Justice  /  Comment

Reliving Injustice 75 Years Later: Executive Order 9066 Then and Now

The lessons of Japanese interment for policy makers today.
National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Much attention has rightly been paid to the legal and economic harm that institutionalized bigotry can cause, as well as to the various factors that feed that bigotry. Even as we bear these important matters in mind as teachers and as members of civil society, we might consider lifting our eyes for a moment from this sadly familiar historical terrain, direct them toward the horizon, and consider the most elusive, but also perhaps most important, challenge before us. In response to discourses of fear and withdrawal from the world, we must strive for a more measured, historically informed, and above all empathic engagement with the world.

Take, for instance, the fallout of wartime incarceration specifically in the United States. (Canada, too, undertook to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.) At high schools and universities from California to Washington, Japanese American students were summarily expelled, despite having never even been arrested or charged with any crime. Families lost their homes, their businesses; entire communities were uprooted and dispersed inland. Life in prison only added insult to these various preliminary injuries. In both the short-term way stations and longer-term prisons, inmates endured repeated violations of their civil and human rights, as well as a host of related indignities—all the while being surveyed for possible inclusion in the American war effort. (In February 1943, inmates were subjected to what became known as the Loyalty Questionnaire, an ancestor of “extreme vetting” that comprised approximately 30 questions designed to assess the suitability of Japanese Americans for placement outside prisons and, in case of eligible males, military service.) Life under these conditions left inmates in a constant state of distress and uncertainty about their safety and future, particularly given the clear link between wartime incarceration and the years of anti-Asian prejudice that preceded it. Indeed, there is evidence, both contemporary and observed at the time, that that distress and uncertainty never fully subsided, and that many families continue to suffer the aftereffects of unjust incarceration based on racial and religious prejudice.