Why Tule Lake matters


In this post-Trump, post-Stephen Miller era where social media has brought to the fore the systemic racism that permeates U.S. society, it is time to see Tule Lake for what it was.

Tule Lake had nothing to do with loyalty or disloyalty. That’s just government propaganda, perpetuated by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

What happened at Tule Lake brought to light a historical truth: That there are, indeed, two Americas — one for whites and one for people of color.

To paraphrase the commandment from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” “All are Americans, but some are more American than others.”

What does this mean? Let’s re-examine the U.S. Constitution.

Back in the 1700s when the U.S. Constitution was written, it did not grant U.S. citizenship or voting rights to enslaved people or to Indigenous people, whom the colonists were trying to kill off. The U.S. Constitution was written for the benefit of white male property owners.

Congress, then, came up with the three-fifths compromise whereby 3/5 (not one full enslaved person) of a state’s enslaved population went towards determining the number of House of Representatives. This still gave the Southern states a third more votes in the House and a third more presidential electoral votes, allowing the Southern bloc to dominate federal governmental policies.

It took a bloody Civil War (1861-1865) before the 14th Amendment was added to grant birthright citizenship to African Americans born on this continent to enslaved people, but Indigenous people would not be granted U.S. citizenship until 1924 under the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act.

When it came to Asian Americans and Japanese Americans, in particular, the government passed laws barring the Issei immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. This was followed by a slew of alien land laws to prevent these immigrants from putting down roots in this country.

In fact, early U.S. immigration policies were influenced by eugenics, the pseudo-science of declaring one race to be favorable over another. As a result, immigration, other than from certain European countries, was greatly curtailed.

After the outbreak of World War II, the federal government passed a number of arbitrary laws and executive orders against Japanese Americans to suit their needs.

It was at this time that the JACL leaders made a Faustian bargain with the government whereby JACLers actively worked against Japanese American civil rights leaders who opposed the racist policies of elected officials. In return, the JACL gained access to those in government, and with that, came personal benefits.

But the trail of broken treaties between the Indigenous people and white colonists should have tipped the JACL that the U.S. government had no intention of keeping promises once the situation changed.

Trouble started when Japanese American incarcerees started to demand equal rights to that of a white person. This was most obvious at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, which the government labeled as the camp for “disloyals.”

The Kibei, in particular, became targets. They held U.S. citizenship but had been educated in Japan where they were the majority. They became “dangerous” in the eyes of the U.S. government for questioning and calling out the discriminatory practices of the U.S.

For this, they were beaten, tossed into the Tule Lake stockade and/or jail, and in some instances such as with Kinzo Wakayama, forced to renounce their U.S. citizenship at gun-point.

To rid of the Tuleans en masse, the U.S. government followed a familiar pattern — it passed an arbitrary law. Passing arbitrary laws against people of color has been the American way. When the government coveted land inhabited by indigenous tribes, it passed laws to remove them from that particular land. When African Americans gained political and economic rights after the Civil War, state governments passed Jim Crow laws. Thus, when Tuleans began demanding rights, the government passed the denationalization law in order to legally deport them.

Some may argue that Tuleans willingly renounced their U.S. citizenship but at Tule Lake, fear played a huge role in social control. Numerous rumors were spread throughout the camp. J. Edgar Hoover may have experimented with cultivating provocateurs within Tule Lake because there are anecdotal stories from former Tuleans, who have claimed that a particular person — in this, case let’s call him/her, Person X — pressured them to renounce their U.S. citizenship but they later find out that Person X had not, himself/herself, renounced. Sometimes these Person Xs were transferred to another camp.

The FBI used similar tactics to infiltrate what they deemed as “subversive” organizations such as the Black Panthers during the 1960s.

But whether or not the government was trying to trick Tuleans into renouncing their U.S. citizenship didn’t matter to Tuleans who were angry. They were so angry they were willing to quit the U.S.

Had the Tuleans been incarcerated during the 1960s, they might have allied themselves with Malcolm X and other Black separatists, who espoused the formation of separate independent nations — one black, one white.

And while the 1960s Civil Rights Movement gave people of color some measure of social justice, there has been a steady backlash that has been chipping away at civil rights won during that era.

This is why the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Stephen Miller are not exceptions. They are the through-line connecting past to the present. In fact, the election of Barack Obama and the liberal Earl Warren Supreme Court (and yes, Warren worked against Japanese Americans while governor of California during World War II) are more the exceptions.

Trump, during his term, attempted to overturn the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment through an executive order. Had he been re-elected, no doubt, Trump would have turned to the Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, to support his executive order.

Miller, like the earlier eugenicists, tried to select which racial groups were allowed into the U.S. This is a critical time since the U.S. Census projects that this country will become a majority-minority nation between 2041 and 2046. No doubt the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. et al will be doing whatever they can to keep the status quo intact.

This is why we, as a nation, need to come to grips with the violent, racist beginnings of the United States. Otherwise, we will continue to cling to small victories, only to see the hard work taken away, because we are not addressing the underlying cause of our societal problem — systemic racism.

Our Nikkei ancestors have been combatting this systemic racism since they arrived to these shores but the issue really exploded into our consciousness when the government incarcerated all Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship status, into concentration camps during World War II. Those who challenged the fairness of this treatment were labeled as cowards, traitors, disloyals or even worse, but in reality, these Nikkei — the draft resisters, military resisters, individual legal challengers and most of all, the Tuleans — were civil rights champions.

It was the Tuleans, who questioned the value of U.S. citizenship if you were a person of color. U.S. citizenship didn’t prevent Japanese Americans from being thrown into camps, plus once back in American society, their U.S. citizenship didn’t protect them from racial housing covenants, racist employment policies, redlining, to name a few.

This is why what occurred at Tule Lake goes to the core of how this country functions. This is why the story of Tule Lake matters.

Martha Nakagawa writes from Gardena, Calif. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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