When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hit the radio in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 1941, my grandmother Fumi Saito gathered my mother, who was 10, and her two brothers and took them by bus to Oakland, where my grandfather was working in his store.
Yoshio Saito, who was born in Tokyo, looked like the United States’ new enemy, and although he and the rest of the Japanese Americans living in the United States had nothing to do with the attack, he was in danger.
My grandmother believed that no unruly mob of angry white people would dare attack a family with young children. She was right. The Saito family managed to gather my grandfather and return home safely.
Now too many Asian Americans are living with the same fear, as they’re being unfairly blamed for the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, which first originated in China’s Hubei province.
Passersby have targeted Asian Americans for physical and verbal abuse. Many targets often aren’t Chinese or Chinese American, but identity-based racism doesn’t care about details.
Deadly viruses such as COVID-19 don’t respect international boundaries. We know that more than ever as the virus has spread from China to South Korea to Japan, Italy, Spain, France and now the United States, which now has more documented cases of the virus than any other nation.
I know that my ancestors who first came to the United States from Japan in 1915 faced the same kind of racism. “One out of every 37 of the Japanese arriving in California is found to be afflicted with some loathsome, contagious or unnamable disease,” according to a 1905 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
These unverified claims made it easier 35 years later to incarcerate 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, in a series of 10 concentration camps around the country.
No one disputed that Japan attacked the United States without warning on Dec. 7, 1941, but that was the fault of the imperial government of Japan, not people of Japanese descent.
When it comes to racism, however, Americans have not always understood such differences. Americans of German descent were hounded during World War I, as their businesses and people who dared speak German in public were attacked. Antipathy toward German American brewers helped lead to Prohibition.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans of Muslim descent faced similar hatred, because the terrorists were Muslim fundamentalists. It didn’t matter that American Muslims had nothing to do with the attacks.
It was President George W. Bush who resisted the anti-Muslim attacks by saying he didn’t want to subject them to the same racism that afflicted then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his family during World War II.
Mineta and my parents were incarcerated together at the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., where I now run a foundation that operates a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of what happened during World War II.
His memories of that day in the White House with President Bush will always resonate with me, particularly as I see statements from the current White House. Labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus accomplishes nothing other to fix the blame for our government’s failures on people who look different than most Americans.
This careless rhetoric divides us when we most need to stand together. It makes it too easy for racism to flourish and for innocent people of Asian descent to feel the stigma that has afflicted many of us since our families first arrived in this country more than 100 years ago. We all need to make it stop now.
Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. Her book, “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” to be published by University of Wisconsin Press is due out this fall. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.