Polls On Arizona Immigration Law Remind Us Of A Historic Truth: Discarding The Civil Rights Of Others Is Always A Popular Idea
Recent polls are showing that Arizona's police-state immigration law is broadly popular with the public -- and boy, are they all over THAT story at Fox News.
Here are the ugly results:
The Pew Poll, conducted in early May, shows that more than 60 percent of Americans support the Arizona law's separate provisions, which give police increased authority to question and detain people they suspect of being in the country illegally.
... Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut said he was surprised by how popular the elements of the law are.
"What's going on here is while the public has had moderate views on dealing with the immigration problem, like support for a path to citizenship, they've long thought that more has to be done to protect to borders and to get better enforcement," Kohut said.
Kohut said he was particularly surprised about the level of support among Democrats. Fifty percent of Democrats said they support the law provision allowing police to question anyone they think may be in the country illegally.
... A similar poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC tells a similar story: 64 percent of American adults support the Arizona law.
Bill O'Reilly, upon seeing these results, naturally brought on Karl Rove to chortle about how these polls bode ill for President Obama and Democrats. And no doubt these polls are a heads-up to Democrats that they need to aggressively take control of the message, instead of letting Fox talkers and nativists define the terms of the debate.
Of course, if Rove devises the talking point, you can count on Fox's "news" shows to begin repeating them ad infinitum. Which, of course, is exactly what happened the next morning, especially on Megyn Kelly's America Live program. Kelly ran several segments on the poll numbers, including a "fair and balanced" debate with radio host Mark Levine and the utterly incoherent Mike Gallagher:
I'm always amused by right-wingers like Gallagher -- guys who make a fetish out of the Constitution, regularly claiming that President Obama is somehow violating it and instituting a "police state" -- who seem utterly unconcerned when their side tramples all over the Constitution, and Levine clearly explains why the law is unconstitutional.
Levine also says something well worth repeating:
Kelly: Mark, why would the president get involved in this? You've got -- you know, you've already got legal challenges that will be mounted by many other groups -- why would the Department of Justice, according to our attorney general, Eric Holder as of May 9, be considering challenging this law on their own when you've got these kind of approval ratings of the law on a nationwide basis?
Levine: It's a fair point, Megyn. Anyone can challenge the law, it's clearly unconstitutional -- it violates Article I, Section 8 -- and you're right that anyone can challenge it. I think the president, though is making clear that anytime you have a majority attack the rights of minority, that's something where you want the Justice Department involved.
I'll give you a great example: Jim Crow laws in Alabama and Mississippi were vastly supported by the great majority of people in the 1960s. That didn't make them right. Anytime you have a majority infringing on the rights of a minority, then that's usually when the Justice Department does need to stand up.
And Levine also points out one of the really disturbing aspects of the poll:
Levine: Hold on, Mike -- 71 percent said -- this is the most interesting poll -- 71 percent of Americans think that legal Latino citizens will be harassed by police. 71 percent! So you have 71 percent of Americans thinking that Latinos, legals, will be harassed, and they still support the measure! [Note: Kelly shortly points out that the actual figure is 66 percent.]
Of course, at this point Gallagher becomes simply incoherent, and meanders off into claiming that the recent defeat of an incumbent Democrat in West Virginia was related to the Arizona immigration bill. Eh?
Well, it's true that laws like the one in Arizona that purport to deal with a "real problem" -- that is, drug-related crime -- by taking away the rights of a despised minority have in fact always been popular.
Levine is right that Jim Crow laws enjoyed broad popular support for many years. I can think of an even more vivid example of a broadly popular measure to strip minority Americans of their civil rights:
Those who've read my book Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community are aware that not only was the evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans -- including some 70,000 American citizens -- during World War II an extremely popular measure, it was in fact avidly demanded by a near-hysterical public, particularly along the Pacific Coast, after Pearl Harbor.
From March 28 to April 7, as the program evolved from voluntary to mandatory evacuation, the Office of Facts and Figures in the Office for Emergency Management polled public opinion about aliens in the population. Germans were considered the most dangerous alien group in the United States by 46 percent of those interviewed; the Japanese, by 35 percent. There was virtual consensus that the government had done the right thing in moving Japanese aliens away from the coast; 59 percent of the interviewees also favored moving American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The answers reflected clear educational and geographic differences. Relatively uneducated respondents were more likely to consider the Japanese the most dangerous alien group, and they were also disposed to advocate harsher treatment of the Japanese who were moved away from the coast. The east considered the Germans most dangerous, the west the Japanese. People in the south, in particular, were prone to treat Japanese harshly. The Pacific Coast public led all other regions in believing the evacuees should be paid less than prevailing wages.
