You’ll see the signs still in some places. Most of the time, “American Owned” hanging on a convenience store window or hotel means one thing: “We’re white.” It’s racism, plain and simple, and carries the implication that someone who isn’t white can’t possibly be American.
About 10 years ago, on election day, I went to my favorite restaurant. The shop owner, a Vietnamese man, was in the process of becoming a citizen while legally operating his business. He came over, but rather than ask if I wanted my “usual,” he asked if I voted yet. When I said I hadn’t, he firmly told me that he would not be serving me until I had done so. At first, I thought he was joking and explained that I would vote, just not before eating! He insisted. He told me about the process he was going through to become a citizen and that I, as a citizen, have a responsibility to America to go and discharge my citizenship duties. He said, “I can’t vote, but I can get people who can to do so.” Clearly, this man wanted to vote, and I know (he is now a very proud citizen) that he proudly votes in every election.
I left, voted, and came back later. I got a free meal for it.
When I think of people coming to America, I always think of this man. He worked harder than most people I know. Hard work is American, right? He ran a successful business in the free market, by providing what people wanted for a price they would pay. That’s American, right? He is more patriotic than most. That’s American, right? He recognized the good about America. That’s American, right? He’s exactly the kind of person that makes America into America. I don’t know what his religions was, but I do know that he didn’t look white. And, in my mind’s eye, I can see a competitor hanging a sign that says, “American Owned” in the window when the competitor cannot compete on the basis of a superior product at a superior value.
In WWII, we saw the enemy of the Japanese. Heck, we saw the enemy of the Japanese-American. We locked Japanese into internment camps. This was while we were fighting the Nazis who were sure that race mattered. Apparently, it didn’t just matter to them.
During WWII, the 100th Infantry was made up of Japanese Americans, fighting two wars: the war against the Axis and the war for recognition as full Americans. By all accounts, they fought hard and incredibly bravely. TWENTY ONE of the members of this battalion received the Medal of Honor during WWII. TWENTY ONE! This is the highest possible military honor in the United States. It’s awarded for the often dismissed phrase, valor “above and beyond the call of duty.” To put in perspective how high of an honor this award represents, a four-star general will salute a private, even if in civilian clothing, who is wearing the medal. I know a white veteran who was in Italy while the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a part of the 100th, was also there. I can assure you that nobody will insult a Japanese American in his presence without finding out the full story of what our fellow Americans did there.
But there’s more to this story. Those 21 medals? 20 were not awarded until 2000, because these men were ignored – due to race, according to the commission investigating in 1998 – despite tremendous valor deserving of the award. It took us 50+ years to recognize the heroes of the 100th. Of course there’s other awards, too, that many were deserving of. The 442nd is, for the size and length of service, the most decorated unit in US military history.
But, in WWII, these brave men were the enemy. They had the skin color of our declared enemy. They weren’t Americans, they were the enemy. They weren’t “us.”
Of course Japanese-Americans weren’t the only ones treated this way. We did it to blacks and Asians (and still do). And today, it’s popular to treat Hispanic Americans and Muslim Americans the same way. For instance, what could be more American than singing the American Anthem? Apparently you are not to do that dressed as anything but a western European:
Sebastien, the boy in the above video, is as American as anyone else. He’s a citizen, born in Texas. Yet, he was attacked online for being “Mexican” and non-American. Fortunately, the San Antonio Spurs basketball team responded in the perfect way: they asked him to come back and sing again.
Yet, a positive response by a sports team doesn’t erase racism. It’s still here.
We saw that again with the Miss America Pageant when an Indian-American woman won. Among the racist tweets and statements were many that assumed Nina was an Arab Muslim, a common mistake made by racists. Apparently, in their America, a Muslim or an Arab couldn’t represent America. After all, Muslim Arabs are terrorists, and so are people who look like them. And thus they are the Japanese of the 21st century.
It’s time to stop this cycle of hate. No, it’s not about whether she was Arab or Indian. She’s American. That’s what this needs to be about. And whether she believes in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Athiesm, or something else, she’s still an American. We’re a diverse country. With Muslims. That aren’t terrorists.
And, lest you think this attitude towards Muslims by an American is a new, liberal idea, check out this article by the Huffington Post. The founding fathers knew Muslims existed – they weren’t as stupid as some think. And they built a country that was supposed to recognize them as full Americans.
Not everyone wants that America, though. And rather than claim to be destroying the foundational principles of America, those who don’t want it hide behind the flag and patriotism, claiming they want “Americans” to represent America, when what they really mean is only white Christian people should represent America. Their “patriotism” needs to be called out as the bigotry that it is.