Op-Ed

Trump, the ‘Mexican’ judge and racism we’ve seen before

The Manzanar internment camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, held 10,000 people on less than one square mile, surrounded by barbed wire.
The Manzanar internment camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, held 10,000 people on less than one square mile, surrounded by barbed wire. ANSEL ADAMS COLLECTION

The candidacy of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been a field day for contested historical analogies. Some people argue that Trump is like Hitler. Some argue the better analogy is to Mussolini. Some say that Trump’s persona and policies are fascist even if the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are unfair. And others claim that all of these analogies are outrageous and insulting.

Trump’s current attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over fraud lawsuits against Trump University, give rise to another troubling historical analogy to the World War II era. This one is unassailable.

Trump, who famously wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, insists that Judge Curiel is biased against him because “he’s a Mexican.” Even though reporters have pointed out to Trump that Judge Curiel is an Indiana-born U.S. citizen, little details like citizenship don’t matter to him. He continues to refer to the judge as either “Mexican” or “of Mexican heritage” and to maintain that this makes him biased.

We’ve seen this before. In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered the mass removal and imprisonment of the 120,000 ethnically Japanese people who resided on the West Coast on suspicion of disloyalty. Two-thirds of them were American-born citizens, but that made no difference. In the words of Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the military leader who ordered the mass action, “racial affinities” were “not severed by migration” – the “Japanese race” was simply “an enemy race.” Yes, there were “second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil” who were U.S. citizens, DeWitt allowed, but the “racial strains” in them were “undiluted.” Their race determined their allegiances, U.S. citizenship notwithstanding.

That’s the reasoning that drove some 70,000 U.S. citizens into multi-year imprisonment, a program now universally regarded as unconstitutional and mistaken.

Donald Trump appears to believe that Americans of Mexican ancestry are really Mexicans when it comes to policies touching on the relationship between the United States and Mexico. He would have enjoyed the company of Lt. Gen. DeWitt. But DeWitt’s action was racist and wrong, and it took the multi-year suffering of tens of thousands of innocents – and decades of research and advocacy – to unmask it.

Let’s name Trump’s racism now for what it is. We have seen it before.

Eric L. Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor at UNC School of Law.

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