A couple of weeks ago, I took the family to see Then They Came for Me, an exhibit about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during the Second World War. The exhibit, at San Francisco’s Presidio, has been extended through August and I highly recommend it. The use of the courts to remove civil liberties and justify racism (let’s call it what it was) is an ugly chapter in American history. Lessons learned then are more relevant than ever in today’s political environment of bombastic pronouncements and unnecessary walls.
Most know about the forced removal of 120,000 Americans from California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington during World War II but did you also know,
- Most families were given only a few days to clear out or give away everything they owned. Lifelong businesses were shutdown and sold off for pennies on the dollar. Houses were sold off, basically repossessed. You were only allowed a single suitcase and it wasn’t clear where you were going.
- Until the actual camps were built, families had to make do in the horse stalls at local racetracks. Of course it stunk, was cold, and there was no privacy.
- The “Internment” camps were a nice way of putting it. They were basically concentration camps, surrounded by razor wire and machine gun towers. The shacks were simple tar-paper sheds which provided almost no insulation from the freezing temperature in the Winter and baked in the desert sun during the Summer.
- There were many acts of passive resistance in the face of extreme institutional injustice. This was 20 years before the civil rights movement.
- Award-winning photographers Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange were hired by the War Department to document the round-up and show it in a favorable light. Photos that depicted machine gun towers or protests were censored. It didn’t go as planned and we have them to thank for their record of this time.
We were lucky to have a guide the day we visited. Not just any guide but Donald Tamaki, one of the lawyers who worked on the team that cleared Fred Korematsu from the landmark Korematsu v. United States case.
In the video clip above, Don talks about how his team uncovered evidence of a cover-up. There was no evidence of any shore-to-ship radio messages, the threat of Japanese spies was unfounded, made up. 120,000 people were ripped out of their communities for no reason. Farms, businesses, and homes were sold off and people were told to suspect their neighbors for no reason.
In the end, the Supreme Court took the military & intelligence at their word and went along with their demand for an exclusion zone and incarceration of all those of Japanese decent within it. Once the courts stop questioning the other branches of government, in this case Congress and the President, the balance that keeps dictators and tyrants in check was lost.
While the current Chief Justice Roberts has said Korematsu v United States ‘has no place in law under the Constitution’ the law used to send Japanese to the camps was never overturned. The Supreme Court has not reversed its original decision so the law that gives the president power to round up people based on race in times of national security is still on the books. As the dissenting justice in the original ruling writes, such a flawed law “lies about like a loaded weapon.”
A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period, a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes.Korematsu v. United States, Dissent, Justice Jackson
It can happen again.
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