306. White Men Only

Mostly, A Writing Life is a look at science fiction and writing in general. However, I am an American, and my country did something seventy-five years ago that needs to be remembered. See also Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that citizenship was available to “any alien, being a free white person”. That set the tone for the future. When the law was amended after the Civil War, it’s new iteration was taken to mean that Chinese were not eligible for citizenship.

Economic reality brought them to America anyway, where their children became citizens by birth, even though their parents could not be naturalized. The Chinese importance to the transcontinental railroad is well known. When the golden spike was driven, Chinese by the thousand were thrown out of work, and in the years that followed, downturns in the American economy were blamed on cheap Chinese labor. By 1882, Chinese were forbidden entry into the United States, a condition that continued until the 1940s.

In 1880, only 148 Japanese were living in the United States. Between 1885 and 1894, the need for cheap labor in Hawaii coupled with economic difficulties in Japan led 25,000 Japanese to emigrate to Hawaii. Many of those later moved on to the mainland.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, particularly during the Alaskan gold rush, there was a need for cheap labor all over the American west. Chinese were prohibited from entering the US, but Japanese were not. The result was predictable; between 1901 and 1908, 127,000 Japanese entered the United States. Many entered the fishing industry. Many were skilled in a kind of small scale, intensive agriculture that was new to the United States. All came from a culture that emphasized the entrepreneurial spirit.

Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese immigrants were denied citizenship, but their children became citizens at birth.

Most of these Japanese settled in California, where they formed a tiny minority. By 1941, only a small minority of that minority were both native born and of voting age, leaving the Japanese politically voiceless.

Throughout the half century before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, especially in California, were subject to virulent racism. Repeatedly, the California legislature made it illegal for Japanese to lease or own land, but these were poorly conceived laws that were universally evaded. Japanese children were segregated out of public education.

It is a familiar pattern. Most ethnic groups endured it when they first came to America – then used the same tactics against whoever came after them. Like hazing at West Point, it is a long-standing American tradition.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Unfounded fears of the Japanese led to Executive Order 9066, and in 1942 the American military moved 120,000 Americans from their homes and incarcerated them thousands of miles away in “relocation centers”. I call them Americans because they were either actual citizens or long time residents who intended to live out their lives in their new country, but were prevented from receiving citizenship because of their race.

Much is made of the harshness of the centers, but that is not the point. Tens of thousands of GIs lived in barracks identical to those that made up the relocation centers. There was one difference, however, that does matter. The GI barracks were not surrounded by barbed wire fences, with guard towers manned by soldiers with guns.

And those GIs who made it back from the war, returned to their homes. The homes, farms and businesses of the Japanese were largely taken by the neighbors who had sent them away.

* * * * * * * *

I said in the beginning that I would not shove conclusions down your throat. I will, however, leave you with this quotation from Personal Justice Denied, p. 28:

(Japanese relocation) is the bitter history of an original mistake, a failure of America’s faith in its citizens’ devotion to their country’s cause and their right to liberty, when there was no evidence or proof of wrongdoing.

For me, 2017 is beginning to look a lot like 1942. Decide for yourself.

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