I recently wrote the essay below for my local Massachusetts paper, The Sandisfield Times, at the encouragement of the editor, Bill Price. The essay examines many of the laws that lie outside the strictly Black/White paradigm to bring focus to the lesser known grey area of law which governed those who are legally “not-White”.
Out on the Limb of History...When Most Asians Disappeared
The report about the Sandisfield Arts Center’s 2019 program last month was a lively column about how
Sandisfield’s Art Center strives to educate us about “Our Town,” our constitution, and our history. Featured were “Stimulating and timely talks from our scholars Bill Cohn and Val Coleman (Val paid for
copies of the U.S. Constitution at his inspiring and passionate lecture, ‘The Constitution Alive’) and Dr.
Robert Maryks presented ‘Fascism and Racial Laws in Italy’ (preceded by a free showing of ‘The Garden
of the Finzi-Continis’).”
It’s good that we learn the history of fascism and race laws around the world and re-examine what the
constitution says, but shouldn’t we also learn about one of the most legally racist periods in US history –
the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era between the 1880s and 1940s?
During this period, when the U.S. was opening vast swaths of territory to “settle,” hundreds of local, state,
and federal laws were written and passed which would legally define who could and who could not
become an American and thus receive constitutional protections as well as participate fully in our
country’s democracy. Back then it was a white minority fearing being overwhelmed by a non-white
During that time a fearful electorate passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, banning further immigration
from China. This act would inspire the creation of a new federal agency, the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS), which became a new arm of government created to enforce the new
A quick look at U.S. race laws that followed show that “not white” was chosen as the quick and easy way
to separate the chaff from the desired “all-American” wheat. Those who did not fit in with this paradigm
were left to fight it out through the courts which, more often than not, ignored the constitution’s call for
liberty and justice for all and instead confirmed and expanded this country’s racially-based caste system,
cementing it firmly into the laws of the land.
Most discussions on race today remain limited to a white/black paradigm but it’s the hundreds of laws
targeting other “non-white” peoples passed after the Civil War which still linger. Their effects continue to
enliven our political discourse today.
While many of us in this country come from Europe, many of us did not. Many were already here and had
a different row to hoe towards “freedom, liberty, opportunity, and justice.” In fact, it was post-1880s that a
whole new category of human beings was slowly shaped, molded, and defined by the rule of law – those
deemed to be “Aliens ineligible to naturalize.” (This would not include my husband, who is white, British,
Christian, and an immigrant, but would have – had I not been born here – excluded me.)
These laws were all based on the 1790s Naturalization Act – which stated that “Any Alien”... being a ‘free
white person’... having had residency for two years ... was of good character ... could naturalize.”
The phrase “Any Alien,” of course, excluded native born Native Americans, the first to be excluded.
And a look at the long history of “Exclusion” laws shows how important that one adjective, “white,” written
into that early law by the founding fathers helped to tint the color of our laws and our citizenry ever whiter
for nearly 150 years.
What we’re seeing today is less “Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and more a continuation of the Page Act of
1875, the Dawes Act of 1887, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And In re Saito, 1894, was the first
law passed in the U.S. to specifically exclude persons of Japanese ethnicity from becoming an American
citizen, the court having ruled that because Mr. Saito was “not white” he was ineligible to naturalize. By
1922, it would become a federal law (Ozawa v. US) with the Supreme Court’s ruling that a Japanese
person was “not white,” therefore could not be a naturalized citizen.
As a resident of the Berkshires, it was a bittersweet realization for me to discover that the Saito ruling was
made in a district court right here in my adopted state of Massachusetts. The legal rationales were
congressional intent, common knowledge, scientific evidence, and legal precedent.
Maybe that’s why even after having gotten a graduate degree in Journalism from NYU, worked for 10
years as a journalist at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and being a born and bred American, it’s
often not my observations on America that people are interested in. Rather I’m asked, “What is it like in
After leaving Washington and the daily grind, I’ve been slowly and painstakingly piecing together the
fragments of the Asian American experience, which was either completely missing or often regarded as a
mostly irrelevant sidebar in American history. But this group’s trajectory in fact fills in a missing chapter
that can help make sense of our nation’s origins myth which zigs from the founding fathers who wrote
elegiacally of “justice for all” but in a zag officially enshrined the slave trade and ultimately a social
hierarchy based on race.
