2016 Elections

History Will Judge Today's Intolerance

Something for politicians to remember when they talk about Syrian refugees.

Not necessarily.

Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

History is a cruel judge of intolerance in America. Let that be a warning to politicians rushing to bar Syrian refugees, especially Muslims, from seeking sanctuary in the U.S.

Segregationists are condemned today, even those who later recanted; think of George Wallace. There are few kind words for the American nativist strain, embodied by political movements like the anti-Roman Catholic Know-Nothing Party that flourished in the 1850s.

Even progressive icons like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Chief Justice Earl Warren are censured for their role in interning Japanese-Americans in World War II. On the positive side, Seth Masket of Vox wrote this week about Governor Ralph Carr of Colorado, who in 1942 became a lonely voice for the rights of Japanese-Americans.

Now Republican presidential candidates and governors, and a handful of Democrats, are playing a politically motivated fear card. It doesn't matter, they argue, if families and little children are fleeing mayhem and carnage in Syria. Don't let them in, especially if they are Muslims. They cite, of course, the terrorist attack in Paris. 

Public concern about Syrian refugees is understandable; one of the Paris terrorists might have slipped into Europe with refugees. But real leaders shouldn't exploit people's fears. Sometimes their responsibility is to calm them.

That's not what we're getting from Donald Trump, or from Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is straining to get to the right of the other candidates.

Jindal and David Vitter, the Republican senator who is running to replace him -- the election is Saturday -- have warned of hordes of Syrian refugees threatening the citizens of Louisiana. Vitter said there's an "influx coming" and that vetting can't guard against possible "terrorist elements."

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported this week that there are Syrian refugees in the Bayou State -- 14 to be exact. The resettling agency is the New Orleans Archdiocese's Catholics Charities. The general counsel for the Archdiocese is Wendy Vitter, the wife of Senator Vitter.

After Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration decided to put Japanese-Americans in guarded camps. Colorado's Carr objected. He said Japanese-Americans were entitled to the same constitutional rights as other citizens and decried the "shame and dishonor" of racial hatred.

He was dumped by his own Republican party. The country overwhelmingly supported FDR and Earl Warren, then attorney general of California, who whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment. 

FDR is now celebrated as a great president. Warren went on to become governor of California and Chief Justice of the United States. His Supreme Court expanded civil rights and civil liberties. Both, however, get bad marks from most historians for their role in internment.

Carr's courage ended his political career. But history smiled. Today there's a statue of him in downtown Denver. A scenic section of a highway bears his name. The Japanese-American Citizens League has an award in his honor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.