Covid 19 and Concentration Camps
In February 1942, responding to fears of an invisible enemy within, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 condemning 120,000 persons of Japanese descent to ten concentration camps in the American interior. Nisei, native born United States citizens of Japanese descent, represented two-thirds of those interned.
By 1943, Nisei could win their release by pledging loyalty and taking a job away from the west coast — 35,000 left camps this way including 13,000 who joined the American military serving in segregated units. Significantly, 5,000 Americans renounced their US citizenship at wars end and moved to Japan.
Nisei did attempt legal redress while incarcerated. In Korematsu v. US, (1944) 323 U.S. 214, the Supreme Court weighed the following question: “Did the President and Congress go beyond their war powers by implementing exclusion and restricting the rights of Americans of Japanese descent?” In a 6-3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order leading to internment was constitutional. The opinion held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Oakland, California-born Fred Korematsu’s individual rights and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.
This landmark decision, stemming from a time when America faced a mortal threat on her shores, seems entirely relevant today. Using the broad powers granted the presidency in wartime, the president singled out a group of American citizens, confiscated their property, stigmatized them and quarantined them in places where they would not be a problem. Korematsu v. US is still, arguably, good law today. The case has never been reversed by the Supreme Court or superseded specifically by an act of congress. In 2018, Chief Justice Roberts, in non-binding dicta, seemingly put the Korematsu holding to bed. See https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/did-the-supreme-court-just-overrule-the-korematsu-decision for more information on this issue. However, after 9/11, and again more recently with President Trump’s travel bans, the government sought to single out specific groups for special nefarious treatment.
In the age of COVID 19, while we remain vigilant against an unseen threat, we must also remain heedful of the threat to our liberty posed by those who speak of this as a time of war while racializing the danger. The danger is the virus, a force unfamiliar with national borders and unable to find Wuhan on a map.