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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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History as Art, Art as History

Contemporary Art and Social Studies Education

Dipti Desai,jessica Hamlin, and Rachel Mattson

The case study we offer up for examination in this section is the event that most of us learned to call "the Japanese internment"; that is, the federally mandated relocation, during World War II, of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the U.S. to land-locked detention centers in the interior. A radical breach of the fundamental principles of a participatory democracy (and more specifically of the U.S. Constitution), the history of Japanese detention telescopes and highlights the uneven history of citizenship in the U.S.; during these years, the U.S. government rounded up and relocated not only non-citizen immigrants, but also large numbers of U.S. citizens. Indeed, of the 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in camps during the war, the vast majority—a full two thirds—were citizens (Ngai, 2004). In the process, these individuals lost almost all of the rights and responsibilities that define "citizenship." Rounded up indiscriminately, they were denied the right to due process. Although they suffered from the general presumption that they were potential Japanese spies loyal to Japan and not to the U.S., none of the interned was accused of a specific crime. They also lost the rights to a trial by their peers, to face their accuser, to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, to vote, and to the protection of their property that are so clearly laid out in the Constitution. (Forced to abandon or sell their property, their material possessions, and their jobs, many found themselves destitute after the war.) In short, they were denied all the fundamental protections and rights that constitute meaningful citizenship.

The Japanese incarceration—and incarceration is a more accurate term for these events than "internment"—wasn't, of course, the only moment in the American past when some U.S. citizens were prevented from accessing the full protections of their supposed membership in the U.S. nation. Access to the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship has been, from the day the republic was founded, unevenly granted, and has been shaped by debates about race and gender—or, to be more accurate, by white supremacy and misogyny. White, native-born women have always had the right to claim membership in the American nation, but until 1920, they lacked the national right to participate in one of the fundamental features democratic citizenship: the right to vote. Likewise, although African Americans did legally have the right to vote throughout the twentieth century, in many cases, they were not capable of exercising that right. In many states, between the end of Reconstruction (in 1877) and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (in 1965), any black citizen attempting to vote in many states faced penalties ranging from humiliation (in the form of intentionally impossiblc-to-pass "voter tests") to death (at the hands of white vigilantes).

And yet, although the one-person-one-votc idea stands at the core of the democratic promise, democratic citizenship is more than the right to vote. Classical political theorists argue that democratic citizenship consists of three central elements: the civil, the political, and the social. "Civil" rights encompass the rights to free speech and equal justice; "political" rights include voting and other sorts of political participation; and "social" rights entitle us to economic benefits: social security, Medicaid, and the right to "live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society" (Marshall, 1973, p. 72). In short, under the rules of U.S. democracy, citizens arc entitled to protections that non-citizens cannot claim. Not only can they participate in elections and serve on juries, but they also receive financial support from the government, are entitled to due process and other protective legal rights, have the right to speak freely without penalty, and are protected by the U.S. government when traveling abroad.

More recently, other scholars have suggested that we might add a fourth subcategory to this list: "cultural" citizenship. Cultural citizenship, in short, refers to the idea of national belonging, to the ways that "Americanness" gets expressed outside the formal legal and political structures of a democracy. Although the law is ''the discourse that most literally governs citizenship" (to quote the scholar Lisa Lowe, 19%, p. 2), citizenship and belonging also get determined through interactions between individuals in the streets, in the pages of the national news media, on TV, and through popular representations of "America" and "Americanness." That is to say, to quote Lowe again, that "U.S. national culture—the collectively forged images, histories and narratives that place, displace, and replace individuals in relation to the national polity—[also] powerfully shapes who the citizenry is." Asian American history (along with the histories of many other immigrant groups) provides a great number of examples of the ways that cultural citizenship functions to disenfranchise a range of individuals even if they arc, formally and legally, U.S. citizens. As Sunaina Maira (2004) recently put it: "Cultural citizenship becomes an important construct to examine because legal citizenship is clearly no longer enough to guarantee protection under the law" (p. 222).