We talk about Nativism, but it’s never been about the “native born.” A good look at our naturalization laws
show that the all-important factor was “being white” or, as the rulings for exclusion stated, being “not-
In their bid to create a white, Christian German empire, we now know that Nazi leaders admired the
American Empire and had copied America’s race laws. They regarded the U.S.’s ability to eradicate its
indigenous people and create social hierarchy based on race as what they would like to create in Europe.
We here in America like to talk about violations of freedom against whites and blacks, but we often fail to
register anything other than silent acknowledgement for the passage of legislation after legislation written
and passed against those in that legally grey category called “alien” or “non-white.”
Perhaps knowing this could be just as instructive as getting acquainted with German and Italian race laws
during WWII or watching “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
An American, Chiura Obata. . .
A name or whose art you won’t see at the Whitney.
A major retrospective of his work opened at the Smithsonian in November of last year. An artist and friend told me about it, saying “Wow, a must see!” and yet, have you read or heard about it in “the paper of record”? Or seen it in any other major news or cultural coverage?
Nor the work of American Ruth Osawa, who dreamed of becoming an art teacher but couldn’t because of laws or discriminatory practices which excluded the ethnically Japanese from all kinds of professions and activities like being a teacher, practicing law or working for the government, etc. As a result of exclusionary race laws, she started her young adult life in “the camps.” Her work is groundbreaking for its organic forms which astound in its simple complexity. She is part of a major retrospective of women’s art at The Art Institute of Chicago, but her link to our understanding of American history is often obscured, this time by Mexico and Modernism.
Nor American illustrator Mine Okubo, author of an early graphic novel documenting her experience in a US concentration camp, called “Citizen 13660,” first published 1946 is largely ignored despite today’s graphic novel craze.
Or rarely is the work of American writer John Okada (about the No No Boys) included in discussions about race and class in America. . .nor are the poems of American Lawson Fusao Inada. Despite being the Poet Laureate of Oregon, 2006, most educated Americans have never heard of him or his story.
Here’s a taste:
To This Day
Have you ever wondered
whatever happened to all the
barbed wire that defined
and confined the so-called
camp at Tule Lake?
That’s a good question
we have a right to ask
as ordinary tax-paying citizens:
to all that barbed wire?”
When you think about it,
the very idea of fencing such an expanse of land
was a daunting challenge
for all those concerned
because it wasn’t easy
to coordinate “back East” planning
with “out West” implementation,
along with the manufacture
and transportation of materials
from all points in between.
And it was also
an innovative undertaking,
a historical precedent,
because this fence was to confine,
not cattle or criminals,
but residents of the American West,
who, in the western tradition,
were to be “rounded up,”
and “herded” into fenced areas –
Tule Lake being but one such place.
Now, thinking about barbed wire,
it could be easy to consider
related matters that would
take us off into a tangent
about, oh, fence posts
and other such aspects
of construction, sidetracking us
into thinking about cutting
forests for fence posts,
and all the effort, energy, expense
involved in the overall venture –
including catered lunches
for planning meetings sequestered
in the “red tape” of D.C. –
so let’s just focus on the wire
that arrived by train
on huge spools, I suppose,
ready to be unloaded
by many men with machines
who would then, over days,
depending on weather,
erect the barbed wire fence.
And let’s keep going forward,
like the war effort,
not backward to the origins
of the wire that would include
iron ore, iron mines, steel mills,
all the sweat, smoke, steam,
shoveling, smelting, stamping
of the extensive process
of manufacturing wire
and then barbing it;
Yes, let’s keep going forward,
like the war effort
not backward to the origins
of the war, or to the barb wire
trenches of the First World War,
but to the brand-new
barbed wire fence of Tule Lake.
The wire was gleaming in the sun!
And with all those barbs –
thousands upon thousands –
all those strands were sparkling!
As we can imagine –
the fence was really something!
And just imagine –
from the air, the shining structure
may have resembled –
a gigantic musical instrument,
that storms and raging winds
would strum and pluck . . .
At any rate, whatever happened
to all that barbed wire?
