A while back I wrote a post referencing Japanese American internment during WWII. A number of people have responded by asking why this bit of history matters to us today. The implication was that Americans (and by that I assume they meant white people) aren’t so naive anymore. Such a thing could never happen again.
That mass internment may never happen in the U.S. again is not a prediction I cotton to, though I’ll allow that it’s unlikely. So why tell and retell the story of internment during WWII?
Because we are still afraid. The color of the demons under our beds are still black and brown. And when racism and fear combine, particularly in times of crisis, the mixture is too often lethal. Lethal to our rights, our freedoms, even to our lives.
That we continue to be afraid of those we label The Other was made tragically evident by this weekend’s shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The shooting resulted in the deaths of 6 people. And according to Mark Potok and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the suspected shooter is “a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band.”
Many of the details aren’t known to us. I won’t comment further until they are except to say that bigoted violence is trending upward, especially toward those targeted as Muslims (and Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims though they are not, nor are they a related religion). Also trending upward is the number of organized white supremacist hate groups. Based on the upward trend of conservative Republicans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (double since his election in 2008), I’m guessing racist conspiracy theories are also on the rise.
History tells us that these phenomena are connected. History also shows that encouragement of bigotry in the form of scapegoating, racist pandering, and fear mongering on the part of visible mainstream leaders makes matters worse and may even be the glue the holds all the other trends together – word to Michele Bachman.
So maybe a reminder of history is in order.
During WWII, 120,000 Japanese Americans (JAs) were interned in the name of national security. These 120,000 were pulled out of a population of 127,000 JAs then living on the U.S. mainland. When Japanese Americans were ordered to camps, almost no one spoke up for them. Like the post-9/11 persecution of perceived Muslims by fearful vigilantes and the federal government 60 years later (not to mention the equally irrational declaration of war on Iraq), internment during WWII was deemed reasonable through the fog of fear.
881 Alaska Natives were also interned. Confined to damp, crowded conditions without medical care, one in 10 died in camp. Again, almost no one spoke up.
Yet virtually no evidence of espionage existed. Internment was justified by a better safe than sorry attitude that put white interests and white fears before the civil rights and civil liberties of Alaska Natives and JAs. And I do mean white interests and not national security interests. After all, internment largely excluded German Americans at a time when we were also at war with Germany.
Racism is driven by many things, not the least of which are greed and disdain for difference. But fear is what gives racism it’s dynamism. It is what can, in an instant, turn suspicion and resentment into violent repression.
Today, fear is turning extreme Christian nationalists into jihadists in a new war against infidels, and ordinary Americans into timid bystanders, aware of the growing wave of Islamophobia but afraid to speak out for fear of being labeled apologists for terrorism. Worse, we defend racial profiling, saying it’s not about hate. We just think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
But will whites become fearful and suspicious of white racists if, in fact, Wade Michael Page, the suspect in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin shooting, is proven guilty?
I doubt it. History is, again, informative.
I saw no noticeable uptick in fear mongering concerning white Christian extremists when militia members Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols committed the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. When whites commit acts of terrorism they are considered anomalies. But when brown and black people commit acts of violence, whole communities are pathologized as terrorists.
So it’s time for us all to start speaking up. And I don’t mean about fear alone, but about the way that fear and racism combine to create an explosive brew that has, repeatedly, resulted in violence and persecution.
This is why history matters.
Japanese American and Alaska Native internment, lynching, and the many other violations of human rights throughout our history serve as a reminders that of the power of fear when combined with racism. This is the thread connecting these historical atrocities and, judging by Sunday, that thread remains unbroken.