Republican Senator John Kennedy’s statements earlier this week would be laughable if they weren’t so ahistorical and trivializing of racial trauma.
Earlier this week, the Democrat-turned-Republican junior senator from Louisiana told reporters that the impeachment inquiry was less fair than the forcible relocation and detainment of Japanese Americans at the height of World War II. (See JACL’s Power of Words for a discussion of the language used in this article).
Senator Kennedy’s absurd and ahistorical comments were first reported on by Huffington Post Politics reporter Igor Bobic:
Following the passage of Executive Order 9066, an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly detained and relocated from the West Coast to military-guarded American concentration camps erected throughout the American Southwest. Targeted by the federal government’s racist suspicions of disloyalty, Japanese Americans — most of them citizens — were imprisoned for years behind barbed wire fence and under constant military guard, forced to endure harsh living conditions in some of the most desolate landscapes in the country. Upon their release, many Japanese Americans discovered that their homes, farms, and businesses had been ransacked or destroyed. Only after decades of activism did the Japanese American community finally secure a Congressional apology and redress for incarceration, an episode in American history that most historians agree is a profound example of American injustice and racial oppression.
Japanese Americans suffered significantly under Japanese American incarceration, and the scars of the camps continue to resonate in the Japanese American community today. Over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans were not only denied due process, but were forcibly relocated and imprisoned. In the camps, many detainees suffered violence — and some even lost their lives — at the hands of their own government and its military.
Senator Kennedy’s comparison of Japanese American incarceration — a racist episode defined by the exercise of military power against its own citizenry — to the current impeachment inquiry trivializes and insults Japanese American camp history; it, furthermore, ridicules the significance of the House’s crucial investigation into the president’s violation of the public trust. Unlike the forcible detention of hundreds of thousands of American citizens under racist stereotyping, the impeachment inquiry is not a violation of due process. In fact, the impeachment inquiry is a quintessential example of American due process: it is a meticulous exercise in the Constitution’s system of political checks-and-balances. An important investigation into allegations of presidential wrongdoing are being afforded a public inquiry — which includes ample Republican cross-examination — so that the full scope of evidence can be properly weighed and considered by the American public and our elected officials. To suggest that this inquiry represents less due process than what was afforded to Japanese Americans is both ahistorical and offensive.
Japanese American activist groups have decried Senator Kennedy’s remarks as “offensive” and “lazy”. Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese American activist group focused on ending immigrant detention centers, condemned Kennedy’s comments on Twitter, noting that Trump’s family was under no threat of mass detainment and relocation; and that, indeed, the administration was itself an architect of public policies that have resulted in widespread family separation and mass detention of migrants. Densho Project, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Japanese American incarceration history, demanded that Senator Kennedy be held accountable for his ahistorical remarks and to stop calling the community his “Japanese American friends”. Speaking to NBC News, Tom Ikeda, president of Densho, said:
“There is no universe in which a public investigation into the president of the United States, one of the most privileged and powerful people in the world, is equivalent to a half-century of racialized hysteria, surveillance and discrimination culminating in the extrajudicial roundup of an entire immigrant community”
Senator Kennedy’s remarks are even more absurd given how often Trump supporters otherwise express approval of Japanese American incarceration in order to justify the administration’s racial targeting of Muslim and Latinx immigrants. In 2016, a Trump surrogate said in a Fox News interview that Japanese American incarceration served as a legal precedent for creating a national Muslim registry. Even Trump himself has offered the possibility that he might have supported Japanese American incarceration. In 2015, he told Time Magazine that he didn’t feel he could provide an unequivocal condemnation of Japanese American incarceration, saying:
“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer… I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
It is a well-worn pattern for Trump and his supporters to misuse Japanese American incarceration history to serve their own political ends, at times justifying incarceration as legal and reasonable while at other times capitalizing upon it as an example of American injustice to underscore a false narrative of Republican victimhood. Either way, Trump and his supporters routinely misappropriate Japanese American history, violently wresting away that community’s expression of their own lived experiences to advance damaging and false narratives around incarceration history.
Senator Kennedy has a history of throwing around inflammatory, sensationalist, anti-progressive bombs in order to grab headlines. A Far Right conspiracy theorist and self-described “proud deplorable”, the senator has a history of making inflammatory remarks to grab headlines, and he seems to have interpreted the impeachment inquiry as license to dial that setting all the way up to 11. Just days after making the insidious comparison between impeachment hearings and Japanese American incarceration, Senator Kennedy dismissively compared impeachment to Kavanaugh hearings, but “without the vagina hats” — denigrating the serious conversations raised by feminists during that time on sexual harassment and the pervasiveness of rape culture.
Senator Kennedy has yet to comment on backlash from the Japanese American community on his recent remarks. You can contact Kennedy’s Senate office here.