75 Years Later, We’ve Let Fear Trump Our Values Again

February 24, 2017

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced over 120,000 Japanese Americans — most of them American citizens by birthright — to forfeit their homes, belongings, and businesses, and to be incarcerated behind barbed wire in concentration camps.

This act, which came in the midst of what is otherwise hailed as one of the most successful progressive administrations in American history is an enduring reminder of what happens when we, as a nation, abandon our conscience and act out of fear.

As Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the Roosevelt Institute’s Board Chair and granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, said in response to then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s use of World War II internment policy to defend his plan to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S.:

The internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II is a sad part of our history and, as a part of my grandfather’s administration, a terrible political decision driven by fear. Japanese Americans, who were loyal citizens and who served bravely in the U.S. military, were scarred not only by the physical deprivation of internment but by the denial of the dignity and respect of their own country. As a nation, internment weakened us all. It is a tragic reminder of what happens when we allow fear and hysteria to trump our values.

Fast forward. It’s 2017 and we’re repeating history. Trump has promised to follow through on his Muslim ban despite the court’s refusal to reinstate his ban, and his actions and rhetoric are making immigrants of all backgrounds increasingly fearful. The Department of Homeland Security is putting Trump’s sweeping executive orders into practice, giving the federal government nearly free rein to arrest, detain, and deport unauthorized immigrants wherever it finds them.

President Trump’s divisive, xenophobic stance on immigration, predicated on the language of “aliens” and real Americans, has given “internment” and the broader history of Asians and immigration in the United States a new relevance.

In many ways, it appears that we are the same America now that we were then, with people once again being treated as scapegoats for unconscious fears. However, there is one thing that is different this time around: There is a power and optimism to the public expressions of resistance we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, from the nationwide airport protests to the Yemeni bodega owners who prayed outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest signs proclaiming “I Am a Muslim, Too.” It called to mind the Japanese internees who left signs in front of the homes they vacated: “I Am an American.”

Citizenship is often spoken of in the language of “debt” and “giving back” — all based on the idea that immigrants must prove themselves to be good, productive, hyper-patriotic Americans. We have a choice to make now. What kind of “good” citizens do we want to be?

If we want to prove that the America of today is truly different from the America of 1942, it’s going to take all of us, people of all races and religions, coming together and standing against unlawful, discriminatory policies. We must stand together and declare that the American government can’t target a group of people based on race, religion, or culture. We must test the institutions and mechanisms of civic engagement.

It is going to take organizing, relationship-building, and sacrifice. We’re proud of the students and alumni in the Roosevelt network who are doing their part to combat unjust, racist policies across the country, whether that means participating in the larger Sanctuary Campus movement, organizing and attending direct actions, or donating to local organizing groups that have been doing the work and need support. Rather than trying to erase our historical scars, we must continue to challenge the notion of what it means to be an “American” and commit to protecting each other.

Executive Order 9066 was a black mark on Roosevelt’s legacy, but instead of hiding from it, we should acknowledge and learn from it today. On the heels of the order’s 75th anniversary, the FDR Library recently opened a new exhibit on the incarceration of Japanese Americans. We encourage you to visit and see it for yourself. And when you do, ask yourself the question: Will we let history repeat itself?