Seventy years after the end of World War II Japanese American incarceration, that dark chapter in American history is suddenly in the news again. I am alarmed to see it being used to fuel the persecution of Muslims and Muslim Americans following the terroristic actions of a few radicalized individuals and groups in Paris, Beirut, Mali, and San Bernardino. Here, as in the early 1940s, we find ourselves in a climate of fear in which people are being persecuted and profiled based solely on their group identity, be it religious or ethnic.
As a Japanese American who has dedicated the past 20 years to documenting the history of World War II incarceration, this vitriol is dangerously familiar. The anti-Muslim attitudes and actions of recent weeks echo efforts to cast all people of Japanese ancestry as “the enemy” in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor — and the similarities should trouble all of us who see the limitations and harm of racial or religious bigotry. Yet, as my friend Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute aptly put it, “It’s like 1942 all over again.”
The troubling parallels have been escalating for nearly a month now. First, the rhetoric used to demonize Syrian refugees was eerily similar to World War II-era words against Japanese Americans. In defending bans on Syrian refugees, Roanoke Mayor David A. Bowers claimed that ethnic profiling was sometimes necessary, citing the incarceration of 120,000 U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry.
Then, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Donald Trump issued the now-infamous call to ban all Muslim immigration to the United States, along with the claim that World War II incarceration set a positive historical precedent. On Tuesday, Public Policy Polling announced new poll results that show 48 percent of Trump supporters in Iowa endorse World War II incarceration, with only 21 percent saying they opposed it.
As the director of Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of Japanese American incarceration, I am shocked to see that a shameful part of the American past is being viewed once again as a model for contemporary governance. It’s one thing to have a demagogue like Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigration and speaking favorably of World War II incarceration, but the wide support for Japanese American incarceration among Trump supporters in Iowa is deeply troubling. It seems that those who are caving to anti-Muslim attitudes are looking for a historical example to back them up, but I refuse to sit idly by and watch the injustices wrought on our community be used to justify the persecution of another group.
In signing redress legislation in 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized and acknowledged that the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was a result of “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The fact that in 2015, President Barack Obama is having to remind the American public that incarceration was a grievous mistake shows just how far we’ve regressed as a result of politicized fear-mongering and vitriolic speech.
None of us anticipated this reopening of old wounds, but now that it’s happened, I am committed to using it as an opportunity to speak out about the perils of racism and prejudice in times of fear. Over the past several weeks, the Densho staff has issued statements, published an open letter to Donald Trump, and put out a call to action to promote historical awareness and understanding. We are here in solidarity with the Muslim community knowing they need our support and the support of others during this time of fear.