Racism and the Threat to American Civil Liberties


Whatever you think of Edward Snowden, we have him to thank for revealing the shocking fact that our federal government is collecting data on millions of us in the name of national security. Worse, it turns out, private contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, the firm that employed Snowden, have been doing a bunch of that spying, especially post 9/11. So, to state what is probably already obvious to most of you, private companies outside of any kind of real accountability to the public have access to our personal information, not just the government.

It seems unbelievable that a country that tries to present itself as a beacon of liberty and freedom throughout the world could have facilitated this massive violation of our privacy. But for Japanese Americans, this contradiction in terms is nothing new. And their story helps make the case for the urgency of learning to see our common humanity across race.

In World War II, Japanese Americans on the U.S. mainland, almost to a person, were imprisoned by the federal government without evidence of wrong-doing. Children, the elderly, nearly everyone was forced to leave their lives and property behind when they were forcibly relocated to internment camps, many never to recover their losses.

Our government justified this massive civil rights violation by claiming they were only trying to secure the safety of Japanese Americans. Almost no one outside the Japanese community stood against internment with the notable exception of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. In order to make the case that internment was for Japanese Americans’ own good, the government had staged photographs taken of internment camp life. Pictures of seemingly happy internees were circulated among the American public to demonstrate how well Japanese Americans were being treated. Until then, many among the public were unaware of the camps.



Some reacted with concern that people were being kept in prison simply because of their ethnicity. But there was virtually no uproar about the fact that these were Americans. Race colored the public’s understanding of mass incarceration. Non-Asians understood the problem as an act of racism, not as a violation of American rights.

But racism is just the justification for the horrors that have been committed in the name of white supremacy. Regarding people as less than human, or in the case of Japanese Americans, less than American, may give us license to do even more harm than we might otherwise, but the harm that we do stands on its own. Any such act requires the creation of organs of repression that, once created, too often take on a life of their own.

Throughout American history our leaders have used racism to justify the abuse of power in the name of national security. The American penitentiary system evolved from reform institutions into warehouses in large part in order to contain and re-enslave newly freed blacks on chain gangs after the civil war. In the middle of the last century, we mounted a war on drugs, another contrived effort to exploit racism for political gain while containing black communities at a time when illegal drug use was falling but black power was rising.

In the 1960s and 70s, our government spied on civil rights leaders, including Dr. King, as well as Black Power activists like Fred Hampton, a Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated on December 4, 1969 by Chicago police officers acting under the authority of the FBI. The FBI, it is suspected, drugged Hampton to cause him to sleep through a raid that ended with him being first wounded and then shot at point blank range and killed.

Post 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and created a Department of Homeland Security. Both were created in the fog of Islamophobic hysteria. Via this Act, our own government spied on, harassed, arrested, and detained American citizens profiled as terrorists often because of arbitrary characteristics like religion and ethnicity. It is doing so still. This post-9/11 hysteria is the reason that firms like Booz Allen Hamilton are part of a growing sector of our economy that is getting rich on spying on us for profit. Once a profit motive comes into play, the incentive to forever expand the market for the product from which that profit is reaped is created. Just consider all that we’ve done throughout our history, and all that we are doing now, for money.

Racism is just the justification for horrific acts. But in order to commit these acts, we must create the means. Once created, those means often take on a life of their own. This is the urgency of seeing our common national interests and humanity across race.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Racism and the Threat to American Civil Liberties”

Beautifully written and making a subtle point: creating a system that takes away the rights of one group eventually takes away everyone’s rights.

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