It’s all gone somewhere, somehow,
obviously, which is a good thing;
otherwise, it would pose a hazard
for wildlife, and rusted barbs
could cause tetanus in humans . . .
So perhaps it’s immaterial
to dwell on such material matters
like rusted wire of the past;
rather, as we can imagine,
in this advanced day and age,
there just might be a mentality
among us, between us,
that, to this day,
serves to keep us separated
serves to keep us confined
between “them” and “us,”
and this mentality, this condition,
invisible as it is,
intangible as it is,
can actually function
like actual barbed wire –
and it is up to everyone,
in the spirit of humanity,
in the name of mutuality,
to reach through the strands
with extended hands.
Lawson Fusao Inada was born in Fresno, California, and as a child during World War II, he was imprisoned in California, Arkansas, and Colorado. His books of poetry include Before the War, Legends from Camp, and Drawing the Line. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and has served as Poet Laureate of Oregon.
Nor did you find the Yellow Bowl Project at the ICP in their “For Freedoms” exhibition a couple of years ago about contemporary photographers' exploration of FDR’s Four Freedoms, nor did any major news outlets write about them, perhaps because they told a different story of Freedom and America than they were ready to share. The tea bowls were the only contemporary work of photography included in the FDR Library‘s year-long exhibition of FDR’s signing of EO 9066 in 2017, when the library was determined to try and tell a more complete story of “the Four Freedoms” back in 2017. Even at NPR. . .where I am not unknown, no one found this interesting enough. Often told that what happened to Japanese Americans was not relevant, "Take it to the Japan Society or the Asia Society" curators and editors would say. Among those who know - the scholars, archivists and experts in the field of immigration and the history of America's race laws written to determine who could and could not participate in this democracy by virtue of whether one was or was “not white”, citizen or not - many want to acknowledge this very American story. It seems it’s the public media that doesn’t.
Some say it happened over 75 years ago. Still others say this doesn’t happen in America and didn’t. But it not only happened here, it happened within our lifetimes. It’s important because the cycle continues today. It’s important because the United States is important to the world. We think we have moved forward, but only find that History repeats itself. With this story, American history and its claim that racism ended after the Civil War doesn’t make sense. The ownership of humans may have ended, but exclusion laws took its place. Modeled after the laws to exclude Native Americans, it began 100 years of exclusionary laws written by congress and state and local legislatures around the country against those who were legally deemed by a court of law to be “not white.” It’s the missing link which most public media doesn’t want the public to know.
But they shall not erase us. . . is what I say.
Many iconic things that we now associate with Fascist Germany ironically had its roots in America and Britain, or at least not in Germany. I have four here to share.
1. The Nazi Salute/Bellamy Salute
This photo, taken in the 1940’s by photographer Hansel Mieth, depicts Japanese Americans imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming using the Bellamy salute in the Pledge of Alliegiance. It was named after Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance. The inventor of the Bellamy salute was James B. Upham, junior partner and editor of The Youth's Companion.
The Bellamy salute was first demonstrated on October 12, 1892, according to Bellamy's published instructions for the "National School Celebration of Columbus Day":
At a signal from the Principal, the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to align with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
— From The Youth’s Companion, 65 (1892): 446–447
2. Concentration Camps
Before the Germans used them to first control Jewish populations in Germany, this tool of empire was used in these conflicts:
1898: The Spanish Imprisonment of Cubans during the Spanish American War
1899 – 1902: British had white and black concentration camps during the Anglo Boer Wars
1899 – 1902: US used them against the Filipinos during the Philippine-American War
1904 – 1908: Germany used concentration camps and created their first death camps against Namibians
Historically, concentration camps were used to concentrate and imprison a particular group of people because of who they were, not what they did.
3. The Nuremberg Laws
The inspiration for the Nazi regime's Nuremberg Laws, created to separate the Jews from German society, was ironically America’s Jim Crow Laws. One of the biggest ironies of WWII was that the FDR Administration created a segregated African-American unit to help fight for freedom in Europe, only for those soldiers to return to Jim Crow Laws back home. The segregated all-Japanese American military troops faced a similar situation when they went to fight for freedom in Europe while their families were imprisoned in US concentration camps back home.
