Monday, May 25, 2015

Internment Camps and Racism

I find most of the conversations that we have about race to be quite shallow. They usually end in finger pointing or someone saying something like "you don't think I'm a racist, do you?" or my favorite "I'd hate to sound racist but ..."  As an American that knows a little bit about history, I start off with the default setting in that I assume if you are an American, you are a racist. How can you help not be? Our history is so seeped in racism, just by the the virtue of you being born here, you cannot help but have some sort of hang-up about race. Racism is in our Constitution. We ended slavery not by decree like other countries, we had to have the bloodiest war in our history to do so. The man on the US $20 bill was responsible for the force marching of 16,000 natives into relocation camps (we called them reservations). They were taken from their ancestral homes in Florida and Georgia and marched across several states to land west of the Mississippi River. I could go on about Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, mass incarceration or the Tuskegee experiments. Is that all in our past? Are we post-racial? Fuck no! The idea that we are post-racial was put forth by guilt ridden suburbanites who wanted to feel good about themselves because they voted for a bi-racial president. We are an inch up the yard stick of racial progress, empty conversations are just marking a notch on stick or a ditch on the road of progress.  In light of all the racist bullshit I've been seeing on the news lately (of Ferguson and Baltimore etc.), I would hope that the only people talking about a post-racial society, are only doing so ironically.

I do realize that if you overuse a word, you belittle its meaning. If every attack of violence or rebellion is called terrorism, we belittle real terrorism. Therefore if everyone is a racist, then no one is racist. I understand the semantics. I am fine with this. Consider it a bump on the road of progress, once we get over the name calling, we'll be thrust into a real conversation.

You ready? Let's talk ...

When it comes to Presidential acts of racism, we usually don't think of recent history. We usually think of the aforementioned Jackson and his Trail of Tears or John Adams and his Alien and Sedition Acts or one of the slave owner presidents. We don't think of FDR. Can you imagine Americans being taken from their homes, put on buses and put into camps? It is something that our liberal icon, Franklin Roosevelt, did. The internment camps of recent past is a crime we talk little about today. It is difficult to understand how this could happen.  Americans have a tendency to overreact, like the Patriot Act and two unsustainable wars after the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, we don't learn a lot from our history. The racism I witnessed after those attacks may not have been as bad as what the Japanese went through after Pearl Harbor, but it was pretty gross nonetheless .... and it still lingers. Since we still haven't gotten over slavery, I expect this isn't going away anytime soon.

Let go back a few years before the war. After President Arthur passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forbade anymore immigrants from China, Japanese immigration greatly increased on the American west coast. Due to laws passed in 1907 and 1924, it completely stopped. This is relevant in that by the time the Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor, all the Japanese families living in the US (mostly California) had been here for over 30 years. They were still forbidden to be citizens, couldn't vote or officially, own land.  The devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake, gave rise to more segregated schools during the rebuilding boom. A small isolated population was easy to demonize.  On February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt initially giving the Secretary of War the authority to treat parts of the US as war zones. This started with curfews and other restrictions to everyone of Japanese ancestry and lead to interment camps.

We often hear them referred to as Japanese interment camps which is deceptive because it wasn't just Japanese but Germans and Italians were interred as well. About 60% were Japanese. The difference being that only certain professions were interned of Germans and Italians (ranging from photographers to engineers). Entire families of Japanese were interred. After their homes and business were taken, they were carted like cattle, we then asked them to sign loyalty oaths. Due to the 1924 Immigration Act. when they owned land, they often had the names of white men on the deeds because they couldn't own land in their own names. After internment, their property easily was taken. Even when they were released, they had to start over. This was the perfect storm of racism.

Most of the camps were segregated as well. Most of the Germans and Italians were sent to Camp Albuquerque in New Mexico. The only camp that housed a significant mix was Crystal City in Texas. Multiple nationality camps were against the Geneva Convention. Crystal City was mainly used to house detainees who were expected to be used in prisoner exchanges. Roughly 50 camps existed scattered throughout the Western states. The idea of interning more Germans and Italians was unpopular, for one, there were over 50 million Germans in America at the time and some of America's most popular people were Italian.  Joe DiMaggio was Italian. After all, they looked like us. Not like those damn slanty-eyed Japs! (**deep sigh**)

If you are looking for something to ponder on Memorial Day.  Here is something:  At the start of World War II we didn't allow Japanese Americans to serve in the military. But Roosevelt changed his mind shortly after the war started and they formed the 442 Infantry Regiment of the Army. They recruited from the camps. They fought mostly in the Italian campaign. It is one of the the most decorated units in American military history with 14,000 men earning 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 metals of honor. Even a sniveling peacenik is impressed by this. 

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