December 11, 2015
Your call to put a moratorium on all Muslim immigration to the United States made it all too clear that a dark part of the American past is haunting us yet again. It’s fitting that you issued this call on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, an event that catalyzed a spate of fear and racism that ended with the mass incarceration of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent—two thirds of whom were American citizens.
Your words were eerily reminiscent of an anti-Asian nativism that simmered for decades before leading to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and similar anti-Japanese exclusion in 1924. This legislation established a framework for viewing Asians as morally and politically suspect. It laid the foundation for politicians to label an entire ethnic group as “the enemy” so that in the panic-stricken aftermath of Pearl Harbor, mass incarceration of those with Japanese heritage seemed both justified and necessary.
You went on to directly invoke this shameful vestige of our American past, even making the reprehensible suggestion that World War II incarceration might have been justified. Even members of your own party have long since acknowledged that incarcerating Japanese Americans without trial or due cause was a grave error. In signing redress legislation in 1988, President Ronald Regan apologized and acknowledged that the wartime incarceration was wrong a result of “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
That you issue these reckless missives under the campaign slogan “Make American Great Again” is a profound insult to Japanese Americans—as it should be to all Americans who uphold the values written into law in our Constitution.
As a Japanese American who has dedicated the past twenty years to documenting the history of World War II mass incarceration, this vitriol sounds dangerously familiar. Weaned on stories of my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles having to exchange their homes and livelihoods for a concentration camp, I’ve vicariously experienced the shame, anger, and indignity they felt at having to pay for a crime they didn’t commit in the country they called their own.
I, along with many other Japanese Americans, feel deeply that no other group should be subjected to the same injustice that our own community endured during World War II. In the immediate aftermath of incarceration, the desire to return to normal life as “good Americans” kept Japanese Americans silent for decades. Finally in the 1970s, the silence broke. Activists and lawyers banded together to fight for legal redress. Since then, we have vowed that we would never let an injustice of this magnitude happen again, and yet it seems we’re closer to repeating that history than ever before.
As Americans, we’re taught to value the rights and liberties of all citizens, and to extend those principles of justice beyond our borders. By targeting people because of their religion, race, and nationality we run the risk of repeating past mistakes and losing sight of what makes America great. Mr. Trump, you are fueling a climate of fear and ignorance that promotes hate and religious prejudice. To me, “making America great again” means not caving to racism and prejudice in times of fear.
Densho Executive Director