Have things gotten better? Reflecting on the Japanese-American internment


On Feb. 19, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that led the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans across the country. (Screenshot courtesy of  18MR.org Twitter )

On Feb. 19, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that led the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans across the country. (Screenshot courtesy of 18MR.org Twitter)

The current racial state of America is not good. White supremacist feel comfortable marching in the streets, the current prison population does not match the racial make-up of the country and immigrant populations across the country are being scapegoated because of their background. Yesterday marked the 76-year anniversary of one of the greatest racial and human rights atrocities in American history that has been ignored by the general public because we won a war.

On Feb. 19, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that led the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans across the country. These American citizens were moved from across the country, primarily from the West Coast. The order allowed the government to relocate anyone they thought they might be a threat to a military area. The government in turn named the entire West Coast a military area. In a shocking move, the Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s executive order, but the dissenting opinion was that the U.S. had violated citizens’ rights. Additionally Justice Frank Murphy, a dissenter, noted that there were clear racist motivations attached to the move because only Japanese-Americans were targeted while German-Americans and Italian-Americans were largely ignored.   

The move was carried out around two and half months after the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After two and half years, the program was ended. The Reagan administration attempted in offer reparations by issuing checks and an official government apology. The decision has never been declared unconstitutional.

It’s also a part of history that is routinely glossed-over, but as the world changes, it’s important that we remember and reflect on what has happened in the past.

Many people would argue that war changes people. Simply looking at U.S. history shows that America commits horrible atrocities all the time. In fact we didn’t pass meaningful anti-discrimination laws until 1964. Others will argue the order was passed to keep the country safe during wartime, but based on history, that once again, appears to be false. If safety was a concern then German-Americans and Italian-Americans would have also been targeted.

The real reason Japanese-Americans were targeted was because the government, and the country didn’t view them as Americans. Most of the citizens interned in the camps were first and second generation Americans. For the government it was easy to label them as potential threats because they felt that generationally they might be closer to where they immigrated from.

This idea that immigrants are more loyal to their country of origin is not an idea that has disappeared. It’s been an idea that’s been rising since 9/11 when people decided that brown Americans were a threat because they had some superficial relation to those who had committed such a heinous act.

This argument hinges on the idea of being American, which begs the question what being an American actually is. According to pop culture, America is supposed to a place built on hard work and perseverance. All are welcome from around the world as long as they help to make the country better than when they arrived. An American is someone who embodies those values and uses them to help celebrate and protect what America is. Early on, that celebration and protection turned into nationalism and a desire to keep America pure, as if somehow a nation of immigrants could ever be universally one thing.

In the beginning Irish immigrants were the enemy. While expanding the country, Asian-Americans were the enemy. People of color have always been a target. Basically if you are different from the status-quo then you are not welcome. If you don’t look white then you can’t be an American.

Growing up the child of two immigrant parents, I used to believe that America was better than it’s past. I l wanted to believe the America that felt slavery and discrimination was necessary was long gone. I wanted to believe that America felt wrong about forcing Japanese-Americans into camps while liberating concentration campus in Europe. I even hoped that the war-time America was vastly different from the peace-time one. The past 22 years have shown me that I was naïve.

Racists march the streets, our president spews hatred from Twitter, people are banned from entering the U.S. because of their countries main religion and immigrants are blamed for all of our problems. We haven’t gotten better, we’ve gotten much worse.

In 1942, America chose to define being American as being not Japanese. 74 years later, the only thing that’s changed is who we discriminate against now.  

Amar Batra is a senior staff photographer and weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email amar.batra@uconn.edu. He tweets at @amar_batra19.

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