Two Utahns who spent childhood in internment camps say history must not repeat
A community debate in May about building a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City went national earlier this year after nearly 1,000 people showed up to protest the project. NPR reporter Juan Williams made national news in October when he followed up an observation that "political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality" with a comment about how he gets "worried" and "nervous" when he sees people on a plane wearing Muslim garb. The Washington Post reported Sunday that many leading national Muslim organizations have suspended contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation because the agency has been secretly monitoring mosques. Former FBI informant Craig Monteilh told the newspaper that he was recruited to spy on the worshipers because, he was told, "Islam is a threat to our national security."
These are not isolated examples.
"History is repeating itself," Nagata said. "They blamed us for the attack on Pearl Harbor just because we are Japanese. We are blaming people from the Middle East for what happened on 9/11 just because they are Muslim."
While most experts agree that a full-out internment scenario is unlikely to happen again, profiling and discrimination as a product of racism and fear are alive and kicking, said Jerry Kang, a professor of law at UCLA.
Psychological studies show that Americans are more likely to trust people who look Caucasian.
"We have prevailing stereotypes about certain types of people not being fully American," Kang said. "When we think American, we think of white, European faces. When we see Asian faces or Middle Eastern faces, we subconsciously associate those people with some level of foreignness."
While our brains are wired to categorize people, Kang said, the information we use to do so is ever changing. Toward the end of the 19th century, for example, Chinese immigrants were stereotyped as "rats" flooding the shores to take American jobs without legal paperwork. Now that stereotype, Kang said, belongs to Hispanics.
"Every generation has its own civil rights battles," Kang said. Today the country deals with many. Figuring out how to fight terrorism without violating the civil rights of Arab Americans is one. Arizona's recently enacted immigration law, which some say encourages racial profiling by authorizing local police officers to raise the question of immigration status, raises another.
Floyd Mori, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said there is an "anti-immigrant sentiment against Hispanics" that closely mirrors Japanese-Americans' experiences. Long before the president allowed the military to lock them up, Japanese Americans were denied citizenship through naturalization.
"The country's memory is very, very short in this regard," said Mori, who grew up in Ogden. "It seems certain minorities in particular times of our history become targets of hate and racism — it's a cycle we can't seem to break."
Kang pointed out the country has made significant advances in civil rights since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Progress, though, he said, has not come without a price.
"Our mistakes, when it comes to racial relations, aren't as grotesque as they once were," Kang said. "But that improvement didn't come easily. People have fought for this."
The Japanese American Citizens League, which Uno and Nagata both headed at one time or another, took it upon itself to right the wrongs done during World War II. In 1976 during a convention in Salt Lake City, the organization resolved to pursue redress for the Japanese-American people who were incarcerated. They didn't give up until Ronald Reagan issued a presidential apology in 1988 and agreed to pay those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated $20,000 each. A large part of the battle: educating the congressmen about what happened. Even 20 years later, many on the East Coast were ignorant to the abuse of the Japanese Americans.
"That was huge," said Uno. "The fact that the government was big enough to admit they made a mistake — it didn't change what happened — but it meant a lot."
Inspired by his experiences, Uno, who would grow up to become the first minority judge in Utah, joined the battle for civil rights in the early 1950s. He lobbied for fair employment and fair housing for minorities. He helped to found Utah's chapter of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was eventually elected president. He wandered the streets with the local NAACP representative to make sure restaurants and hotels served everyone — regardless of race or religion.
"I never meant to be a civil rights activist," he said. "It's just something that kind of fell on my shoulders."
Nagata, though he wasn't as politically involved, felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, as well.
"It's important to remember what happened so it won't happen again," he said.
Over the years, he's used his talents as a prominent graphic design artist to help preserve history. He designed and edited several books about Topaz. He shared his story with dozens of newspapers.
"I never meant to be the spokesman for the incarcerated Japanese in Utah," he said. "I think I can talk about these things because I was so young. For most people there is too much pain."
All that remains of Topaz now is the foundation of the barracks Nagata lived in. He helped to raise money for and designed three monuments for the site.
The placard, which he wrote, points out that not a single case of espionage was discovered among those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. "The memory of Topaz remains a tribute to a people whose faith and loyalty was steadfast — while America's had faltered."
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