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Monday, February 20, 2012

Racial Profiling and the Japanese American Internment

On February 19, 1942,  Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. EO-9066 stripped American citizens of their legal rights, allowing their indefinite imprisonment without due process. Having broken no laws, hundreds of thousands suffered the undue loss of their freedom and property.

The mass incarceration of Japanese Americans is one of the many subjects that are egregiously under-taught in our schools (See posts: 'Ethnic Studies' and 'White History Month'), yet it holds particular salience for our lives today. When anyone's constitutional rights are violated, it further normalizes the practice for everyone else as well. As we continue to observe racially-based harassment of Americans for the sake of 'national security', we must understand the precedence the United States has for such behavior:

Though German and Italian Americans did face harassment during WWII, they were never summarily imprisoned en masse based on their ancestry. Japanese Americans, however, were racially profiled and forced into concentration camps (the term used by FDR and others at that time). Even as German U-boats navigated the eastern coastline, imprisonment efforts focused on combating Japanese espionage that was never actually substantiated by evidence.

Most internees were taken from the west coast, where the 'threat of espionage' was perceived to be the highest. Yet, had 'military necessity' actually been the driving force for this action (as was originally claimed), we would expect Hawaii residents to be the heavily targeted for their proximity to both Japan and the key US Pacific military base. On the contrary, despite a 35% Japanese-American population, only 1% were detained in Hawaii. Rather than a strategic military operation, the imprisonment of ~120,000 people was instead “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

Remind you of anything?
Individuals, families, and entire communities were forcibly removed from their homes and were sent to one of ten internment camps in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas. These locations consisted of unpartitioned toilets, cots for beds, and "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Camps were surrounded by barbed wire, and prisoners were provided with a daily 45 cents per capita for food rations. Of those imprisoned, nearly half were children under the age of 18.

One of the first examples of legal opposition to the government's policy of internment was Hirabayashi v. United States. Gordon Hirabayashi contested his imprisonment, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1943, where he eventually lost unanimously (a ruling finally vacated in 1986). On the same day, the court ruled against a similar case Yasui v. United States, and a year later against that of Fred Korematsu (See post: Fred Korematsu Day).

Another version of the
'Sundown town'
Perhaps most famous of the three cases, the Korematsu v. United States decision ruled that EO-9066 was indeed constitutional in its violation of civil rights. Of note, during the course of the proceedings, Solicitor General Charles Fahy suppressed legal documents, which stated that "there was no evidence Japanese Americans were disloyal, were acting as spies or were signaling enemy submarines." Through it all, white Americans either voiced support for the interment program or simply remained silent. Indeed, the ACLU largely sided with the FDR administration.

Today, we observe rampant racial profiling in the name of national security. Since 9/11, the treatment of American Muslims, and those of Middle Eastern decent, has followed a xenophobic trend toward limiting citizens' individual rights. For example, a federal appeals ruling in 2008 gave President Bush "legal power to order the indefinite military detentions of civilians captured in the United States." The harassment of latin@ residents and citizens over 'board security' concerns echoes similar racialized tactics.

As long as such behavior is a part of our history and our current policy, we have no business characterizing our country as 'a melting pot' where 'anyone can succeed' by 'pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.' Take some time to learn the stories of the Americans imprisoned as a result of EO-9066, and then reflect on the implications of our current attitudes and policies surrounding national security.

Where is the line between individual rights and national security? Who should decide which is given priority? What suggestions do you have for striking a balance between the two?


  1. I've always been appalled that this happened and recently watched "The War", a fascinating documentary on life during WWII(lots of homefront issues woven in among the warfront). There's some great footage of what it was like to live in these camps as well as lot of information about racism in general during the time and the double standard of our government who was perfectly happy to have (and even draft) Japanese-Americans and African-Americans into the military but refused them civil rights back home.  The interviews of people who lived during the time and their perspective on it all was really informative.

  2. Thanks for the rec and for your perspectives! It's amazing to me how many people are still surprised to learn about it. 


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