Eighty years ago today, America invoked a “greater good” as justification to use force against a targeted social group. The toxic combination of post-Pearl Harbor attack fear, active dehumanization, and hate made us susceptible to that choice, resulting in trauma and violence for thousands.
In 1942, the decision to use force against a targeted group was expressed in seemingly patriotic language: in Executive Order 9066 President Roosevelt directed the Secretary of War ‘to prescribe Military Areas’ to protect against ‘espionage and sabotage’ as part of the war effort. The order gave officials power to exclude ‘any or all persons’ from military areas. Ominously, federal troops were authorized to enforce compliance.
Propaganda images of rats and snakes created by the U.S. government and media sources made clear who the ‘other’ was: those of Japanese ancestry. The choice to use force against a group defined by a perceived identity catalyzed a contagion of extralegal violence and hate acts that continued through to the relocation of the formerly interned back to the West Coast in 1945.
In 1942, some Americans saw this hatred and fear as an opportunity to benefit, as Dr. Sarah Taber has so eloquently explained:
The vast majority of Americans turned away from the pain experienced by their ethnic Japanese neighbors, enabling the spread of fear, dispossession, and assault to extract their toll.
You know who didn't turn away? A young Black woman from Alabama who had been orphaned as a child and came to Seattle during the war: Daisy Tibbs. Because of her efforts during and after the war, Daisy Tibbs (later, Tibbs Dawson) is memorialized at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
Read Dr. Quin'Nita Cobbins-Modica beautiful article describing the choices Tibbs made to care for and aid those suffering because of their Japanese identity. Dr. Cobbins-Modica shows Tibbs's recognition immediately after Pearl Harbor that the hatred unleashed against the Japanese was 'heartbreaking,' and not a just choice:
Tibbs also appears in Japanese sociologist Dr. Yasuhiro Okada's fascinating article, "Negotiating Race and Womanhood across the Pacific: African American Women in Japan under U.S. Military Occupation, 1945-52," which shows the various ways African American chose to exert autonomy through their engagement in post-World War II Asia. Tibbs's story is the kind that too often is forgotten or overlooked.
Among the many egregious follow-on effects of America's choice in 1942 to deploy bigoted scapegoating against Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants was that members of other Asian ethnic groups felt compelled to identify themselves as not Japanese, in order to prevent becoming the target of hate acts themselves:
Today, given the anti-AAPI hate ginned up after the emergence of Covid-19 in China, we are seeing horrific attacks on Asian American women in various contexts: work, using public transportation, and at home. Just as the hate brought about by Japan's attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor unleashed a spreading disease of bigoted cruelty in 1942, the manufactured hate of the 'Chinese virus' has metastasized into something pervasively cruel and dangerous.
The cynical choices of Trump (including even his Administration’s leading China expert) in the spring of 2020, almost immediately resulted in an upsurge in hate attacks on Asian-Americans. For that year, the NYPD reported a 1900% surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. And as we begin 2022, with the killings of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee, the metastasis continues.
As we mark the somber anniversary of when the American nation chose targeted bigotry and hate, let us remember the examples of both the white farmers in California and Daisy Tibbs; and let Daisy Tibbs's example be the one we choose to emulate.