The Route to 9066
AUGUST 01, 1993 by WILMA J. MOORE
Mrs. Moore is a free-lance writer from Santa Rosa, California.
Recently I had occasion to fill out an application form on behalf of my grandson for admission to a private elementary school. At the bottom of the application was a statement that the school “. . . is committed to achieving a well-balanced student population which reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of San Francisco.” At first glance this statement appears to be simply a rephrasing of the traditional policy of granting equal opportunity regardless of race, color, or creed. However, a second reading of those words reveals a very subtle shift from a policy of colorblindness to a policy of intense color awareness.
In spite of the dubious rationality of attempting to duplicate a city’s racial percentages in the classroom, there are probably a number of good reasons that “ethnic diversity” could be considered a reasonable goal. One might be that a knowledge and understanding of cultures created by people of different races and different geographic locations is part of the definition of a liberal education. Another might be the wish to right past wrongs against many racial groups whose children were denied the advantages of a private education for no other reason than that they were born to non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant parents. A third reason might be to contribute to the elimination of racial prejudice and thus to the enhancement of world peace. There may even be other noble objectives that at the moment do not occur to me.
It would seem that, if one wished to offset a predominantly WASP student body, ensure cultural enrichment, and create an environment where racial tolerance could flower, one would actively seek those families in the community who had just immigrated to this country and who carried with them the language and customs of a different culture. One might also expect these schools to try to enroll children from households in which the members spoke a foreign language or in which the members still adhered to foreign religious or social customs though they had been in this country for some time. However, it seems that satisfying their positive goals does not require “progressive” schools to follow either of these positive criteria. Instead it means satisfying a negative one, i.e., that a prospective student not have an English-speaking white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lineage.
If their family names are Stroganov, Pa-tel, or Yamamoto the children must have an enriching cultural heritage to bring to the school to balance the culture shared by the Smiths, Browns, and Joneses who are already on the student roster. Never mind that the Stroganovs have never spoken a word of Russian and never eat borscht, that the Patel child’s mother is a corporate lawyer who wouldn’t be caught dead in a sari and that no one in the family likes curry, and that the parents and children in the Yamamoto clan have never been to Japan, attend a Methodist church every Sunday, listen mostly to rock and roll music, and number hamburgers and French fries among their favorite foods. Never mind these or any of the other features that characterize their lives as American and not as some other culture. They fulfill the criterion as representatives of Eastern European, Indian, and Japanese culture, so they’ll balance the student population nicely.
The disturbing premise that underlies this policy is that ethnic origin carries with it certain irrevocable cultural characteristics. If one is born of Russian parents one must somehow carry with him the genes of a Russian persona which inevitably produces Russian “culture.” Because a child has Indian parents or an Indian ancestor, he or she will therefore be the carrier of a distinctive Indian essence. If one has an Oriental name and facial features, then this person also has an “Oriental perspective” on life.
When I hear arguments in favor of an admissions policy like that of the school my grandson might attend, I hear the voices of reasonable people in a different historical context whose noble objectives justified something that turned out to be just the opposite. As uncomfortable as it may be for the morally righteous of today to contemplate, an admissions policy that uses race or ethnic origin as a criterion has as its foundation the premise that justified Executive Order 9066, which set in motion the relocation of anyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast in 1942.
In California just after Pearl Harbor, one argument repeated ad nauseam by radio commentators, in letters to the editor, in newspaper editorials, and in magazine articles was that blood ties were stronger than political or social ones, and that no matter how long people of Japanese descent had lived in this country, no matter how many generations their families might count on this soil, they were still Japanese, and a part of them would forever owe allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Since they were not “one of us,” their loyalty was to be questioned, their civil liberties revoked, their property confiscated, their movements restricted, and ultimately their lives uprooted and their persons segregated—all because, by an accident of fate, they had the racial lineage of a political enemy.
The premise that children born of a certain racial caste are destined to share exclusive cultural preferences, personality characteristics, or a certain perspective on life is patently false. Yet thoughtful people everywhere seem unwittingly to be advocating an academic admissions criterion based squarely on that premise. The heterogeneity which characterized the life of persons of Japanese descent in the United States at the beginning of 1942 was ignored, submerged beneath a mountain of misconceptions regarding some ineluctable relationship be tween race and culture, between ethnic origin and values, between family origin and behavior.
Ethnic diversity on this level is a superficial goal resting on a fallacious premise which is ominous in its implications. Today the premise of inborn cultural characteristics may net a relatively benign result. Tomorrow it may reap a harvest of misery and shame. Today it may produce an ethnically balanced and peacefully interacting student body. Tomorrow it may erupt in a movement toward racial exclusion. Today this policy intends to educate children in the ways of enlightened civilization which liberates the individual from any stigma attached to a racial or cultural stereotype. Tomorrow, this same policy might educate children in the ways of collectivist tribal barbarity by identifying each other by that very stereotype.
The advocates of Executive Order 9066 justified their actions just as the advocates of “ethnic and cultural diversity” do today. In the process they became blind to their own racism and hardened to the results of the despotism generated by their erroneous assumptions. Let’s hope modern school administrators and parents will recognize their own faulty logic in time before the colorblind society they so fervently hope to engineer becomes one that makes the blood lines of one’s ancestors more important than the working of one’s mind.