I'll have to go do some archival hunting for the actual numbers, but I've seen Gallup polls from the period that showed in excess of 90 percent public support for the evacuation policy. Historian Roger Daniels, one of the foremost experts on the internment episode, conjectures that evacuation, far from being ignored by apathetic citizens as some have suggested, was actually one of the most popular acts of the war.
I did find this in Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis' The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese Americans During World War II, discussing the sentiments of the American public about what to do with the internees after the war was over:
A Gallup poll conducted at the turn of the year, 1942-43, reported that while there was almost unanimous approval of the evacuation and detention of the Japanese minority, 53 percent of those polled would allow citizens to return to their homes. Of this figure 29 percent would include both citizens and aliens, and an almost equal number would oppose return of either group. A poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times at the end of 1943, on the other hand, revealed 9,855 readers would exclude American Japanese from the Coast as against 999 opposing exclusion.
This reflects a little-reported aspect of the internment episode, which I in fact described in some detail in Strawberry Days -- namely, the campaign by white xenophobes to keep Japanese American citizens from being allowed to return to their former homes after the war was over:
And the lessons of history apply deeply here, because the fate of this campaign is highly instructive in the current environment. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Strawberry Days:
The new Japanese Exclusion League was organized that spring with help from Miller Freeman and others. The core ideology seems to have been built off the bones of Freeman’s old Anti-Japanese League, which had gradually ceased activity after the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1924. Freeman was a financial supporter of the new entity, but most of its leadership represented fresh blood in the anti-Asian movement, men named Dale Bergh, C.G. Schneider, Ralph Hannan, and Arthur J. Ritchie. And their June 1945 newsletter, dubbed the Japanese Exclusion League Journal, made their agenda quite explicit, describing the JEL as “an organization dedicated to legally, peaceably and permanently ridding this Coast and, ultimately, this country of the Japs.”
The newsletter was chock-full of various attacks on the Japanese. A Bainbridge Island resident named Lambert Schuyler attacked Japanese strawberry farmers:
“The beating that the Japs gave Bainbridge acres amounts to assault and battery,” Schuyler told the Journal. “The fact is that the Japs made their fortunes here by mining the soil—leased soil. Take a good look at our so-called berry fields today. Most of them will not even grow good weeds. At best they will produce very inferior berries. And it will cost plenty to restore them to any kind of farming. The reason: chemical fertilizers and no crop rotation. . . .
“Don’t believe it, either, when someone tells you that the Jap has brought wealth to our community. Actually, they mined this region. They made money, but they lived in filth and poverty. They did their spending in Jap stores, put their savings into Jap hotels and grocery stores in Seattle, sent the balance to Japan to help build battleships. They didn’t build us up. They tore us down. We want no more of them. . . .
“We can raise better strawberries ourselves than the Japs can. With the help of machinery and crop rotation we can produce them just as cheaply, too. Here is opportunity for some of our farm boys, returned from the wars. In strawberries we have natural advantages of soil, climate and market.
“Keep the Japs away and the white farmers will make money in berries just as they did before the Japs came in and drove them out of business.”
A Journal editorial titled “A Program That All Can Back!” outlined the League’s political agenda:
Almost daily letters come into the headquarters of the Japanese Exclusion League from persons who are anti-Jap but who confess their inability to go along with the League’s program because “it sets a precedent that will undermine the fundamentals of the Constitution and imperil other minority programs.”
Let’s re-inspect the program and see:
Item 1. Induce the government to keep all Japs out of the Western Defense Command until the war is over. That’s just good sense, with a war on. If only one among them was a saboteur, the exclusion of all, to prevent his dirty work, would be justified. And we heard a man, close to the military intelligence service, say in a public speech that six known Japanese spies were now operating in Seattle alone.
Item 2. Deport all alien Japs and all disloyal Japs. Who will argue that this is either un-American or unnecessary?
Item 3. Stimulate interest in a national post-war election (so the soldiers can participate) to amend the Federal Constitution and provide that, after a certain date, NO MORE descendants of persons not eligible for citizenship may automatically become citizens merely because their alien mothers were here when they were born.
Japanese now constitute only one-tenth of 1 per cent of our population. No great danger there. The peril lies in permitting fast-breeding races that are not assimilable to go unchecked, and to make American citizens of them as fast as they are spawned. Give them a few years and they will make good of their boast of dominating America. And they’ll do it without firing a shot. They will VOTE OUR COUNTRY AWAY FROM US.
If that kind of law is un-American, we set a bad precedent many years ago. We had such a law once. And we kicked it out the window.
This position was explored in greater depth in a pamphlet that Lambert Schuyler published independently: The Japs Must Not Come Back! Schuyler’s core arguments were not very distinguishable from those offered twenty years before by the exclusionists:
As a nation we stand prejudiced against orientals. This is something which our bleeding-heart idealists have overlooked. They claim our basic laws, the principles upon which America rests, are unanimously in favor of regarding all men as equals. The fact remains, however, that according to our statute books all men are created equal except those with yellow skins. Any race, color or creed, say our laws, may become naturalized citizens of our country except the Japanese, Chinese and Hindu. These are judged unfit for assimilation in our society.