4. The Eugenics Movement
It might surprise people that, rather than Germany, the eugenics movement has its origins in England and was the brainchild of Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, the man who coined the term in 1883.
The American eugenics movement had a strong following in the US, with many prominent followers and was practiced for many years before it took hold in Germany. Read more...
Trying to promote "good" genes sounds reasonable conceptually, but when you label something good, then is there a bad? And who gets to decide those values?
Many people ask me: "Why would major news outlets, historic institutions, museums and academia have a problem with your project?"
Here is an excerpt from the BBC coverage of Trump's UK State Visit, June 3, 2019.
Trump Reads Roosevelt Prayer
During a radio message, President Roosevelt led the nation in a prayer ahead of the D-Day landings. President Trump takes to the stage to read the same prayer:
It was a crusade. For freedom? And for whom?
I guess people like Trump.
According to the BBC:
The Queen and the Prince of Wales attended the commemorations on Southsea Common, along with representatives from the countries that fought alongside the UK in the Battle of Normandy including French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Also attending were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as leaders from Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland and Slovakia.
Many Japanese Americans fought in Europe during WWII, recruited or drafted out of US concentration camps, Native Americans out of reservations and Blacks from a Jim Crow South.
My Freedom from Fear project was excluded, despite being told repeatedly my work was in the show, from The New York Historical Society, CUNY's Roosevelt House, sidelined at The Ford Museum and removed from The George Washington University Museum. I was told my work would not be included in the Four Freedoms exhibition in France at The Memorial de Caen, in Caen, France.
The last time the tea bowls visited the nation’s capital was in June of 2016. They visited two places. First, they got to hang out at the steps of the Supreme Court for a bit. While I was setting up, many curious passersby asked what I was doing with all these yellow bowls. As there were many lawyers in the area, some actually remembered hearing about one of the four cases I was showcasing: Fred Korematsu v. United States, Gordon Hirabayashi v. United States, Yasui v. United States and Ex parte Endo. However, the majority of them, tourists, had no idea. The funniest reaction I received was from a young black man and his mother who lived locally, in Washington, DC. They were watching me set up for a while and finally had the courage to interrupt and ask what I was doing. When I told them the story of the forced removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, the young man turned to his mother and said, “Did you know this?” His mother shook her head and said quietly, no. Then he turned to me and said, “That happened in America??? No sh--!!!”
We all broke out laughing.
Here’s a link to an earlier blog if you want to know more about that image.
After taking that image and repacking everything, we moved over to the second spot...The Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism which is part of the National Parks Service. It’s just a five-minute walk from Union Station.
The small park with the beautiful water feature shown at the top tells the story of American men, women and children of Japanese ethnicity and their immigrant parents who were imprisoned in ten US concentration camps in the deserts and swamps of the American west and Midwest. Carved into the stone next to the pool are the words “Here We Admit a Wrong.” It was so peaceful and quiet, with very few visitors, that in an appropriately ironic twist, it had become a popular napping spot for homeless people (as you can see in the top image if you look carefully). Ten panels line the wall of the Memorial adjacent to the pool, each with the names of the camps and the number of individuals who were imprisoned. At the center is the sculpture of a bird, a crane, entangled in barbed wire. It’s also a memorial to the Japanese-American men and women, many of whom were recruited from these American camps, who went to fight for the four freedoms abroad, but also to win freedom for those family members who remained imprisoned at home.
The 442nd and 100th Battalion, a segregated Japanese-American military fighting unit, would become the most decorated unit of its size and duration in US military history.
The unit was awarded:
9486 Purple Hearts
4000 Bronze Stars
560 Silver Stars
29 Distinguished Service Crosses
21 Medals of Honor
7 Presidential Unit Citations
800 were killed/or missing in action. 6,000 would serve in the Military Intelligence Service as translators and interpreters, and others would serve in the nurses’ corps. In the end, its said that about 33,000 would go on to serve in the US armed forces during WWII.
Now, to today.
As of this month, the Yellow Bowls, represented by one of the images from the Freedom from Fear/Yellow Bowl Project, can be found at the George Washington University/Textile Museum, part of an exhibition called “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms,” which opened in Washington, DC, on February 13, 2019.
Here’s a link to an article in the Berkshire Eagle announcing the opening of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedom’s paintings depicting FDR’s 1941 Four Freedoms speech.
