Dennis Praeger Was Still Wrong. (Sorry, Mike)

Got this blast from columns past the other day and thought it worthy of response.

 Mike recently wrote:   I know this is an old post but it seems to have an omission in it that is important. Some Italians were placed in custody in the US during WWII. This makes your argument the way you posed it a lot weaker.

So, my response to you, Mike:


I fear you are making the logical misstep of arguing from the particular to the general–a tactic common in the world of AM talk and shock politics.  This is where, because you can find a few cases of something, you can argue they represent the general population of the same.  A classic recent example of this was Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that,, because one white kid was beaten up on a bus by one group of black kids, all white kids on busses are at risk being beaten up by all black kids. (Limbaugh gave us a double whammy of fallacy in this one,  basically arguing that the white kid was beaten up because the black kids saw him as racist which, in the structure of his argument, was then taken to mean that all white kids will be seen as racists by all black kids and, therefore, will be beaten up.) 

Yo Rush.  Go ride a bus.

Comparing the domestic treatment of Italian Americans to Japanese Americans during WWII isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges but it is at least comparing apples to pears.    On November 7, 2000, Congress passed Public Law 106-451 which stated that:

“The story of the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II needs to be told in order to acknowledge that these events happened, to remember those whose lives were unjustly disrupted and whose freedoms were violated, to help repair the damage to the Italian American community, and to discourage the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future.”  

The act apologizes for the treatment of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans during the war, describing their treatment.  About 600,000 Italian resident aliens — non US citizens and actually citizens of a country we were at war with–were considered “Enemy Aliens” and subjected to profiling, review and restrictions.  They were not, however, rounded up in mass and sent to isolated detention facilities.  According to the  New York’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, which hosted an exhibit entitled “When America’s Italians Were America’s Enemies”

“In New York City, home to the nation’s largest Italian American population and led by Italian American Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Italian immigrants were photographed, fingerprinted and registered with the Department of Justice and the FBI.  The government told Italian resident aliens to stay off the streets after dark. Daytime travel was restricted. To walk the streets or subway to work, Italian resident aliens in New York City carried bright pink enemy alien passbooks, with photo ID and fingerprint.  Failure to produce the passbook upon demand of a government agent often resulted in arrest. Spoken Italian in public places was officially discouraged by the Federal government.  In Washington, D.C. the attorney general decreed that an Italian resident alien’s  “enemy alien” status alone was tantamount to probable cause, effectively suspending the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Under this decree, search warrants could be obtained without any showing of suspicious activity or evidence of a crime.  Authorities in New York City and elsewhere raided more than 2,900 homes of Italian immigrants who did not hold American citizenship.  They seized flashlights, cameras, binoculars, firearms and short wave radios.”

Indeed, as both the exhibit and the public act report, up to 2,100 immigrants were detained for months or even the duration of the war, in some cases.  About 10,000 Italian-American families were relocated from sensitive areas on the west coast.   In this a portion of the Italian-American community had experiences comparable to those of the Nisei (where pretty much the entire community of west coast Japanese Americans – 120,000 people – were interned in government camps.) 

So, first, you are in error comparing the scope and content  of the treatment of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans citizens to that of Japanese American citizens.  What happened to the Nissei was an order of magnitude greater.  More importantly, though, the treatment of Italian Americans only underscores the racial nature of the security measures adopted after Pearl Harbor.  Today, when our kids check those dumb “race” boxes on their school forms, they check “white” if they are French-American, German-American, Italian-American, Luxembourgian-American, etc.  After a twentieth century of suburban churning, the differences between different European nationalities has been bleached out to simply white. Sixty years ago this was hardly the case.  My dad, may he rest in peace,  used to tell a joke about an Italian American (which he was) going down to the deep south to train for the Army (which he did) during the war (in which he fought):

“A swarthy Italian-American GI gets on a bus in Biloxi in 1942.  Bus driver looks at his dark skin and gestures with his thumb, saying ‘back of the bus, back of the bus.’  The fellow protests, ‘I’m not black, I’m Italian!”  The bus driver looks at him, thinks for a moment and says, ‘Off the bus.  Off the bus.” 

In 1942 being Italian—whether American or Immigrant, was to be a garlic eater, a dago,  a wop – in other words, an Other—to many “real Americans” and Italian-Americans suffered indignities and inequalities for decades.  All based on their Italian heritage (e.g., their race.)  Please let us not forget that the term “race” not to long ago didn’t just apply to issues white, black, brown and yellow.  The English thought the Irish were an inferior “race”.  The Nazi government thought every race other than German was inferior.  What we now call ethnic identities used to be considered racial identities. (This shift, in some ways, is actually a sign of progress, twisted though it might seem.)

In short,  the  treatment of Italian Americans and Japanese Americans was driven, ultimately, by racial distinction.  Now it is true that several thousand also interned during the war, and that their families were allowed to accompany them into internment whose members included US citizens.  Yet these German-American citizens entered internment by choice—as twisted and forced as the choice might have been.  Most of the Italian Americans and all of the Japanese Americans interred had no such choice. 

So, I stick by my original argument.  Dennis Praeger says more sensible things per syllable than any of the other AM talk jocks.  On the issue of Japanese American internment not being racist, he’s full of hooey.


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