On remembering Executive Order 9066, the Japanese American internment, and seeing “House of Cards”
By now, you should know that Asian Americans are the xenophobes’ delight. And if I didn’t have the “Day of Remembrance” to recall the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, my binge watching of “House of Cards” confirms it.
It’s our natural condition to be seen as “foreigners.”
And our natural condition to be excluded.
From the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s, to the U.S. exploitation of the Philippines that resulted in the migration of “Little Brown Brother” to California in the 1920s and ’30s, to the Japanese Americans in 1942, there is an undeniable pattern.
Americans will do nasty things to those of us of Asian descent.
And just when you think our fellow Americans are level-headed and secure in our notion of democracy, along comes 9/11. Then it was time for South Asians to become initiated into the “what it’s really like to be an Asian/Asian American” club.
That’s why it is important that we mark Feb. 19, 1942, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the days that followed.
It doesn’t sound like much, enabling the government to declare war zones as “exclusion zones.” But with the war in the Pacific, the order cleared the way in the West for the roundup of over 110,000 of Japanese ancestry, of whom more than 60 percent were American citizens.
War hysteria? Americans went amok against Asians of Japanese descent.
You probably know Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps, some as young children.
Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17) was just an infant.
Former Presidential Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta was a Cub Scout. Before entering camp, the government confiscated his baseball bat.
There were also nearly 15,000 Germans (including Jewish refugees) and Italians who were caught in the hysteria. How’s that for “negative diversity”?
Because of Executive Order 9066, signs like this were put up soon after in California:
The human toll it took was devastating. The order enabled the government to strip people of liberty, property, and their livelihoods. They were taken from a normal life and placed like animals in racetrack stables, then relocated to desolate internment camps in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. There were even camps as far east as Rohwer, Arkansas, where the young Japanese American George Takei was interned.
If anyone doubts the power of executive orders, and what can be done to impact lives, one need look no further than E.O. 9066.
Can you imagine if it were an order for positive change, say, for example, to make immigration laws more fair and family-friendly? A simple stroke of a pen just takes political will. And if some president says he’d rather have Congress change a law, and do it the hard way, the right way, he’s just joshing you.
Look at E.O. 9066. Even after the internment, the law remained on the books until 1976, when its moral bankruptcy was evident.
I guess our government thought it was good to have around, “just in case” any of us got uppity again.
Of course, who needs E.O. 9066? No spoiler alert needed. We all know that after 9/11, there was no stopping the government from targeting and harassing large groups of innocent individuals.
So to this day, we remember E.O. 9066 and the days leading up to the roundup of Japanese Americans.
It won’t happen on that scale again, right?
Can xenophobia be kept in check?
Not if we see images in pop culture where the Asian faces are always the “evil foreigners.”
THE DIVERSITY IN “HOUSE OF CARDS”
While binge watching “House of Cards” over the weekend, I thought about one of this year’s subplots involving a Chinese businessman character named Xander Feng.
No spoiler alert needed here. The diversity in the Netflix series is generally good.
Women, lesbians, bisexuals, gays, even nouveau androgynous computer hackers get a piece of the story line. Native Americans also get their share of face time for once, which is to be commended. Black characters and Latino characters are featured players and even get to have sex (though the Latina chief of staff is actually played by South Asian actor Sakina Jaffrey, daughter of Indian cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey).
I guess it’s “seen one person of color, seen them all.” It’s just “acting,” right?
Perhaps, but what about the show’s main Asian character? Despite the record numbers of Asian Americans in the real presidential cabinet going back to the Clinton administration (Mineta served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations), I didn’t see many Asian American faces on the show.
But I did see Feng, played ably by Terry Chen, an Asian Canadian. The sexual proclivities of the character I don’t mind all that much, but they do come up in a somewhat gratuitous way. What I do mind is that once again, the Asian is the “bad guy.”
I know this is the show where everyone is bad. They could’ve changed Feng’s name to Fu. But only one guy in the cast gets to wear the cufflinks that say F.U.
Still, if you doubt there’s a stereotypical chord being struck here, I saw one reviewer speak of Feng as potentially a Bond-like villain.
Hey, I know Bond-like villains, and Feng is no Odd Job.
But he is an Asian face, the foreigner to be feared. With our pop culture feeding messages like that, Asian Americans could be caught in the crossfire of cultural confusion again.
That’s why continuing to remember E.O. 9066 is no small thing.
It was the executive order that enabled an exclusionist society to marginalize all foreigners and those who in some way do not look American enough.
That really shouldn’t be an issue in a democracy, but when emotional decisions drive politics, Asian Americans know how easily a sense of logic and fair play get lost.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.