Mar 7, 2016
Although it’s a smidgen compared to the Japanese-American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo, I found the Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland, as they advertise on their web site, intimate, and enlightening. I was already aware of the Japanese-American internment taking place in California during WWII, but didn’t know that those in Portland were rounded up as “evacuees” in an “assembly center” normally used to house livestock, before being dispersed to various internment camps. This was no picnic — people lost their property, their privacy (I shuddered just looking at photos of the latrines), three years of their lives, and in some cases, their actual lives. The center is currently showing the Uprooted exhibit, detailing how some were allowed to work as cheap farm labor because, despite local opposition to their presence, farmers needed more workers for wartime production.
It seemed a timely visit, considering the Trump anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric (already I’m falling into his trap, extending his ego-trademark from Trump Towers and Trump University to…Trump Rhetoric). But one could argue, disregarding the horrifying prospect that he might actually win, that he has done everyone a service by exposing still-existing prejudices.
Remember, besides Trump calling for banning Muslims and Syrian refugees from entering the US, there was post 9/11 talk of barring Muslims from airlines (which Bush Jr. immediately dismissed), and with the secret watchlist and suspected Muslims getting kicked off planes by paranoid passengers and crew, you could say it’s partly in effect.
Which brings up the link between religious prejudice and racial prejudice. In many cases, those kicked off planes weren’t Muslim, they “looked” like Muslims. The shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin is apparently the least-disturbing mass shooting in recent US history, garnering only a First Lady condolence visit.
It seems to me anti-Muslim sentiment is really more racial than religious (I did hear an impatient customer in a supermarket express lane describe himself as an “angry Christian” — now that’s scary). While spending five months in New Jersey and thinking how much I hated New Jersey (Christie’s Trump endorsement is pretty much the nail in the coffin on that), I responded to someone going on about how Obama is from “the neighborhood” and is really Muslim because his father is Muslim and Muslims say sons of Muslims are Muslim, then in that case I’m a Muslim, as I come from a long line of Muslims on my father’s side. But she closed her argument with, well, you’re not a terrorist, are you? I think that was supposed to be a compliment, like you’re one of the good ones.
While it was a relief to come back to California, where I no longer had to receive the usual “Where are you from?” and “Where are you really from?” questions, and the occasional “Are you Korean? I’m thinking about buying a Hyundai” question, here there’s a lot of anti-immigrant talk of the anti-Mexican variety. Even in the Bay Area last year, I was talking to a realtor selling million-dollar properties who warmly greeted a young Asian couple and did her best to ignore a young Latino couple, managing to hold her irritation until after they left. She had a British accent, by the way, so rest of the world, don’t act so superior.
Non-whites aren’t off the hook, either. Those Asian jokes at the Oscars…please, way to make it all about just you. And the stuff I’ve heard Asians say…don’t get me started. It’s not like all racists are Republicans, either, even if at times it seems part of their party platform. I’ve seen Democratic presidential contenders pandering to union fears of foreign labor from Japanese autoworkers in the eighties to Bernie Sander’s recent evocation of competition from Mexican and Vietnamese laborers. Just once, I’d like to hear them talk about trade disputes with Canada, the sucking sound of jobs going up north (check the credits on your favorite TV shows), or unfair competition from those masses of Irish factory workers. Then there was that head-scratcher from Geraldine Ferraro, smarting from Clinton’s loss to Obama and opining on Fox News that Obama wasn’t facing racism, but “racial resentment.”
Back to the Japanese-American internment: although it’s hard to believe something like that could ever happen again, while I was living in Huntington Beach, the city released a 100-year anniversary video that inexplicably devoted a few minutes to an hour-long otherwise puff piece with a misleading defense of the internment (never mentioning that most of the interned were American citizens, and describing their loyalty as “a question that could not be answered”). I can only hope that the video is boring enough that students in the schools they sent copies to won’t notice that segment. There’s hope for the future yet, if they learn from the past and are not paying too much attention to the present.