Policing Muslim Communities: Why History Can’t Repeat Itself

The recent resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t foreign to American politics. During the first two decades of the 1900’s Americans across party lines were staunchly against immigrants. The United States passed several anti-immigrant laws designed to reduce immigration coming from European, African and Asian countries. Just because we’ve experienced this before makes America’s current discourse on immigration problematic. Americans should be conscious of the errors of the past. Official responses from Presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump foster a volatile atmosphere for immigrants, which could ultimately play into the violation of Americans constitutional rights down the road. The case of Korematsu v The United States (1944) is an important case to consider in context of racial profiling and attacks against the United States.

Following decades of anti-immigrant and isolationist sentiment, the United States government under the direction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, authorized the mass detention of individuals with Japanese dissent in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The mass detention of Japanese started in February 1942. Although many argued this case was about protecting national security, racial discrimination played a large role in the detention of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants.

According, to Justice Black who delivered the majority opinion, the detentions served a military purpose and had little to do with race. As a matter of fact, before he explains his position he prefaces his opinion with the following:

“It should be noted, to begin with, that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.”

However, to argue the issue had little to do with race is misguided. Japanese immigration was targeted in several pieces of legislation and informal agreements during the first three decades of the century. The Gentlemen’s Agreement was passed in 1908, where U.S officials and Japanese officials agreed to limit Japanese emigration from the island. In 1913, the State of California passed the Alien Land Law making it impossible for immigrants to obtain citizenship, therefore disenfranchising thousands of Japanese immigrants from land ownership. The Immigration Act of 1924, passed during the heat of the Red Scare, effectively banned all immigration from Japan to the United States. The anti- Japanese sentiment didn’t occur solely because of Pearl Harbor. Anti-Japanese sentiment had been fostered for several years in America prior to Pearl Harbor. The attack gave the government justification to further target innocent Japanese citizens.

Similarly, Trump and Cruz provoke anti-Muslim sentiment after attacks from jihadist sympathizers overseas and in the United States. The rhetoric espoused from the Trump and Cruz campaign seek to play on the anti-immigrant fear predominately found on the Right. The detention camps established by the U.S government and the push to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrant’s stems from the anti-immigrant legacy sowed in the decades prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks. We are seeing the same anti-immigrant campaign being replicated on the Right today, particularly against Mexicans and Muslims.

The targeting of specific racial groups also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, proponents of the Japanese concentration camps pointed to the few detainees who refused to pledge allegiance to the United States. However, we must understand that every action has a reaction. Detaining citizens and immigrants, revoking their rights and forcing them to leave their homes won’t foster a sense of loyalty to the country. Neither will threatening to do so in the case of today’s discourse revolving terrorism and Muslim communities. Perhaps these detainees saw the American dream wither away and assumed greater freedom awaited them home in Japan as opposed to a concentration camp in the Midwestern United States. Policing and targeting specific groups only serves to alienate, not breed loyalty.

Senator Ted Cruz immediately called for the policing of Muslim American neighborhoods, following the attacks in Belgium, not considering the violations to their Constitutional rights. In reality, he doesn’t have to consider their rights. His constituency is receiving information that confirms their suspicions. He’s playing to the base. The position is: “All Muslims must be policed, since a few have declared jihad on the United States.” This logic is faulty and dangerous. This is the same logic that allowed 125,000 Japanese to be detained without care for their Constitutional rights. To argue this isn’t about grouping by race or religion perpetuates a false notion of justice.

The Korematsu decision is significant today because the ruling was never over turned. The move to target a specific group of people, to assume guilt and blame without due process is technically legal, so far as a threat appears imminent. Justice Jackson writing the dissent in the Korematsu case, says of the majority decision, “The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of urgent need.” A loaded weapon this principle is indeed, we must be careful that the weapon doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.


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