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Korematsu

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Worth noting that today is the 69th anniversary of the notorious Korematsu v. United States decision, when the Supreme Court ruled for the acceptability of Japanese concentration camps.

Early in World War II, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, granting the U.S. military the power to ban tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed critical to domestic security. Promptly exercising the power so bestowed, the military then issued an order banning “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien” from a designated coastal area stretching from Washington State to southern Arizona, and hastily set up internment camps to hold the Japanese Americans for the duration of the war. In defiance of the order, Fred Korematsu, an American-born citizen of Japanese descent, refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California. Duly convicted, he appealed, and in 1944 his case reached the Supreme Court.

A 6-3 majority on the Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black held that although “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect” and subject to tests of “the most rigid scrutiny,” not all such restrictions are inherently unconstitutional. “Pressing public necessity,” he wrote, “may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.”

In Korematsu’s case, the Court accepted the U.S. military’s argument that the loyalties of some Japanese Americans resided not with the United States but with their ancestral country, and that because separating “the disloyal from the loyal” was a logistical impossibility, the internment order had to apply to all Japanese Americans within the restricted area. Balancing the country’s stake in the war and national security against the “suspect” curtailment of the rights of a particular racial group, the Court decided that the nation’s security concerns outweighed the Constitution’s promise of equal rights.

And yes, they were concentration camps. Calling them “internment camps” is an insult to what the Japanese experienced and helps make what white Americans did to them seem less bad.

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