Protests against the executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries show how far the U.S. has come, says Tufts political scientist Deborah Schildkraut
In 1939, the U.S. government turned away Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe. Three years later, when more than 2,000 people were killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government forced 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including many American citizens, into internment camps. Opposition to these two betrayals of American ideals certainly occurred, but was far outweighed by support from both government officials and the public.
Fast forward to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when President George W. Bush told a joint session of Congress, “No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.” While it is true that the U.S. government adopted controversial policies in the aftermath of 9/11, the scale was vastly different from internment.
Now jump ahead to late January of this year, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that blocked all refugee admissions for 120 days and banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days. The reaction? Mass protests across the country in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, and in smaller ones, including Indianapolis, Omaha and Reno.
While many Americans find themselves wondering how the America they know and love could enact a ban on refugees and impose a thinly veiled religious test for admission, it is important to recognize—and celebrate—the ways in which the country has changed in the years since World War II.
Based on research I conducted after 9/11, the evolution of how people understand the very notion of American identity helps explain the different national responses to that attack and to Pearl Harbor. For much of the country’s history, Americans defined being American in terms of liberalism (marked by individualism and freedom), civic republicanism (marked by civic engagement), and ethno-culturalism (marked by the view that true Americans are white Christians of Northern European ancestry).
Over time, and in fits and starts, a fourth component of American identity gained acceptance. I call it “incorporationism,” and it celebrates our diversity and provides a forum in which such celebrations can take place. It suggests that America’s unique identity is grounded in its immigrant legacy and in its ability to convert the challenges immigration brings into thriving strengths.
Although the mythology of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” is not new, the extent to which it now shapes ideas about American identity is. Evidence of its power can be found in the changing nature of speeches delivered by elected officials in the content of op-eds in major newspapers, and in the reactions of the public.
Let’s look first at elected officials. The contrast between Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic response to Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush’s domestic response to 9/11 is noteworthy. In 2001, members of Congress waited only four days after the attacks to introduce a resolution that condemned “bigotry and violence against Arab Americans, American Muslims and Americans from South Asia in the wake of terrorist attacks.” The resolution breezed through both houses. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were rounded up.
While Trump’s ethno-cultural immigration order was issued by a sitting president with the consent of his party in Congress, Democrats in the Senate and House expressed swift and vehement opposition. Democratic senators announced plans to introduce legislation to halt the order, saying the action goes against the very core of the nation’s identity. Lawyers challenged the order in the courts, and federal judges handed down rulings that stopped the order from being enacted. In 1944, the courts upheld internment.
Changes in how we understand what it means to be American can be seen in the pages of the nation’s major newspapers and magazines as well. One of the more notorious media reports to appear in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was a Time magazine article titled “How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs.” It described how one could distinguish Chinese and Japanese people.
During World War II, media commentators said we need not worry that bombing cities in Japan might kill innocent civilians, because there was no such thing as an innocent Japanese civilian. The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial arguing that even U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry could not be trusted. My analysis of editorials during that time found that the World War II-era editors were unwilling to refer to Japanese Americans as Americans, preferring instead to call them “descendants of enemy aliens.”
In contrast, editorials after 9/11 routinely referred to the United States as a nation of immigrants, celebrated our diversity, and argued forcefully against the trade-off between security and civil liberties. Immediately following President Trump’s executive order, a Los Angeles Times editorial called the order unfair and inhumane. The New York Times ran only one editorial on Japanese internment in the six weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor; it argued that the federal government needed to be vigilant about innocent Japanese Americans if it wanted to catch spies. The same paper ran an editorial calling Trump’s executive order un-American and an “abdication of American values.” It is a stark contrast indeed.
Finally, consider the American public. At the start of World War II, a majority of Americans said that the United States should not accept more Jewish refugees from Europe. In 1942, 48 percent said that the Japanese people in internment camps should not be allowed to return to their homes after the war. After 9/11, Americans were again asked about policies akin to internment. Support stood at around 30 percent. Three years later, the level of support was the same.
Today, only a bare majority opposes President Trump’s executive order. That level of support is arguably higher than many readers would hope and seems to indicate one area where our break from the past is not as large. But consider this: the support for the order has been accompanied by one of the most dramatic outbreaks of spontaneous protests advocating an incorporationist and inclusive view of national identity that this country has ever witnessed.
Videos of cheering crowds greeting immigrants as they were released from detention at airports were shared across social media. The jubilant and celebratory welcome from throngs of strangers stands in stark emotional contrast to the detention from which the immigrants had just emerged.
The processes that led to the rise of inclusion and incorporationism as a central pillar of American identity are complex. They stem from our national shame about turning away Jewish refugees and interning Japanese citizens and immigrants during World War II, the tactics and victories of the civil rights movement, and the dramatic changes in the ethnic composition of our population in recent decades.
These changes have affected the nation’s leadership, the composition of Congress, the content of legislation and court rulings, the messages we receive from all forms of media, and the very way in which we think about what it means to be American.
These are turbulent and uncertain times. As we digest each day’s headlines and wonder, “What is happening to America?,” we would do well to take stock and acknowledge just how different our country is today relative to where it has been.
That acknowledgment should serve to inspire. The collective voices of dissent emanating from the Democrats in D.C. to people from Anchorage to Omaha are evidence of our progress and the momentum that will sustain it.
Deborah J. Schildkraut, J95, a professor of political science at Tufts University, is the author of Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration.