Anyone who says that phrase is not racist says so from a perspective of white privilege. Today, no one ever tells Euro Americans to “go back to where you came from” – since the underlying assumption is that white people belong here but people of color do not.
In May of 1943, Minoru Yasui, the first Japanese American attorney in the state of Oregon was in the Multnomah County Jail. He was not visiting a client. He was locked up in solitary confinement, in a small corner cell that measured approximately 6 x 8 feet with an open toilet bowl, from which he was not forced to drink since there was also a metal sink, and a metal bunk bed with a dirty canvas mattress. Though these accommodations were barely livable, they were better than the detention centers holding immigrants 76 years later in Border Stations in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Min Yasui did actually commit a federal crime whereas the majority of immigrants locked up in the Border Stations did not, under international and domestic asylum law.
Yasui’s crime? He walked the streets of Portland, Oregon and like many who are detained today, he actually turned himself in to the authorities because he wanted to get arrested. He was not seeking asylum like many of the immigratns today and like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s family 20 years ago. Min Yasui was a U.S. citizen by birthright like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Talib, and Ayanna Pressley. Like those four who were told by the occupant of the White House to “go back to where they came from,” Min Yasui and all persons of Japanese ancestry were told the same thing by the former governor of Oregon.
Specifically, Walter M. Pierce, whose governorship was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, said: “Japanese must go back to Japan … there is no room for them here” since they could never be “Americanized.” He also said that the United States had done so much for the Japanese but they abused the privileges granted to them and betrayed us, warning that what was at stake was whether the West Coast would remain white or turn “yellow” – stoking the same White Nationalist fears that underlie the “Make America Great (White) Again” slogan. The terrible rhymes of history (Mark Twain said: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”).
Young Min Yasui wrote from his jail cell:
Here again is the insinuation that among human races, there are inherent inferiorities and superior qualities of races ... (Pierce’s) concluding statement marks him for a race-hater, and as an un-American demagogue. The issue ought not to be whether the Pacific Coast should remain ‘white’ or even ‘yellow.’ The issue ought to be whether the Pacific Coast will remain American or degenerate into a land of ‘superior whites.’
Nearly 50 years later, after having spent a lifetime defending the civil rights of all people, as the director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations and chair of the Japanese American Citizens League National Committee for Redress, Min Yasui wrote:
If we believe in America, if we believe in equality and democracy, if we believe in law and justice, then each of us, when we see or believe that errors are being made, has an obligation to make every effort to correct them.
That is what “loving our country” – whether white, black, brown or yellow – really means. The way that the four Congresswomen of color love their country, our country, refusing to go back to the days of racist schoolyard taunts and insisting on going forward to make our country a better place as they were duly elected to do, a more perfect union, E PLURIBUS UNUM – from many, one – one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.
Note: thank you to Pam Ando Canaday for reminding me of the ACLU blog from which the quotes are taken and thank you Doug Brown of ACLU-Oregon for your inspiring article, When Taking a Walk at Night was an Act of Civil Disobedience.