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War Internment Camps: Racial Lessons From Our Past

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There’s a saying, “Those that ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” Much of our American history is filled with noble words and deeds. America has been an inspiration of freedom and justice around the world since it’s inception. Yet we are not without faults and misdeeds. In 1857, in a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that human beings were property in the Dred Scott decision.

Executive Order 9066

In today’s ‘enlightened’ society such a ruling as Dred Scott would be unthinkable. Yet, during World War II the Supreme Court once again put the civil rights of American Citizens on hold.

On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones.” The order declared that all people of Japanese ancestry were “excluded” from the Pacific coast including all of California, much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona and were ordered to report to internment camps.

War Relocation Camps

Over 110,000 people of Japanese heritage, sixty-two percent being American citizens, were ordered to report to internment camps. In Hawaii only 1,200 to 1,800 of the island population were interned even though Japanese citizens comprised almost one third of the total population of those islands.

The United States Census Bureau assisted the internment efforts by providing confidential neighborhood information on Japanese Americans. The Bureau’s role was denied for decades, but was finally proven in 2007.

Korematsu v. United States

Fred T. Korematsu, a natural born US citizen whose parents were born in Japan, brought a discrimination suit against the US government. In 1942 he refused to report for relocation, was arrested by the FBI and convicted in Federal Court.

In a sharply divided 6-3 decision the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision that Japanese Americans could be interned on December 18, 1944.

Carter and Reagan

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the events during that time. The report showed there was little evidence of disloyalty by Japanese citizens that the government actions had been based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The report also recommended a payment of $20,000 to each survivor that had been interned. More than $1.6 billion dollars in reparations was paid to interned Japanese Americans and their heirs.

In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that officially apologized on behalf of the US government for the internment of US citizens.

Some Final Thoughts

There are historical events that make us feel proud while others make us feel ashamed of our actions. Civil rights have always been a tough sell because of the various emotions tied to it. Advances have been made through several civil rights act and attitudes are slowly changing. If history teaches us anything it’s to look ourselves in the mirror, admit our faults and mistakes and vow to do better in the future. We can’t ignore the past but we must never repeat it either.

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