An Arab American Internment?
Eric L. Muller

This nation has just suffered a vicious surprise attack on its own soil, apparently by people of a different race and culture. We suffered a similar surprise attack sixty years ago, and so the comparisons to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came immediately.

We would do well to pursue the analogy, because the Pearl Harbor attack led to the most massive government-sponsored human rights violation in the United States since the end of slavery. Within a few months of Pearl Harbor, the federal government uprooted all 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, aliens and U.S. citizens alike, and jailed them in desolate camps in the U.S. interior.

With upwards of three million people of Arab descent living in America, we must now ask ourselves: Could it happen again?

The early indications are worrisome. Mosques have been defaced. Arab-owned businesses have been shot at. Arab Americans have faced verbal and physical abuse in the streets. Internet message boards burst with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans and threats.

To his credit, Attorney General John Ashcroft has clearly condemned this wave of violence and harassment. "Such reports of violence and threats," he said on September 13th, "are in direct opposition to the very principles and laws of the United States and will not be tolerated."

These are welcome words, but they cannot assure us that we are not lurching toward an Arab American internment. After all, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle came to the defense of Japanese America, arguing courageously that "the Bill of Rights protects not only American citizens but all human beings who live on our American soil." His words did not prevent the incarceration of Japanese Americans just a few months later.

The risk of a replay of 1942 is clear. In the public's mind, today's enemy is not so different from the enemy of sixty years ago. His religion is foreign, we tell ourselves. His devotion to it is suicidal. He is secretive. He is barbaric. His skin is of a different color. And so on.

Yet the situations of Japanese Americans in 1941 and Arab Americans in 2001 are different in hopeful ways. The oppression of Japanese Americans came from more than just military fears and racial hatred. Its main engine was economic. The historical record is clear that the most effective advocates for evicting the West Coast's Japanese Americans were their white business competitors, especially in agriculture. The attack on Pearl Harbor presented white farmers with a chance to cap off a program of economic nativism that had been in place for years.

Arab Americans, while above the national median in income and education, do not stand as a unified economic target. Unlike Japanese Americans in 1941, who were concentrated in agriculture and in certain retail and service industries, Arab Americans today spread themselves across a broad range of the labor force.

Arab America is also more broadly dispersed across the country than was Japanese America in 1941. At that time, nearly ninety percent of all people of Japanese ancestry lived in California, Washington, and Oregon, where they made an easy target. Today, Arab Americans live all over the country, with especially large populations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, DC.

Unlike Japanese Americans in 1941, Arab Americans walk the corridors of political power. Two cabinet secretaries are of Arab descent—Spencer Abraham, the Secretary of Energy, and Mitchell E. Daniels, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Donna Shalala, President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services, is also of Arab ancestry. John Sununu, an Arab American, was governor of New Hampshire and the first President Bush's chief of staff. Several Arab Americans serve in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps most importantly, the law protects Arab Americans today in a way that it did not protect Japanese Americans in 1941. What we today take as a commonplace—namely, that the government may not take race or ethnic origin into account in its dealings with individuals—had not yet been established in 1941. To be sure, our government often strays from this principle, as our experience with racial profiling shows us. But today's courts have nearly sixty years of precedent to rely upon in condemning race-based government action. And what's more, nearly all of our current Supreme Court justices have condemned the Japanese American internment as unconstitutional, and the 1944 Supreme Court's opinion to the contrary as a colossal mistake.

Sadly, the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents of the last few days have shown that Americans are no less susceptible to racist fear than we were after the tragedy at Pearl Harbor. The situation of Arab Americans is, however, different from that of the Japanese Americans during World War II, and we live in a different legal world as well. Let us hope that we are in a better position to hear, and to heed, our Attorney General's sensible words of restraint today than we were in 1941.

Eric L. Muller is Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II (University of Chicago Press, 2001). This essay was first published in the Pacific Citizen.


Copyright notice: ©2001 by Eric L. Muller. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Eric L. Muller.
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