Mayor of Roanoke, VA invokes Japanese internment, says city won’t help resettle refugees




I guess it was only a matter of time before some paranoid, hysterical, Islamophobic elected official looked at the Syrian refugee crisis and decided that Japanese internment was a good historical precedent to follow.

I just didn’t think it’d be a Democrat.

David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, released a statement earlier this afternoon announcing that his city will not assist in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. It’s…not good:

The kicker, for emphasis:

I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that threat from our enemies then.

Not even kids "under the age of five," right Chris Christie? (Image of interned Japanese children saying the Pledge of Allegiance via Wikimedia Commons

Not even kids “under the age of five,” right Chris Christie? (Image of interned Japanese children saying the Pledge of Allegiance via Wikimedia Commons)

We are currently having a debate over whether an attack in a European country, in which everyone involved who has been identified so far was a European national, should lead us to close down or otherwise restrict our process for resettling Syrian refugees — a process that is already insanely and insultingly rigorous. In the context of such a debate, one may be reminded of President Roosevelt’s program of Japanese internment.

But Roosevelt is generally understood to be the bad guy in that story. Japanese internment is one of those black marks in American history that we don’t look back on all that often because we like to believe that everything we did during World War II was just and good. But it simply wasn’t. Out of sheer xenophobia, we locked up over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry simply because they looked different. What’s more, Bowers’s claim that everyone we put in camps were foreign nationals couldn’t be more wrong: many if not most were American citizens.

We interned less than a tenth of that number of people of German descent, practically none of whom were American citizens, even though Germany was actually plotting military operations within the United States on a scale that Japan simply wasn’t capable of. So spare the “but it was wartime” hand-raising; our actions had very little to do with any actual threats we faced.

In any case, it’s generally considered pretty bad form for an elected official to cite Japanese internment as being a useful historical precedent. Since then, we’ve generally tried to avoid incarcerating large numbers of people based on their ethnic background.

Haha, who am I kidding? We totally still do that. But at least we don’t say it’s a good idea in public.

UPDATE: Hillary Clinton has removed Bowers from her campaign’s Virginia leadership council.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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