Commentary

Let’s not whitewash the racism from American history

December 6, 2022 12:02 am

Heart Mountain towers at the end of “F” Street, the main thoroughfare of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.(Tom Parker / National Archives at College Park, public domain)

By Shirley Ann Higuchi

My father grew up on a farm in San Jose that my grandfather had to put in the names of his two oldest sons, because California banned migrants from owning land. The reason behind the state’s Alien Land Law was racism.

It was racism that enabled my Japanese American relatives to immigrate to the United States in the first place: A young nation desperate for workers had banned the immigration of all Chinese in 1882 and looked to Japan as a source of cheap labor.

Finally, it was racism that led the federal government to expel my parents’ families from California in 1942 and incarcerate them in a concentration camp in Wyoming for the duration of World War II.

But if the Virginia Board of Education dominated by appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin has its way, the racism at the root of many incidents in American history will fade away.

The recent release of Standards of Learning for history and social science for Virginia does include the Japanese American incarceration during World War II but avoids mentioning the racism that led to it.

It’s true that 125,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were forced from their homes and businesses on the West Coast in reaction to the imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But the conditions that enabled that expulsion, which ruined the lives of countless families, had existed for years before then.

Politicians and business leaders had fulminated against immigrants for years, blaming them without evidence for bringing disease and threatening the livelihoods of white Americans. Some Caucasian residents placed signs on their homes that proclaimed that “this is a white man’s neighborhood.” Others resented the success of the Japanese American farmers who coaxed rich harvests out of marginal land.

Pearl Harbor provided them the pretext to eliminate the Asian immigrants they had resented for years.

My father’s family had to sell their 14.25-acre farm in San Jose for just pennies on the dollar. My oldest uncle, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army, had to leave his base in Arkansas to sign the papers at a notary public in a nearby town.

My mother’s father lost his store in Oakland, and they lost their home in San Francisco. It took them years to recoup what they had lost.

The government never presented any evidence that Japanese Americans posed a security threat on the West Coast. In Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor attack actually happened and where Japanese Americans were a large plurality of the population, there was no large-scale incarceration.

On the mainland, where there were large populations of German and Italian nationals, there was no mass incarceration of those two Caucasian communities.

After the war, my parents’ families rebuilt their lives and finances. My parents assimilated into white-dominated society. As a child in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I knew very few Asian Americans. I captained the cheerleading squad, led the forensics team and eventually became a lawyer. I was the first Asian American president of the DC Bar.

It was only after my mother’s death in 2005 that I learned of her commitment to build a museum on the site of where she, my father and their families were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Now, I chair the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates a museum on the site.

We remain committed to making sure what happened there never happens again. We often host school groups at our museum to tell them about our history. For three years running, we have received National Endowment for the Humanities grants to bring 72 teachers a year from around the country to Heart Mountain so they can teach their students about what really happened.

Some of those teachers have been from Virginia, which has its own tragic history with race. We teach them and others that racism was a huge part of what led to the Japanese American incarceration.

That will not change, regardless of what Virginia’s board concludes, because history doesn’t bend for a politician’s agenda. I urge board members to reconsider how they examine this and other critical parts of our great nation’s long and often-troubled past.

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released in 2020 by the University of Wisconsin Press. 

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