The deadly shootings at Atlanta-area spas last month that killed eight persons, including six Asian American women, drew national attention to anti-Asian bias in the United States. Police department statistics reveal that anti-Asian hate crimes in major cities surged nearly 150 percent last year, while in New York City they jumped more than 800 percent over 2019. Meanwhile, what the U.S. Department of Justice defines as “hate incidents” targeting Asian Americans (non-criminal acts of prejudice) have amounted to more than 2,800 since the coronavirus pandemic began. Little wonder that Asian Americans feel vulnerable.
Racial violence is not merely a part of American history, but integral to it. In the case of Asians, it first appeared when Chinese migrants began arriving on the West Coast during the latter half of the nineteenth century. To perform backbreaking labor in mining operations and in building transcontinental railroads in conditions of blistering heat, American companies sought out Chinese workers for their cheap labor.
In short order came the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first to bar a particular ethnic group from entering the U.S.), the massacre three years later of 28 Chinese miners in Wyoming, and in the early 1920s the total exclusion of Asian immigration for reasons of labor competition and a widespread belief that Asians of all nations were inferior to Whites. The xenophobic language we have heard from leaders in Washington, including repeated references to the “China Virus” and “kung flu” epidemic, magnify sentiments that have existed for a century and a half.
Perhaps the most egregious example of anti-Japanese hatred occurred with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. This often overlooked wartime internment serves as a dark backdrop to present anti-Asian American violence. After the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor many Americans, especially on the West Coast, grew hysterical and imagined that Japan would attack the mainland, or at the very least encourage deliberate acts of sabotage.
Under pressure to meet the alleged threat, the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the rounding up of 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, many interned first at a California race track, living in horse stalls and sleeping on straw. From there they were transported to ten internment camps in remote areas of the West such as Manzanar in California, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and Topaz in Utah. Conditions there hardly improved, for the camp barracks were primitive, with several beds to a room, often no larger than 200 square feet, uninsulated and without furniture or partitions. All were guarded and encircled with barbed wire. Outside temperatures at Topaz could range from -30 degrees in winter up to 106 in summer.
Domestic wartime campaigns promote hate for the enemy. But placing Japanese Americans in internment camps was based largely on fear and animosity toward their race. German Americans and Italian Americans also had a heritage that stemmed from Axis power enemies, but they were not confined in camps. Whereas anger against Germany often centered on its brutal dictator, Adolf Hitler, in the case of Japan the enemy was the Japanese people, depicted in hateful caricatures as toothy-grinned subhumans that prey on Americans.
Ironically, however, men were allowed to volunteer for military service. Many responded and served bravely. Operating in Europe, the segregated 442nd Infantry Combat Team, composed mostly of second generation Japanese citizens, became one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history. One of its members, Daniel Inouye, lost his right arm to a rifle grenade. Later he became the first Asian American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. But upon returning from Europe he couldn’t get a barber shop haircut. “We don’t serve Japs here,” he was told.
In 1988, Congress belatedly approved compensation of $20,000 for each Japanese American relocated during World War II; unfortunately, by that time thousands had died in addition to the nearly 2,000 who succumbed to disease in the wartime camps.
The internment camps happened not so long ago, within the lifetime of anyone now in their seventies. The mass abridgment of civil liberties was a mistake of horrible proportions. It should never have happened; yet it did.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.