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PD Editorial: Hate crimes mar a day of solemn remembrance

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Feb. 19 is an annual Day of Remembrance for a dark chapter in American history: the forced incarceration of 117,000 people of Japanese descent — the majority of them U.S. citizens — during Second World War.

It was on this date in 1942 that President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order granting the War Department broad power to designate military exclusion zones on U.S. soil and determine who could stay and who must leave.

By the end of the year, virtually every American citizen and legal resident of Japanese ancestry in California, Oregon and Washington was sent to one of 10 internment camps where they spent the war behind barbed wire, watched by armed guards.

There was no military necessity nor any documented evidence of espionage or sabotage, a federal commission concluded four decades later.

The World War II camps weren’t the first instance of officially sanctioned anti-Asian discrimination in the United States. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, then stiffened it 10 years later in a bill sponsored by Congressman Thomas J. Geary, D-Santa Rosa. This repugnant law stayed on the books until 1943.

Anti-Asian bigotry isn’t limited to government policy, and it didn’t end with World War II. Indeed, an alarming surge in harassment of, and physical attacks upon, Asian Americans has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic over the past 11 months.

Between March and December 2020, Stop AAPI Hate — an organization formed last spring by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American studies department of San Francisco State University — documented more than 2,800 anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide, about 45% of them in California.

The Bay Area has witnessed a spike in these crimes since the first of the year, including two shocking attacks that were captured on video and shown on television newscasts.

It’s hard to watch the videos. In one, a young man rushes toward an 84-year-old San Francisco man and pushes him to the ground. The man, identified as Vicha Ratanapakdee, died. In the other, a 91-year-old man was shoved from behind and landed face down on a sidewalk in Oakland’s Chinatown.

“These violent assaults have a devastating impact on our community as they are part of an alarming rise in anti-Asian American hate during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University and a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.

Responsibility for these cowardly attacks belongs to the assailants.

But it isn’t a coincidence that harassment and crimes targeting Asian Americans took off as Donald Trump tried to deflect attention from his administration’s bumbling response to the pandemic by using racist tropes like “kung flu” to emphasize the coronavirus’s origination in China.

President Joe Biden already has brought a welcome change in tone. During his first week in office, Biden signed an executive memorandum directing the Justice Department to partner with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to prevent hate crimes and harassment.

It will take more than executive orders and partnership programs to end the scourge of bigotry and racism in America. Here in the Bay Area, police are stepping up patrols and community organizations are working to raise awareness and deter hatred.

On this Day of Remembrance, we’d like to be focused on how far our nation has come since World War II. But we can’t overlook how far we have to go.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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