In early 1942, a few months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the apparent aim of which was to prevent anti-American espionage. Under the order, 117,000 people of Japanese descent living mostly on the west coast of the United States – the majority of them American citizens – were rounded up and forcibly relocated to internment camps across the nation. Their legal status did not protect them. They were given less than a week’s notice before their lives were completely uprooted. More than 17,000 of the people interned were children under the age of ten, and several thousand were elderly or handicapped. They could not possibly have been spying on the US. The US didn’t care.
Japanese-Americans suffered an actual grievance at the hands of their country. They were taken from their homes. They were considered guilty with no recourse to prove their innocence. Their only crime was their Japanese heritage, and for that they were imprisoned in camps, some of them for years. This was an act of collective discrimination, a denial of rights and one of the deepest scars on the face of American history.
The internment of Japanese-Americans was many things. It was not, however, the same as telling people, if they can, to please remain at home because of a global pandemic. Which is why it is curious that, on 5 May, a Republican justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court compared her governor’s stay-at-home orders to Japanese American internment.
The justice, Rebecca Bradley, pointed to a 1944 Supreme Court case in which it was decided that the US government had the right to exclude Japanese-Americans from certain areas of the country. “I’ll direct your attention,” she said, “to another time in history, in the Korematsu decision, where the [Supreme Court] said the need for action was great and time was short and that justified, and I’m quoting, ‘assembling together and placing under guard all those of Japanese ancestry’ in assembly centres during World War Two. Could the secretary under this broad delegation of legislative power or legislative-like power order people out of their homes into centres where they are properly social distanced in order to combat the pandemic?” Bradley also described the state’s stay-at-home orders as “tyranny”.
There was no need to direct attention to the Korematsu decision – named after Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old Japanese-American who was arrested after refusing to leave his home in California, and who went on to become a civil rights activist – because what we have here in the context of lockdown is not discrimination against a group of people. Nobody is being ordered into camps because they are suspected of disloyalty to their country on account of their ancestry. We are being told to stay at home for our own safety.
Here are a few other things that the stay-at-home orders are not. They are not, despite what the Idaho state representative Heather Scott recently said, redolent of Nazi Germany, “where you had government telling people, you are an essential worker or non-essential worker and the non-essential workers got put on a train”. Despite comparisons drawn by right-wing protesters, those who cannot get haircuts or work out in gyms are not suffering like those six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The lockdown orders are not like laws imposed in the segregated South, and those defying them are in no way the modern-day equivalents of the civil rights activist Rosa Parks, even though the White House adviser Stephen Moore reportedly compared them to her. In 1955, Parks, a black woman, famously refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, where she was told she had to sit.
What all of these cases had in common – the Japanese-American internment, the Holocaust, the Jim Crow South – is that they were violently discriminatory. You were singled out because you were of Japanese descent, because you were Jewish, because you were black. The law punished you because of your identity.
The stay-at-home orders are not discriminatory. They do not stipulate that only white Americans must stay in their homes. The idea that they would is unfathomable, not least because laws in the US do not discriminate against white people. That is why, as happened in Michigan at the beginning of May, armed protesters are able to occupy state houses to demonstrate against stay-at-home orders; it is why white women are able to compare staying in their houses to those calamities experienced by people forcibly moved from their homes into camps; it’s why some are insisting that the lockdown is hurting them. It is because they live in a system designed to protect them from actual grievance that they enjoy the luxury of feeling aggrieved at imagined persecutions.
Staying at home is annoying. It is boring. It is lonely. For the 15 per cent of Americans who have lost their jobs in this pandemic, it is unimaginably costly. But it is not an act of persecution or discrimination, and only someone who had wilfully ignored the history of discrimination and persecution could think otherwise.
The enforcement of the laws, of course, can be discriminatory – but not against the white Americans calling them tyrannical. In Brooklyn and Queens, New York, half of residents are white but, respectively, 97.5 and 90.0 per cent of arrests over social distancing violations have been of people of colour, reports Business Insider. Black and Hispanic communities in New York are not typically known to come up with ludicrous historical comparisons to demonstrate that they are being discriminated against; those who know actual discrimination don’t need to.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion