An associate professor at Columbia Basin College, a publicly-funded community college, is teaching his students that the Incarceration of Japanese Americans was not racist.
It’s the same teacher, Gary Bullert, who asked in his Tri-City Herald op-ed, “Was the Relocation of West Coast Japanese Racist?”
On January 29, the Tri-City Herald published this opinion piece insisting that the Incarceration was not based on racism, but rather on national security concerns. The writing is filled with numerous errors, and paints the Japanese American population as a major threat to national security during World War II. I responded accordingly with my piece, Yes, actually, the “Relocation” of Japanese Americans was racist.
I also contacted the paper, which defended publishing the op-ed despite its flagrant errors and distortions. I discovered that the author of the op-ed, Gary Bullert, teaches political science at CBC. Next, I contacted the school, and they informed me that although the school’s president denounced Bullert’s deceptive portrayal of the Incarceration, no disciplinary action could be taken since Bullert was acting as a private citizen.
Then I received a message from one of his students.
Through social media channels, I obtained an actual audio recording of the lecture Bullert gave to his students on Wednesday, February 1. He repeated much of the same misinformation, and added some new falsehoods. This changes the situation, since Bullert is acting as a representative of this public community college as he misleads students about our history.
To make it clear that I am not unfairly taking his quotations out of context, I am making the audio recordings available to anyone with doubts. They are available here:
The recording revealed the impetus for Bullert’s op-ed. He claimed that the Badger Club, which had hosted a presentation on the Minidoka concentration camp, had failed to show both sides of the argument when discussing the Incarceration. But Bullert failed to realize that the presentation on the Incarceration was at the Badger Club’s annual meeting, not a regular debate forum. The Incarceration, of course, would not have been an appropriate topic for a debate.
I’ll take a couple examples of things Bullert told his class:
“ ...there were Japanese Americans who were dual citizens. They were both citizens of Japan and the United States, and so their loyalty to the United States in this situation was somewhat suspect.”
The Issei (first generation immigrants from Japan) were banned by law from acquiring U.S. citizenship because of the wave of anti-Asian sentiment that resulted in the Chinese Exclusive Act of 1882, as well as the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924. The latter created the Asiatic Barred Zone and proclaimed that Asians could be excluded because of their designation as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” This was not changed until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1952. The Nisei (the second generation children of the immigrants) were all born in the U.S., making them U.S. citizens. While some known as kibei (帰米) did receive education in Japan, the U.S. government admitted that there was not a single case of espionage. In reality, they actually served an important role as interpreters for the military because of their linguistic abilities.
...You can see incidentally that they were making the case that an overwhelming number of Japanese Americans were loyal citizens and indeed they were returned back to the West Coast before the war was even over.
Let’s talk about the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision on Ex parte Mitsuye Endo in December 1944. The court ruled that the government could not continue to incarcerate citizens who are “concededly loyal” in War Relocation Authority concentration camps, and it was the decision that led to Japanese Americans being able to return to the West Coast. This was thanks to the work of the plaintiff, Mitsuye Endo, the Japanese American Citizens League and attorneys who forced the issue. Endo actually turned down the government’s offer to free her if she would drop her lawsuit. FDR became aware of the court’s decision, and ended the Incarceration just before the ruling was announced to save face for the government.
Bullert asks his students to “look at the historical context of all of this, look at the articles and books that have been written and come to your own conclusion.” I agree. However, Bullert’s assessment of the Incarceration leads me to wonder, has he read any of this literature? How about Personal Justice Denied? In 1980 Congress established the the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which put together a report, still available online through the National Archives!
The report explicitly identifies racial stereotypes as leading to persecution of Japanese Americans. For Bullert’s convenience, I’ll include a few choice sections of the report here:
The ethnic Japanese, small in number and with no political voice - the citizen generation was just reaching voting age in 1940 - had become a convenient target for political demagogues, and over the years all the major parties indulged in anti-Japanese rhetoric and rhetoric. Political bullying was supported by organized interest groups who adopted anti-Japanese agitation as a consistent pert of their program: the Native sons and Daughters of the Golden west, the Joint Immigration committee, the American Legion, the California state Federation of Labor and the California State Grange.
High ranking members of the U.S. Navy, such as Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, also misled the public with statements suggesting Japanese Americans had aided in the assault on Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that the government knew this was not true. Furthermore, the government ignored key intelligence from both the FBI and Navy when making their decision to implement the Incarceration.
This anti-Japanese sentiment was present throughout the U.S. mainland, and is nowhere more apparent than General John L. DeWitt’s statement to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson recommending forced removal and incarceration (emphasis is mine):
In the war in which we are now engaged racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes. It therefore, follows that along the vital pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indicators that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.
General Dewitt acknowledges that many of the Japanese Americans are second or third generation, and have committed no acts of sabotage, but declares that we are an enemy race. That 112,000 figure is mostly women and children, such as my grandmother, who had her high school graduation ceremony in the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Readers also tried contacting the Tri-City Herald to complain about the original op-ed. One such reader received the following response. (In case it is hard to read, yes, the editor told a reader, “You can shove your insult up your [expletive].”)
According to the reader, publisher Gregg McConnell and the editor in question have apologized to the reader for this unprofessional behavior. In our conversation, McConnell claimed that “there are those who would agree with Mr. Bullert” and his “different facts,” as he stated. McConnell also said that this was “not a pro-Internment piece,” but fails to see that when you portray a baseless claim as equal to established fact, you are inherently elevating that absurd claim by giving it undeserved validity.
This is the problem of misguided “balance” and “fairness” in journalism, and to an extent in academia. While people are free to have opinions, this does not mean that every debate has two equal sides. We do not give similar media representation to people who argue that slavery was a necessary evil for this reason, and the Incarceration of Japanese American is no different. Bullert was demanding equal time and space for a position that is beyond indefensible.
This is also not an issue of free speech. The right to free speech is a guarantee that the government cannot silence you. Free speech is not consequence-free speech, and does not give you a license to freely disseminate misinformation through a newspaper or a public community college.
His opinion piece was not fit for publication, and the both the Tri-City Herald and Columbia Basin College should apologize and take responsibility for allowing this to happen.
The final concern I would like to raise is Bullert’s rejection of any connections between the struggles of Japanese Americans during World War II and the modern day discrimination towards Americans of Middle Eastern descent. Both groups have faced discriminatory immigration policies, and have been the targets of calls for deportation and a registry. During his lecture, Bullert expressed hostility towards Islam and ignored all the tenets of peace and love in its teachings. He even used this to launch into his defense of the recent executive orders banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
This is not an issue of “free speech” or “balance,” but rather of maintaining academic and journalistic integrity. A teacher at a public community college should not be given free reign to spread ignorance and push his politics through his position of authority.
Despite my disappointment, I believe we can make this a learning experience for all. Japanese Americans and others around the nation will be participating in a variety of events to honor the memories of those who were incarcerated as we approach February 19th, the Day of Remembrance. With this incident as an impetus, we can find ways to reach out to more people and dispel confusion and myths about the Incarceration, so that history will not be shamefully repeated in modern times.