anyone, but many Japanese Americans of the generation consigned to the camps became tenacious fighters for human freedom including Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Yuri Kochiyama. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) advocates for the civil and human rights of all people. They can be bold: JACL came out for legalizing same sex marriage in 1994 when most LGBT people had barely thought about this remote possibility. Today JACL is in the forefront of activities in support of the civil rights of Muslims and of calls for resettling Syrian escapees in the United States.

We should all be so generous.

The photo is a detail from a commemorative monument Japantown, San Francisco. I have used Wikipedia liberally here to check numbers and dates. The article on the internment is exceptionally good.


Rain Trueax said...

A few years back, we stopped at Manzanar on our way home from Tucson. It was both depressing what had been done but also inspiring for the artistic energy of the ones there left behind garden sculptures that blow you away. I took tons of photos that day. For anyone who has not been there, I totally recommend it.

The people imprisoned there took what was available to them, rocks, their own creativity, and created gardens. They deteriorated with age but then have been restored by those wanting the story told. They are so impressive for how they showed their souls despite their situation.

Personally I think it was more about bigotry than fear that led to it. They looked different. Germans did have a few put in concentration camps but very few, nothing like what was done to the Japanese, even born in this country. It allowed theft of their land but revealed the underbelly of human nature to be bigots!

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain -- glad to hear about Manzanar. We made a point of going to Tule Lake once (and you really do have to make a point to get there!) and found it empty and sad. I will try to get to Mananzar when I'm in the south.

Japanese Americans have played a terrifically honorable and brave role in this country. What makes people respond to adversity with creativity and grace? Whatever it is, we could use more of it.

Hattie said...

I knew a few Japanese Americans when I worked in SF. One had been in an internment camp. And I remember seeing the remnants of Japan Town in the 50s and wondering about why Chinatown was there but Japantown wasn't. The community was destroyed. Nobody talked about this then or felt any particular shame about it. Has the area been reworked as "historical" Japantown?
How different this is from the thriving Japanese community here, where only a few Japanese were interned.

janinsanfran said...

Japantown in San Francisco had the misfortune, on top of the economic effects of internment, to be located adjacent to the African American Fillmore District which was literally expunged from the city in the name of "Redevelopment." That's a horror story; today only 3-6 percent of San Franciscans are Black.

As for Japantown, there are a couple of blocks of showy Japanese "culture" and JACL has a headquarters there. It feels as if designed to cater to Japanese tourists more than a San Francisco Japanese population. Tasteful and very pleasant though. I like eating there occasionally.

Brandon said...

I saw part of this live last night. You might find it interesting.

janinsanfran said...

Thanks for the link Brandon. I watched some of it. Both the host and the Muslim guests seemed very nice people. Hawaii has to practice respect for diversity more than the mainland, I think.

Hattie said...

Gee, that's amazing about the black population of SF and something I did not know. How about the Ingleside, which was integrated and still is, according to what I can find out? The middle class black people I worked with in SF lived there.

janinsanfran said...

To understand San Francisco these days, you have to understand that, unless you are making over $100,000 annually and perhaps even higher, you can't move here. And there are a huge number of young tech workers who are making that kind of money and who have free/cheap transport via the Google buses to work on the Peninsula, who do make that kind of money and want to live here. So landlords can charge $3500 and up for one bedroom apartments -- and have every incentive to get existing tenants who can't pay that kind of money out so they can cash in. Tenants have some protections, but the incentives for owners to turn over tenants are very strong.

The cheapest condos and shacks in this town run over $1 million to buy, so forget most people who make working or middle class money buying in. The only way for ordinary folks to own a house here is to have had it for years (as we have).

Black homeowners here, as everywhere else, were hit particularly hard by the housing crash in 2008, ending up with expensive mortgages and high foreclosure rates.

And middle class home owners getting older naturally have strong incentives to cash out -- though I have little idea where people go. The Ingleside Black population was middle class -- maybe some have gone South. Nationally there is evidence of Black re-migration in that direction.

Working class renting Blacks, like all renters, are under terrific pressure. Even in the Bayview, people are pushed out.

It's not the city it used to be. And Oakland is not much better. It too is losing Black population.

Brandon said...

"Hawaii has to practice respect for diversity more than the mainland, I think."

How so?

Brandon said...

Hawaii does have its own problems with racism:

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