Recently, I read Bay Area-born writer Julie Otsuko’s exquisitely framed novel, “The Buddha in the Attic,” about Japanese “picture brides,” in a single sitting. (It’s all of 144 pages.) The story, a combination of poetry and prose, uniquely narrated in the first-person plural, laid out the challenges of immigrant life in pre-World War II America, with its increasing estrangement of colored communities, races and ethnicities. While being the second of her novels, Otsuka shaped it as a prequel to her previous novel, “When the Emperor was Divine,” which detailed a riveting and heart-rending account of her own family’s internment experience with poignant clarity. Both novels call attention to what were the overriding racial resentments of the times and the wounds it gouged in our collective psyches.
After the recent elections, what seemed like a dark historical account from our past seems all too plausible once again. History is no lesson.
There have been suggestions and rumors that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition advisers have been tossing around the idea of a Muslim registry. Kris Kobach, immigration adviser to Trump, talked about a database of Muslim noncitizens. Carl Higbie, an ex-Navy Seal and Trump supporter, called the idea of a database “legal” and declared that it “will hold constitutional muster.” In an interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, Higbie implied that the Japanese internment experience could be used as a precedent.
In an email to Democratic party members, actor and activist George Takei responded to the Trump team’s idea of a registry, modeled on the internment of Japanese-Americans, with outrage.
“I remember the tears streaming down my mother’s face as we were torn away from our home,” Takei wrote, in parts pleading and urging readers to take action, for “this is not who we are.”
So the question arises: Who are we, San Francisco?
Certainly, if we look at The City’s history, our own leaders and officers have not been exempt from politicizing racial bigotry. Take the case of James Duvall Phelan, who was elected three times and served as the Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. Mayor Phelan, a Democrat, was passionate about his various causes, many of them worthwhile. One of them, though, was the exclusion of “Orientals.”
In 1901, Phelan wrote an article published in the North American Review, titled “Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded.” In San Francisco, only 224 votes were cast in favor of Chinese immigration, wrote Phelan, and 41,258 votes against it. He described this as “… the resident population of California, taking the broad ground of self-preservation, refused to suffer themselves to be dispossessed of their inheritance by Chinese coolies.”
Phelan gave voice and wings to the prevailing sentiment at the time, blaming Chinese immigrants for lowering wage levels. If he were alive today, he would probably be taken aback by the fact that since 1998, one out of five startups in the Silicon Valley have been led by Chinese-Americans.
Later, when Phelan was elected to the Senate from California, he launched his anti-Japanese campaign. Testifying in support of the Asian Exclusion Act (part of the Immigration Act of 1924), Phelan deliberately created an atmosphere of mistrust and wariness by questioning the intentions of Japanese who were settling around military and other areas in Hawaii, claiming that “nobody believes for a moment that the Japanese are loyal to the American Flag.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 was signed by President Calvin Coolidge on May 24 of that year. Phelan, and others like him, were convinced that immigrants from Asia did not contribute to the economy, were unable to assimilate and, importantly, would disrupt the racial integrity and homogeneity of the population.
Seventeen years later, after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment was fanned into hysterical hostility by politicians and military leaders with disastrous consequences. John DeWitt was in command of the Fourth Army Headquarters at the Presidio of San Francisco at the time. History holds him responsible for the forced migration of 115,000 Japanese into relocation camps in 1942. He retired from the army with several military honors in 1947.
The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco has records on the progress of Japanese internment throughout The City. Much of the rhetoric in newspapers and editorials at the time described California-born Japanese as “dangerous” or “alien enemy.” A familiar rationalization was offered then, too: Considerations of national security must come first.
So, I am moved to ask, is it acceptable to imprison a hundred innocents to catch one criminal?
My intention in opening up these wounds is to remind ourselves that segregating, alienating, recording, identifying and labeling races and religions can have no decent outcome — besides being a bureaucratic drag. If the intention is to keep America safe, let’s pay attention to who buys guns and focus on the travel patterns of individuals, instead of isolating an entire religion, race or people of a particular origin.
Now is the time for Mayor Ed Lee to make a strong statement indicating what he would do if this city were instructed to aid in the compilation of a registry.
And what about us? Will we aid, will we submit, will we fight or will we stand mute and still as witnesses? And will we be left to repeat Otsuko’s powerful summation: “The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now.”
Any kind of estrangement program is anathema to the ideals of this city. It’s time to decide who we are.