Essentially, the exhibition is split into two. The main floor depicts much of the commercial and propaganda art that the illustrator Norman Rockwell produced for magazines and the government leading up to and during WWII. In 1943, Norman Rockwell was paid to illustrate FDR’s Four Freedoms for the Saturday Evening Post. His depictions met with little fanfare at first. But they would eventually become iconic after the Post and the US Department of the Treasury teamed up to sponsor a two-year touring exhibition of the paintings, exhibiting them around the nation, as a way to promote American patriotism and the sale of war bonds.
On the second level of the museum is a non-commercial contemporary take on those Freedoms. The gallery here is filled with art that questions how universal those freedoms were and are today—but from the perspective of those who were denied those freedoms. They include images from Norman Rockwell, himself, who had advocated for Black Civil Rights and the “Right to Know” during the Vietnam War.
My contribution to the story of the Four Freedoms should be in this section...Let me know if you find it!
On a recent trip down the Mississippi River from its source in Lake Itasca in Minnesota to where it debouches into the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, Louisiana, I discovered that following the river reveals a more complete and complex story of race and the racial fault lines that divide this country than the one told along the Mason-Dixon Line.
Starting from the top, stories of broken treaties, genocide and the forced removal of American Indians dot the river on both sides up and down, the main law being the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which essentially made the entire river the demarcation line for this federal policy. In the middle, the grave of Dred Scott lies on the Missouri side of the Mississippi at the Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum in St. Louis. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled that no person of African descent could claim US citizenship, thus freedom, despite having lived for four years outside of Missouri, in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal. Just across the river, the remains of the Cahokia Mounds Indian Civilization, an urban center as big as London which existed in the 13th century and considered one of great cities of the world by archeologists, lies virtually unknown on the Illinois side.
Further down the river into Tennessee, you will find The Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony on April 4, 1968 at 6:01pm, CST. Move a bit further down and back onto the Arkansas side of the river and you will find two of America’s concentration camps, which imprisoned nearly 17,000 US citizens of Japanese ethnicity during WWII in the towns of Rohwer and Jerome. As a result, the two briefly became the 4th and 5th largest cities in the state. Smack in the middle of the two camps, which are located 26 miles apart from each other, is a museum dedicated to telling the story of what happened there in the town of McGehee. Another story, as you follow the flow of the river out into the gulf from Venice, LA, is the ironic story of Cat Island, Mississippi, where the US military used dogs to conduct a secret experiment on Japanese American soldiers during WWII in the misguided belief that “Japanese” smelled different from other human beings. It didn’t work. The dogs attacked whites just as viciously.
On a side trip to Oklahoma, we learned about one of the earliest Native American Civil Rights leaders in the country in the case Standing Bear v. Crook. The ruling established for the first time, in 1879, that Native Americans were human beings. The case was tried in Omaha, Nebraska, on the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
The struggle to be recognized as human, as well as the right to naturalize and become a citizen and have one’s needs and one’s contributions known, is without a doubt more varied in hue along the Mississippi than the black and white, North and South, struggle most Americans learn.
Much of what is happening today with US citizens being detained just for speaking Spanish, or Vietnamese, who were given refugees status at the end of the Vietnam War, being deported after 40 years in this country, has at its core the question, “Who is an “American?” This brings us to the 1790’s Naturalization Act, one of the earliest laws passed by the new continental congress, which established who was eligible to naturalize and thus become an American. It stated that “Any Alien” being a white person…who had residency in this country for two years and was of good character, could become a US citizen. In other words, the first exclusion was the native born…Native Americans. It has been used many times to exclude entire groups of peoples.
As I learn more about my country, I see how little many of us, including myself, know about this place we call America and about each other. We, on the East Coast of the country, probably know more about what happened to Europeans in Europe than we know about the formation of the United States and the laws that keep this experiment going. Prejudice, bias and discrimination will always exist, but if it is codified into law, it becomes a form of eugenics. If we are to remain a country based on the rule of law, dedicated to a just and equal world, the only way to achieve that is not only to have our laws reflect that goal but that those laws be equally applied. Drug laws that incarcerate African Americans who use, but provide rehab for whites, is an unequal application of the law.