Mind you, we on the Pacific Coast are glad of it. What irks us is the loop-hole in our Constitution through which orientals may purchase the farm next door to us and defy us to kick them out. The loop-hole is this—all babies are created equal providing they are born in the United States. The Japs, Chinese and Hindus are no exception to this rule. Oriental babies born here are automatically American citizens. . . . Obviously this is a contradiction of principle which cannot be justified within the bounds of either religious or political idealism.
For Schuyler, in keeping with the anti-Japanese tradition, the tenets of white supremacism and pseudoscientific racial eugenics were paramount:
The dividing lines between the races are necessary to prevent mixed breeding. The white race does want to survive!
There is no dodging it. This is a white man’s country. The white man runs it. And he is not going to let his own rules of behavior drive him from his own soil. So, as long as we remain a people of spirit we will refuse to sanction the mixing of colored blood with ours.
Japanese in America will never be the social equals of the whites for the simple reason that they are not assimilable. Germans? Italians? Jews? Yes. We can assimilate any of the whites. But the colored races are different. We reserve the right to reject from our midst those who are not patently assimilable.
His final solution: designate a passel of Pacific islands permanent territories of the United States, and then remove all persons of Japanese descent to this new permanent homeland. Of course, no one of Japanese blood would be permitted to become a permanent resident of the mainland afterward.
As is often the case with well-laid plans, the Bellevue “mass meeting” of Monday, April 2  didn’t quite run according to script. Much to the dismay of the Japanese Exclusion League, some people actually showed up to voice their opposition.
As expected, the Overlake Elementary community hall was filled to overflowing with about 500 people. The parade of speakers began with assurances—soon shattered—that the organizers supported the principles of free speech. Crandell launched into his expected diatribe against the evacuees, concluding that “the one and only way to solve the Japanese question is to exclude them forever from all American territory!”
League executive A.E. McCroskey of Seattle added that the entire nation “is fully aware of the danger of giving American citizenship to those who have proved unworthy of it time and again.” He then went on to make a pitch for league memberships, asking for a show of hands from all “who favor exclusion of all American-born Japanese from this country,” and about 400 hands went up. Ritchie, who had previously tried to make a quick buck by selling busts of FDR by a “famous Northwest sculptor,” held up for the audience door prizes he promised to give away: busts, created by the same artist, of “America’s No.1 Jap hater”—and as he peeled away the tissue, the image of Gen. Douglas MacArthur was revealed.
However, there also were about 100 people in the crowd who apparently weren’t ready to sign up at all. Some of them began questioning the league’s positions, and two women began heckling the speakers. In response, McCroskey decided free speech wasn’t such a good thing after all and threatened to oust their antagonists, telling them to “hire your own hall to heckle in . . . and if there are any more outbreaks you will be ejected.”
The outburst apparently put a damper on the evening, because at the end of the night, only 200 or so of those who had raised their hands stayed to put up their $10 for a Japanese Exclusion League membership.
A similar fate befell the would-be organizer of an anti-Japanese effort in Seattle announced the same day as the Bellevue gathering. Lloyd Young, who ran a glass shop in South Seattle, announced he was going to cobble together a local chapter of the Remember Pearl Harbor League, though his dues would only cost $5. But that mattered little to the 150 or so University of Washington students who showed up at his meeting that Thursday to distribute pamphlets and ask questions making clear their opposition to his plans. The opposition far outnumbered the would-be league members. The students refrained from heckling the speakers, but spontaneous laughter erupted at times—as when a speaker declared that white pioneers had “taken this country away from the Indians and now the Japs are trying to take it away from us.” The would-be organizers were taken aback by the opposition and said little afterward. No record exists of any further activity by the league in Seattle.
The interest appears to have waned almost as quickly in Bellevue, despite the reported sponsorship of the first meeting by “business men and women.” In the edition of the Bellevue American following the meeting, no account of the gathering itself appears, except for a discussion of it in a front-page editorial by editor A.J. Whitney.
Whitney backed away from his earlier pro-exclusion tone, though his inclinations against the Japanese were still evident—reflective, perhaps, of his long association with Miller Freeman, who actually purchased a minority interest in the paper a few years later. He bemoaned, for instance, the fact that there was little anyone could do to stop Japanese citizens from returning to their own land. “We were unable to discover anything that could be done about relocation—except protest,” his editorial in the April 5 edition observed. “But, even a protest is effective, and we believe that it is honest and fair to notify in advance those Japanese who are planning to relocate here that many people here do not want them to return now.”
