Racism in the US: lessons to learn from Japanese internment

Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu has been legally vindicated. It took almost 41 years. But the US Department of Justice has now asked that Mr. Korematsu's 1942 conviction for violation of wartime evacuation orders be set aside.

A native-born American of Japanese ancestry, Mr. Korematsu - along with 100, 000 other Japanese-Americans - was ordered by the United States government to leave his home and report to a relocation camp. Korematsu, then a shipyard welder living in San Leandro, Calif., refused. He moved to Oakland, where he was eventually apprehended and convicted of breaking federal law. Along with two others, he appealed. But the US Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

Today that forced relocation of Americans, solely on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds, is seen as an ugly blot on US constitutional democracy. In recent years there have been efforts to make amends for it. Commissions were set up to investigate the circumstances and injustices of the relocation. The Executive Order that called for internment was rescinded by presidential proclamation in 1976. In 1980, Congress prohibited the detainment of any citizen without a specific act of Congress. Financial compensation was awarded to some of the aggrieved. And last month the Justice Deparment, in its request that the Korematsu conviction be dropped, affirmed the ''inherent right of each person to be treated as an individual.''

But there's still the matter of reversing the Supreme Court ruling.

Peter Irons, a University of California political scientist and practicing lawyer, feels there are grounds to do so. He has been looking into the internment cases. He's uncovered a possible government cover-up that may have involved suppression of evidence and other high-level misdeeds related to the relocation decision. He has written a book about it - ''Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases'' (Oxford University Press).

Professor Irons was instrumental in the reopening of the Korematsu and other cases. Now he's seeking a court order acknowledging that the original Executive Order and attending military orders which led to the internment were, in fact, unconstitutional.

If this ruling comes, a not-so-just chapter in American history will be closed. Or will it?

Regardless of the court's final ruling, there's the unfinished business of combating racism in America. Its ugly head popped up 40 years ago in the flurry over Japanese-Americans. Since then it has shown itself repeatedly - during the Iranian hostage crisis, for instance, when some observers suggested that Iranian-Americans be taken into custody in retribution for the acts against Americans in Iran, and today in disputes regarding the rights of blacks and Mexican-Americans.

Arguments of the 1940s sound uncannily current: you can't tell a Japanese-American from a Japanese national; in a crisis, they're sure to be loyal to their ethnic roots; surely some Japanese-Americans are part of spy networks transmitting US security data to Tokyo.

Even such noted liberals and civil libertarians as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Tom C. Clark (later a Supreme Court justice), columnist Walter Lippmann, and then-California Attorney General Earl Warren expressed these views.

Yet Professor Irons's research and the testimony of government officials have pierced the disloyalty balloon. Wartime FBI and Justice Department reports indicated no such espionage efforts, Irons contends, but this information was kept from the decisionmakers, the public, and the courts. Resentment and suspicion against Japanese-Americans were regarded as useful for military and political purposes.

Could these events recur today? Unfortunately, yes. People who look ''different'' are still potential targets. It's just too easy - on the flimsiest of evidence - to stereotype groups or identify individuals with political movements and regimes.

The ultimate solution, of course, is to stop seeing color, race, or nationality as automatically divisive factors. One strength of America is its diversity. Racism, fear, and hysteria are counterproductive in its free system. They only serve to contaminate it.

The United States deserves credit for making legal amends to Fred Korematsu. Justice came late - but it did come. In many parts of the the world, it would not have come.

But full vindication for the Japanese-Americans will arrive only when we learn that, even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.

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