A recent poll shows that 40% of Americans believe that no American Indians are alive and in existence in America today. This prompts the question, if no one hears you, do you still exist in a representative democracy? This poll seems to suggest that the answer is No.
Perhaps the Mississippi River and the story it tells of American racial apartheid and the fight to be included could help change all that.
Recently, a New Zealand film crew came to our house to shoot a documentary. While they were setting up, one of the producers began asking about the divisive mood here in America and how he was really surprised to see a truck proudly streaming a confederate flag from the back of its cab as it sped past them on Route 8 near our house in Massachusetts. While it’s still rare, one thing is clear: the confederate flag is not just a “southern” thing anymore.
The following two articles talk about confederate flags on display in northern states:
Some White Northerners Want to Redefine a Flag Rooted in Racism as a Symbol of Patriotism
Confederate Flag at Great Barrington School Prompts Free Speech, Student Privacy Debate
The first one basically says that some white northerners are adopting the confederate flag, with its white nationalist roots, as a symbol of white collective grievances and rebellion. The latter talks about a student at a local high school in the Berkshires who wore a confederate flag to school. The ACLU of Western Massachusetts defended his right to do so in the name of free speech.
My Freedom from Fear/Yellow Bowl Project also speaks to issues of freedom—or what had been the lack of it—for a small minority. The local ACLU defended this boy's right to speak, however, it decided earlier this year that they were not interested in having me talk to their group regarding my question, “Who’s an American?” Perhaps they were too busy with other issues. Perhaps they were the same issues that made them turn a blind eye to this story decades ago...when the National ACLU sided with FDR and his decision to remove the civil liberties of US citizens of Japanese ethnicity 75 years ago.
Anti-Asian history rarely gets included in the story of America but for the record, the FFF/YBP has been invited to places like the FDR Library, the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Supreme Court, to name a few. However, since Mr. Trump became President, there seems to be a renewed effort to "sweep" this story under the proverbial rug. To give you some examples, my work was first invited then excluded from: the NY Historical Society and CUNY’s Roosevelt House in May of 2018 (despite being told not three weeks before the opening that my project would be part of a section called Freedom’s Legacy in an exhibit about FDR's Four Freedoms); a panel discussion scheduled to happen in 2018 at CCNY (canceled without explanation); a display of my tea bowls by the reflecting pool at the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA, as part of an art and education program, greeted with great enthusiasm at first, only to end in a polite “not at this time".
I have received suggestions to speak on New England Public Radio which never materialized. And perhaps most mysterious of all was the reason I was given why NPR's All things Considered declined to feature my project for the 75th anniversary of FDR's Four Freedom's Speech or the 75th anniversary of the signing of EO 9066. Even as a travel piece it could have worked, as there are not many people who have actually been to all ten of America’s WWII concentration camps. Their reason, I was told: my family was not in the “camps.”
Most people say that my project belongs at the Asia Society or, even better, at the Japan Society. And yet, I submit that this history (a pattern of discrimination spelled out in hundreds of pieces of anti-Asian legislation passed in this country that spans almost a century from the 1870’s -1960’s) provided a clear road map to the present—a modern example of a deliberate pattern of exclusion which continues to affect people of color to this day. That pattern of "the other," I believe, has its roots in the 1790 Naturalization Act and its assertion that “Any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the US for two years was entitled to be called an American—and nobody else.
"Any alien” meant that the first exclusion was the native born: Native Americans. This law has been used time and time again to exclude persons deemed not white, despite numerous updates to said law, and in spite of the guarantees provided by the Constitution, implied by the Declaration of Independence and reinforced by the Emancipation Proclamation.
While we say “Justice for All,” the reality has been Four Freedoms guaranteed for some. The targets of exclusion may vary, but if the rising popularity of the confederate flag is any indication, the importance of “whiteness” seems to remain an essential element of “Americanness,” maybe not to all, but to enough of us to matter.
Barbara Takei, the head of the Tulelake Committee, asked me to share this latest update on the effort to save Tulelake (CA), considered one of the most important of the ten sites where US citizens of Japanese ancestry were mass imprisoned during WWII. The Committee hopes to preserve the lessons of yesterday for tomorrow’s generation.
