Ku Klux Klan parade in Ashland, Ore. in the 1920s. (Oregon Historical Society)


These past few weeks further underscore that we live in extraordinary times. The anger and frustration felt by protestors in response to George Floyd’s death have left a deep impact on the American psyche today, with moments parallel to the Long Hot Summers of the 1960s.

Even more egregiously, the arrest of journalists and indiscriminate attacks on peaceful protestors by police officers painfully demonstrate the widening gap within our country and our current state of affairs on race. The back-to-back victims of hate crimes these past few months — Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, to name a few — have left many in the black community and throughout America to wonder what real justice means.

Yet the issues of race in these debates go further than black and white. Writing about Japanese American history within the context of the protests today further underscores both the complexity of race relations in the United States and the effects of white supremacy in the United States.

Vigilantism by white mobs targeted not only black Americans as in the South, but also Asian Americans in the West as part of the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan. In July 1921, Japanese American cantaloupe workers were systematically kidnapped by a mob of white vigilantes, taken miles outside the city and told never to return.

When members of the mob were arrested, six were identified as members of the California chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. In the same article, a letter sent by the KKK to the mayor of Oakland was published, stating the KKK would push out all Japanese as they did in Texas and “get a lot of you white Jap lovers.”

Klansmen in Tillamook, Oregon, bragged about their ability to keep Chinese, Japanese, and African Americans out of their community for decades, and it remains an almost all-white community. In New Mexico, klansmen organized with the Texas branch terrorized the community to help push the 1921 Alien Land Act through the State Legislature.

Marches by the Klan through Western state cities, while vocally targeting the Asian communities of California, were born out of anti-blackness in the United States. Like the KKK, racism in the United States may be historically associated with the South, but its real history is one that stretches throughout the United States.

While Klan numbers may have decreased in the following decades nationwide, the legacy of the Klan’s philosophy continues with white nationalist groups today. In the postwar years, Japanese and black communities were segregated away from white communities in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sections of Crenshaw and Oakland were redlined to push away non-white communities and further entrenched postwar segregation, resulting in what Scott Kurashige identifies as coalition-building among black, Japanese, and Latino communities in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville and Oakland during the 1960s.

Policing of these areas and the enforcement of curfews, similar to what happened shortly after the enacting of Executive Order 9066, continues as a part of enforcing state violence and segregating communities. Activists such as writer Hisaye Yamamoto, once a journalist for the African American newspaper The Los Angeles Tribune, and Malcolm X supporter Yuri Kochiyama both emphasized the importance of building support among non-white communities during the postwar years and the civil rights era.

At the same time, Japanese Americans also benefited from racial hierarchies created by white supremacists. This, as we know, pushed the creation of what is considered the “model minority” myth to further divide society along racial lines.

An example of this came with the 1964 Proposition 14 campaign against the Rumford Fair Housing Act. While a number of Japanese American groups such as the JACL vocally opposed the proposition, which allowed racial discrimination in the California housing market, a large number of Japanese Americans supported the bill, which eventually passed.

As Greg Robinson points out in “After Camp,” significant — albeit quiet — support among Japanese Americans existed, with a poll showing 49 percent of Asian American students at UCLA in favor of the proposition. Frank Wu’s landmark book “Yellow” is an excellent text to consult on this issue: “If the integration of Asian Americans is not to further the segregation of African Americans, our abundance cannot be used to excuse their absence.”

The differences in experiences between Asian Americans and African Americans does not lessen the pain felt in either circumstances, but means we need to understand how our current system, further antagonized by our current president, divides this country.

This article starts with the Klan as a part of history, but we still live with the white supremacist system they preached today. George Floyd’s death, like the fate of so many innocent black Americans, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans are not the same tragedy, but they both share the failure of due process and protection of the law promised to all Americans.

The past month is not exceptional, but part of a longer history of racial division and anguish felt by the black community as part of the history of the United States. What is exceptional is an anger felt from decades of unfulfilled promises of change in the system. We need to build solidarity between groups and combat against systematic racism within the criminal justice system.

A lesson I take from these moments is one echoed by Rinban Kyoshiro Tokunaga, one of the issei members of William Hohri’s National Council for Japanese American Redress. He stated one of his reasons for supporting redress during the 1980s was that “nations have karma too” such as the U.S., and I wonder now if this is our national karma today.


Jonathan van Harmelen is a graduate student with the History Department at UC Santa Cruz, specializing in Japanese American history. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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