Today we welcome a guest post by Anne M. Blankenship, author of Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Blankenship’s study of Christianity in the infamous camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II yields insights both far reaching and timely. While most Japanese Americans maintained their traditional identities as Buddhists, a sizeable minority identified as Christian, and a number of church leaders sought to minister to them in the camps. Blankenship shows how church leaders were forced to assess the ethics and pragmatism of fighting against or acquiescing to what they clearly perceived, even in the midst of a national crisis, as an unjust social system. These religious activists became acutely aware of the impact of government, as well as church, policies that targeted ordinary Americans of diverse ethnicities.
In today’s guest post, Blankenship’s study of Japanese American incarceration during World War II informs an understanding of the present political moment.
Headlines of racial violence and the unabashed racism within Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency do not allow Americans to escape the fact that our nation’s value of pluralism lies on shaky ground. The U.S. Constitution, of course, did not originally allow for the full rights of women or people of African, Asian, or Native American descent, but the notion of America as a land of opportunity for all persists. Trump joined previously marginalized white supremacists to champion the white man over Mexicans, Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, and women of all creeds and colors. He and other politicians have attempted to recover popular memory of past injustices to legitimate their racial biases. Calls to ban Muslims from the United States hit home with me personally because I research religious responses to injustices such as race-based immigration quotas and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Popular pluralism during World War II included the deliberate omission of Japanese Americans, and government propaganda attempting to unite all Americans to support the war ignored the legal and social discrimination of African Americans. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst supported these efforts by sponsoring “I Am an American” Day. The eponymous short film by Warner Brothers (1944) purporting to relate the diversity of America demonstrated the holiday’s hypocrisy. The film traces the path of European immigrants assimilating to life in America and sacrificing their lives in the nation’s wars and struggles for freedom and equality, pointedly including Italian and German Americans to reinforce that Europeans, allies and enemies alike, have the capacity to make independent moral judgments. Notably, Japanese immigrants were not included, nor were any immigrants from Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere in Asia. African Americans are excluded from the story as well, but do appear—marginalized—within scenes from an I Am an American Day celebration: an African American boy holds a U.S. flag at the outer edge of the stadium and one family group stands within. (The Ad Council and Austin, Texas’s GSD&M advertising agency reappropriated the slogan “I Am an American” in truly diverse public service announcements beginning in 2001.)
Today, Trump echoes Hearst’s nationalistic call for “America first.” But as that America excluded non-white and communist individuals, so too does Trump exclude Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees from numerous nations. Hearst buoyed his white-supremacist view by publishing false reports of sabotage and treason committed by people of Japanese heritage in America. Trump similarly suggests that minority citizens, such as U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, scheme against the success of white Americans such as himself.
This type of slander supported the United States’ decision to incarcerate nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent without legitimate cause. The majority of these individuals, like Curiel, were U.S. citizens—or as the twisted government parlance phrased it—“non-aliens.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 prohibited non-white people from becoming U.S. citizens, so all Japanese immigrants remained citizens of Japan regardless of loyalty. They all became enemy aliens following that nation’s attack on Pearl Harbor. No person of Japanese ancestry, whether a citizen of Japan or the United States, was convicted of treason or conspiracy against the United States during or following the war. A government commission later concluded that “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” not legitimate security concerns, led to the “grave injustice.” The United States subsequently apologized and granted reparations to surviving inmates of the incarceration centers. Using this historical mistake to justify actions against additional unsubstantiated prejudices is a clear travesty and violation of American ideals of pluralism.
The incarceration motivated Japanese Americans to participate in ethnic pride movements of the 1970s, and inspired many to speak in defense of other beleaguered minority groups. They were some of the first people to defend Muslim Americans following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and they have been on the forefront of fighting more recent political rhetoric that seeks to remove civil rights from Muslims in the name of national security. Their community knows the devastating effects of selective pluralism.
Anne M. Blankenship is assistant professor of American religious history at North Dakota State University. Her book Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II is now available.