"The Tulelake airport land occupies 2/3rds of the area where more than 24,000
Japanese Americans lived and where over 331 died during the years of
incarceration from 1942 through 1946. In the postwar years, homesteaders
desecrated the concentration camp’s cemetery by bulldozing it, leaving it as a
gouged-out hole in the earth. The burial earth was used to fill in the grid of
ditches within the concentration camp site so the historic site could be used for
The Tulelake committee’s bid to buy the land, which was more than double the price of what it was sold for, was ignored. Instead...
"The City of Tulelake sold the land to the Modoc of Oklahoma, who have been under
investigation for misusing their tribal sovereignty to help usurious payday loan
businesses avoid government regulation. By the time of the sale, City leaders
knew of the FBI investigation, IRS investigation, FTC investigation, Federal
convictions, and over $4 million in penalties paid by the Modoc of Oklahoma.
According to local news reports, City leaders dismissed the Oklahoma Tribe’s
misconduct after assurances by the Oklahoma Tribal leaders.
At the City’s meeting to sell the airport land, a lawyer for the Oklahoma Modoc
tribe, Patrick Bergin, assured City Council members that the Oklahoma Tribe
would not support the local Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Tribes’ pending
lawsuit to protect sacred fish and wildlife habitat."
Here is the whole report.
If you would like to help, contact:
Tule Lake Committee v. City of Tulelake, et. al.
For information, contact: Barbara Takei
. . .or I should say 40 minutes north of Boston, where “Yellow Peril” and the "Freedom from Fear/Yellow Bowl Project” will be at the Pingree School, in South Hamiliton, MA. If you're in the area, come join me for a reception to "meet the artists" on September 16, 2018 at 1pm.
The Supreme Court officially overturned the wrongful 1944 ruling on Korematsu vs. the US this week (Tuesday, June 26, 2018), but cleared the way for an ethnically based Travel Ban which hints of 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Justice John Roberts acknowledges the wrongful use of concentration camps to imprison US citizens on the basis of race and officially overturns the offending law with the following phrase:
“Whatever rhetorical advantage the dissent may see in doing so, Korematsu has nothing to do with this case. The forcible relocation of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority,” Roberts wrote. “But it is wholly inapt to liken that morally repugnant order to a facially neutral policy denying certain foreign nationals the privilege of admission.”
Here’s the complete story.
While it corrected a 74-year-old wrong, it replaced one long held injustice with another by legalizing the use of a travel ban on an entire ethnic group or country, echoing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The passage of that law would usher in a host of exclusionist laws targeting people of Chinese ancestry in this country, then Japanese immigrants and their children and eventually to all Asians in general. While most laws have been repealed or been canceled out by other laws, the fact that Korematsu remained technically on the books until this past Tuesday means discriminatory actions taken against Asian peoples have been not just accepted but ambiguously legal for over 130 years. This is probably why the Asian American experience is seldom included in discussions about the history of American Jurisprudence because it was legal.
I was recently invited to participate on a panel discussion on WAMC—my local NPR Station—about immigration, to ask the question which is at the heart of my project…Who is an American? And what does citizenship mean? While that question and its answer may be clear for some in the eyes of the US government, it has not always been so straightforward for folks who looked like me and my family.
On another related note, documentary filmmaker Vivienne Shiffer, who grew up in the community adjacent to one of the two concentration camps located in Arkansas and produced the film, Relocation, Arkansas, the Aftermath of the Incarceration, sent me this report from the Arkansas Times:
[One clarification that needs to be made—this proposed site is not 5 miles from the Rohwer Camp site: it is not only adjacent to it, 160 acres of the proposed site is land that actually comprised part of the Rohwer Camp.]
Proposed child holding site in Arkansas 5 miles from WWII Japanese-American internment camp
Posted By Benjamin Hardy on Thu, Jun 21, 2018 at 2:39 PM
THV 11 reports that the Trump administration is considering a piece of property in the unincorporated Desha County community of Kelso in its search for sites to house immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the border. Kelso is about a five-minute drive away from the Rohwer internment camp at which over 8,000 Japanese-Americans — many of them children — were held captive by their own government during World War II.
Here’s the link to the rest of the article.
Hope you find it interesting!
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?