RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Fighting for just ideals

bioline_Chizu OmoriWe’ve had such a flurry of mentions of camp history in the last several months that obviously there’s renewed interest about what happened to us during World War II. We did have national attention when the Rago auction was taking place, and then that mayor of Roanoke, Va. brought it up apropos the question of bringing Syrian refugees to our country. Minoru Yasui was awarded a presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously, and now there is an exhibit at Yale of camp artifacts plus many pictures and footage of camp inmates on the news.

One of the drivers of this interest, I think, is George Takei’s musical, “Allegiance.” It seems to have brought a wide, young audience to the story, and George, wonderfully, has spoken out about his experience at every opportunity about his childhood in the camps, generally informing the public about this great injustice. My daughter and her husband attended “Allegiance” in Trekkie costumes, taking part in a Halloween performance. They loved it.

Our incarceration was one piece in a long history of oppression of people of color from the very beginning of the colonization of the New World by European settlers. Not only did they take the lands of the Native Americans and kill them off, but they built the country using slave labor, and exploited immigrants in such activities as building the transcontinental railroads. Race has been embedded into the fabric of this country from the start and the majestic pronouncements put in the Constitution are nice, but often ignored when they got in the way.

Still and all, the incarceration was a first in that a whole population of persons of a certain ancestry were rounded up and put into prison camps with no trials or due process of determining guilt or innocence, of what? Anyway, I’ve had to live with that injustice my whole life since, as an adolescent, I was behind barbed wire for three and-a-half years myself. I guess it’s been my mission to see to it that this history be told in as honest a way as possible, to honor those who lost so much because of the actions of a few men, like President Franklin Roosevelt and Earl Warren, who later became a Supreme Court justice. It is no small matter that such people who are celebrated for being compassionate civil libertarians and fighters for the common man nevertheless singled us out and persecuted us for no good reason. Almost none of the men involved have ever publicly said that it was wrong and that they were sorry for what they did.

Now, we have Donald Trump, a presidential contender, who wants to bar any Muslim person from entering this country and he continues to say things like this as I write. He is justifying this totally illegal and immoral demand by citing Roosevelt and his proclamations during World War II, which seems to be referring to Executive Order 9066, which resulted in our imprisonment.

One thing remains clear to me: Camp history remains relatively unknown or only vaguely understood by a vast majority. The mayor of Roanoke referred to the incarceration in this manner: “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.” There’s such vast ignorance expressed by this public figure that it’s hard to know where to start in correcting him. But the worst is that somehow, to him, that history of incarceration would make it OK to bar Syrian refugees from entering our country.

This is outrageous. We were not refugees, we were not foreign nationals, we were all living in this country, and 70 percent of us were citizens by birth. By his logic, all persons living in the U.S. who are Syrians by ancestry would fall under suspicion and subject to the possibility of a round up.

I know that there are Americans who would be all right with that. Actually, if you listen to some of their rants, we should round up anyone who has a connection to the Muslim religion and kick them out. We’re entering the same territory of fear, intolerance and hate that compel some to lash out at anyone who seems, to them, suspicious and then there are politicians and others who are happy to pander to these fears. Again, that phrase, national security, will be used to whip up emotions. We know what could happen when fear and hatred begin to dominate. A precedent has been set by Roosevelt’s actions in rounding up an entire group, a very dangerous precedent and one that remains viable.

Next year is an election year, so the grandstanding and speechifying will get louder and more shrill. It will become more difficult for us to engage in a serious discussion about race in this country, a discussion we need to have if we want to understand how we got to where we are. As Asian Americans, we need to be active participants in this discussion for we have our scars from our treatment at the hands of the government. The notions of being fair and just are great ideals and worth fighting for. It is happening again, and if we don’t make our voices heard, shame on us.

Incidentally, there are exhibits at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles: “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams,” and “Citizen 13660: The Art of Mine Okubo.” Go see them if you can.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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