For many Americans who experienced racist oppression, the Second World War constituted a time for reinvention. Women of color delighted in taking jobs that had previously been denied to them. Both men and women took advantage of the G.I. Bill to access college education. Meanwhile, having fought in a segregated army, African Americans endeavored to battle fiercely against segregation. After two Japanese Americans who had been interned petitioned against the Alien Land Law, the Supreme Court established that restricting land ownership to white people was racist and “unconstitutional.”
Nothing can justify the horrors of the Second World War or redeem the horrific fate that so many people suffered within it. At the same time, Takaki points out that some of the consequences of the war were immensely beneficial to people of color in the US. This contradiction represents the complex and often paradoxical nature of human history.
Yet the stigma and shame of the internment camps had a lingering effect on Japanese Americans long after they were freed. It was not until the powerful anti-racist movements of the 1970s that a new generation of Japanese Americans compelled their parents to discuss their experiences in the camps. These testimonials built momentum, and in 1988, Congress passed a bill containing an official apology for the internment policy and $20,000 compensation for survivors of the camps. Issuing the apology, President Reagan acknowledged that the existence of the camps was especially painful considering how many Japanese Americans had loyally served their country during the war.
One striking fact about American history is how long it has often taken for injustices to be acknowledged and attempts at redress to be put into place. While it took over 40 years for the US to apologize and offer compensation to the victims of Japanese internment, it is perhaps striking that the descendants of enslaved people have still never received reparations for the US government for the unpaid labor and unimaginable horrors their ancestors endured, the effects of which are still very much felt today.
Meanwhile, Mexican Americans were dismayed by the fact that the prejudice and discrimination that had lessened during the war returned after the war finished. Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American war veteran and leader of United Farm Workers, committed himself to fighting for agricultural workers. Those who returned from war were no longer able to tolerate being treated as “second-class citizens,” while women were not ready to relinquish the newfound power and opportunities they had gained simply because the war was over. Legislation banning school segregation began to be passed. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP argued that it was absurd for black soldiers like himself to have fought for freedom only to be denied it back home.
People of color in the US were, of course, aware of racist injustice and deeply frustrated by it prior to the Second World War. Takaki points out that what the war did was invigorate them and give them a sense that radical change and new opportunities were possible. At times of great global flux, more things seem possible and people develop radical visions of how their conditions could improve.
Marshall predicted that after the war, the government would be compelled to institute equality, and he was right. The ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education was followed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, triggered by Rosa Parks and led by Martin Luther King, Jr. King drew on his Christian faith in his battle against anti-black racism. The bus boycott was followed by sit-ins at segregated establishments, out of which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. Young people passionately committed themselves to the struggle for freedom and equality, participating in the freedom rides despite facing violence. In 1963, A. Philip Randolph and King gave historic speeches at the March on Washington, drawing on the ideals upon which the US was founded.
The startling energy and purpose of the Civil Rights Movement highlights the atmosphere of possibility and determination that existed at this time. With each gain made by the movement, more seemed possible. Indeed, this did not just apply to the African American community, but to other groups—including Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and gay people and women of all races—who were inspired by the fight for Civil Rights.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Holocaust survivor, also spoke at the March on Washington. He warned about the danger of “silence” and implored Americans not to be “a nation of onlookers,” turning away from injustice. Prinz was one of many Jews involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Jews had long been participants in the struggle against anti-black racism, sensing the connection between the pogroms and the brutality to which African Americans were subjected. During the Civil Rights Movement, they served as on-the-ground activists, political leaders, and lawyers. Jews realized that a country with less anti-black racism was also less likely to be anti-Semitic.
Again, this passage reiterates the strong sense of solidarity that existed between African Americans and Jews, particularly after the Holocaust. Both groups had suffered immeasurable loss and hardship, and developed a passion for justice as a result. They knew how dangerous white supremacy and even the apathy of ordinary people could be.
At the same time, the “alliance” between black and Jewish Americans was damaged when the Civil Rights Movement moved beyond the South and into the North. Suddenly, Jews believed that they stood to lose from the advancement of black people. Meanwhile, internal divisions emerged within the Civil Rights Movement, as some pushed for an integrationist policy, while a more militant wing insisted that black people were an internally colonized population who must struggle for independence and self-determination. Nonetheless, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement were monumental, and transformed the US into a more equal place.
This passage contains an important but bleak reminder of the limits of solidarity. Like the Irish who sympathized with black people before they moved to the US but not after, many Jews were happy to support Civil Rights until they realized that they might have to concede some power as the rights and status of black people improved. Of course, true solidarity means accepting such losses in service of justice for all.
At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement did not transform the economic inequality that undergirded racist injustice. The poverty in which African-American communities were stricken created a sense of rising tension. Malcolm X commented that for the millions of black people living in poverty, the “American dream” was more like “an American nightmare.” The Civil Rights Movement had failed to address the class issues that formed an inevitable part of racism. Black women in particular faced “a world of barriers,” which kept them in an inescapable cycle of poverty. Meanwhile, the deindustrialization that took place in the 1970s damaged black populations particularly intensely. Black workers were left “economically superfluous.”
Even today, economic issues are often not centered in discussions of racial inequality. While prejudice and ideology are of course hugely important factors when it comes to racial justice, without economic justice, working-class people of color have little hope of being able to enjoy the full rights that they may possess in the abstract. Issues of race and class are always intertwined, and thus must be considered in tandem.
Economic problems led to racial violence, such as the beating of black motorist Rodney King by members of the LAPD, and the rioting, looting, and brutality that ensued. The LA riots brought attention to the desperate, heavily impoverished reality that existed in American cities. Among those caught up in the riots were Korean-American storeowners, whose businesses burned to the ground. Although the main antagonism was known to be between black and Korean residents of LA, most of those arrested for looting were Mexican. The riots “had no border.”
Again, the role of Korean Americans in the LA riots highlights the unfortunate reality that racial tensions often exist between different nonwhite groups, not just between people of color and white people. Anti-blackness in Asian communities remains an issue that many Asian Americans are fighting to change today.
During the 1990s, the media reported on the remarkable educational successes of Asian Americans. People commented that whatever Asian Americans’ secret to success was, others should try and imitate it. President Reagan praised Asian Americans’ educational and economic success while condemning black people’s supposed dependency on welfare, blaming them for their own difficulties. A battle over affirmative action ensued. What these ideological conflicts disguised, Takaki explains, was the fact that the Cold War had created enormous debts, leading to the underfunding of American inner cities. Money spent on nuclear weapons was being taken away from welfare programs.
Takaki suggests that not only is the model minority myth used as an excuse to blame other races (especially black people, Latinos, and indigenous people) for their lack of success, it also propagates racist stereotypes about Asian people disguised as compliments, including the idea that Asians are compliant and have a superhuman, robotic work ethic.
When the Cold War ended, a new era of economic expansion and prosperity began. Scientists who had been employed by the military could now put their knowledge toward improving society. Meanwhile, the development of “smart” consumer goods revolutionized everyday American life. However, before long, this moment of optimism and flourishing was blighted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
War sometimes provides an economic boost to the economy, but at other times—including during the seemingly endless period of the Cold War—it has drained the nation of money and resources.