Whitney was also aggravated by the fact that the internment camps had been closed before the end of the war in the Pacific, and seemed inclined to the Japanese Exclusion League’s suggestion of a national plebiscite: “We are of the opinion that the War Relocation Authority . . . made a terrible mistake in trying to force the relocation of the Japanese on the Pacific Coast during the war. Instead, we believe the Japanese should have been encouraged to stay where they were until peace is established, and the nation can attack this grave problem in a rational manner.”
He did, however, suggest that a proposal to pass a constitutional amendment to exclude all Japanese from the country “presents many difficulties.” And he noted that he “holds no brief for the Japanese Exclusion League,” adding: “We do not guarantee the men who are organizing the league. We cannot tell you how the money [collected for memberships] will be spent.”
Within a week, a counter-meeting had been organized. Whitney was in full retreat. A headline in the lead positions of the April 12 American announced yet another “Town Meeting,” this one to be held in the Bellevue School Auditorium on April 19. The meeting, the story declared, “indicates that East Siders believe in fair play and want to know all the facts on the problem of American citizens of Japanese descent.”
The story listed organizers from each Eastside community. All were important civic, business, and church leaders, and all wanted the other side of the debate heard. The Bellevue contingent included Charles Bovee, whose wife had been the kind overseer of Mitsi Shiraishi’s dog (and who also had sparked the Japanese “panic” two years before).
Again, several hundred attended. Support for their Japanese neighbors’ rights was voiced. “I’m not for or against any group,” said speaker John Fournier, publisher of the weekly newspaper in Kent. “But as a newspaper publisher and King County businessman, I am deeply concerned to see that the Constitution is upheld and the rights of citizens respected.” Other speakers questioned the motives of the exclusionists. Some observed that many of the anti-Japanese backers were businessmen who stood to gain by having the Japanese lands remain vacant.
The tide changed quickly in Bellevue as the town’s deeper nature manifested itself. Among longtime Bellevue residents, Miller Freeman was—discreetly—viewed as an overbearing self-promoter and a rich man with little in common with the average rural Bellevue resident. Moreover, many of the former neighbors of the Japanese, who had lived among them and attended school with them, were repulsed by the jingoism they were witnessing. They knew better.
“There were people around here that were madder than all get-out about the Japanese,” recalled Robert Hennig. “I didn’t particularly feel that way. I was mad at what happened at Pearl Harbor, but as far as the Japanese that lived here, it wasn’t their fault.
“I know one guy, lived over here on 24th, and he says, ‘Well, if a Jap ever came to my house, I’d shoot him right off the bat.’
“And I said, ‘What the hell for? . . . You ever realize that there’s a bunch of them over there in Europe, 442nd, the most highly decorated bunch in the Army? . . . They’re fighting for us.’
“Well, he—he was a knothead anyway.”
Of course, Hennig had a cautious perspective on the entire internment episode, considering his own German ancestry: “I always had to laugh about it, because—I said, they shipped all the Japanese out of here, Japanese descendants—they’d never been near the country of Japan—and here I am a hundred percent German descent and they didn’t even look at us.”
Bellevue at the time was largely populated with working-class people like Hennig, and his attitude about their Japanese neighbors was relatively common, though often unspoken. As the weeks went by, that view prevailed. The Japanese Exclusion League dropped entirely out of sight; there was no evidence that it organized any further meetings or published any more newsletters. And the American, as expected, never was able to report how the membership money had been spent.
The experience in Bellevue, in fact, was largely replicated along the Pacific Coast: Attempts to prevent the return of the Japanese occurred in every community in which they had been present, and in every one of them, the campaign was largely a failure, inspiring counter-campaigns to welcome back their former neighbors.
What we saw in this episode is that it's very easy for the public, angry and eager for some kind of action to resolve an urgent fear, to embrace some kind, any kind of action, even if it takes away the rights of someone other than themselves. And with a certain segment of the population, there is real relish in taking those rights away.
But much of the population goes along with these kinds of solutions often thoughtlessly, and then when confronted with the very human realities and consequences of them, realizes its mistake, changes course, and then works to repair the damage.
That certainly is the course of the American experience when it took away the basic civil rights of all its citizens of Japanese descent: We wound up paying huge amounts of money to the victims in the end, and the long-held public view is that the internment was a horrendous mistake of catastrophic proportions, one of the true black blots on the nation's history of protecting civil liberties.
Of course, at the time, it was extremely popular. Most great mistakes are.
I suspect, in the long run, we will see the same thing happen with Americans and the Arizona immigration law. Once they see that, put into action, the laws really will create a nightmarish police state for anyone of Latino descent or with an immigrant background, their basic decency will rise to the fore, the tide of popular opinion will shift, and we will again wind up having to work to repair the mistake.
In the meantime, it will be the duty of Americans of good conscience to wait for the tide to change -- and to work for it. Because doing the right thing is not very often the popular thing.