Some observers have protested, in response to this list of rights violations and the disturbing conditions of Japanese incarceration, that the U.S. government was still justified in taking wartime precautions. Didn't Japanese-Americans living on the west coast pose a threat to national security? And doesn't that potential threat override the protections of citizenship? In the years since World War II. historians have proven that at no time did the Japanese immigrant and Japanese-American community pose any sort of threat to the security oi the nation. As the historian Roger Daniels has observed, even "a 1'ASl report by the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians" concluded that die Japanese incarceration "was nut justified by military necessity" and that, on the contrary, the decision to relocate these individuals was motivated by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership" (Presidential Commission, 1981, quoted in Daniels, 1993, p. 3). The U.S. government simply presumed "all Japanese in America to be racially inclined to disloyalty," in the words of Mae Ngai. "Today," she continues, "we call this racial profiling. In 1942 it was said, 'a Jap is a Jap'" (Ngai, 2004, p. 175).

Most historians also recognize that it wasn't simply overzealous wartime hysteria that created the conditions that made the detention of an entire group of Americans possible. On the contrary, this was an event that had its roots in political and cultural dynamics going back to the nineteenth century, if not longer. "The wartime abuse of Japanese Americans," to quote Roger Daniels (1993) again, "was merely a link in a chain of racism that stretched back to the earliest contacts between Asians and whites on American soil"—and especially on the soils of the coastal states of California, Washington, and Oregon (p. 3). From the moment that Asians first began landing in California in large numbers during the mid-nineteenth century, they faced enormous opposition to their full participation in community or national life. Even while they were clearly and fundamentally helping to build the nation and the communities they lived in—working to construct the transcontinental railroad, growing crops on their farms that would feed other Americans, owning businesses, and doing manual labor of all sorts—they were treated as foreigners. Even as they established large communities and after an entire generation of U.S.-born Japanese- and Chinese-Americans arose in the United States, Asians were still looked upon as foreigners. (For more on this history, sec Chapter 8.) The American Anglo elite—both in the state capitals on the West Coast and in Washington, DC—passed a long roster of laws, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, aimed specifically at disenfranchising Asians. Asian immigrants during the Gold Rush, for instance, had to pay a special "miners' tax" (1850); in 1913, the California state legislature made it illegal for non-citizen Asian immigrants to own property (through an act dubbed the "Alien Land Law"); and in 1922, the Supreme Court decided that Japanese immigrants could not become U.S. citizens (Ozawa v. the U.S.). Meantime, Asians faced violence in the form of mass riots and individual hate crimes up and down the coast. There were a hundred stories of heartbreak and suffering that resulted from each one of these provisions and phenomena.

It was not just non-citizens who suffered from this anti-Asian climate and the legal decisions that hardened within its freezing temperatures. These laws and sentiments had the widespread effect of separating Asian Americans from other Americans. Disenfranchised, forced to pay special taxes, prevented from working in many industries, and subject to brutal violence, Asians found themselves pushed to the margins, regardless of their language skills, their national status, or their educational accomplishments. And in turn, white Americans continued to clump Asians together (without much regard for the diversity within this large category) and to cast them as "foreigners," "immigrants," and "aliens." The result was that even later generations of U.S.-born Japanese- and Chinese-Americans found that they were not considered real "Americans." Dramatic as it was, the Japanese incarceration during World War II was not the first time that Asian-American citizens had their full access to the rights of citizenship interrupted.

So what, exactly, can we learn from this event, and the events surrounding it, about the meaning and histories of "citizenship" in the U.S.? Certainly, there arc legal requirements to citizenship, and citizenship does include the rights and responsibilities of voting, serving on a jury, the right to due process, and, sometimes, required military service. But citizenship is far more than this. It is about relating to the people around you, it is about how participation and belonging are imagined in public and private, it is about how the idea of America is imagined and upheld. Indeed, even a citizen's legal rights can, and have been, officially negated and denied, not only during the World War D era incarceration of Japanese-Americans, but at other points in time.

If! as educators, we are trying to teach our students to think critically about the world around them—if we are trying to create, in the words of the educational scholar Samuel wineburg, "empowered agents"—then teaching about the ways in which the U.S. state "as not always upheld democratic principles is a critical piece of K-12 history education.

ie idea behind this sort of education strategy is not, as some critics might decry, to tesh the U.S. It is instead to teach students to think historically about power and rights, and to teach them to be critically engaged participants as they become adults (Wineburg, 124
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