(Note: This article appeared on the op-ed pages of several newspapers in August 1986.)
Refer often enough, as politicians and editorialists do, to "the Judaeo-Christian tradition" and any Hindus, Buddhists, animists, Confucianists, Moslems, or Zoroastrians who happen to be in the neighborhood will quickly get the message: They are, at best, being tolerated, not included.
Repeat with The New York Times the cliche that the United States has "lost control of its borders" and everyone will understand that what is supposed to be worrisome is not the illegal immigration of Greek busboys and Polish janitors but the immigration, legal or otherwise, of Asians and Latin Americans.
Quote Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm's statement that "we should welcome different people, but not adopt different languages," and most folks will actually convince themselves that the nation is more threatened by the use of Spanish than by the American people's notorious refusal or inability to learn other languages.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition, the control of our borders, and the status of the English language are among the more popular elements of what University of Cincinnati historian Roger Daniels calls "white-collar nativism" -- a genteel and discreet nativism that he contrasts with the physical attacks on the Vietnamese-American fishermen in Texas, the fatal beating of a Chinese-American man mistaken for a Japanese by unemployed white auto workers in Detroit, and the no doubt facetious suggestion by a former president of the Hertz Corp. that industry could deal with the problem of Japanese car imports by chartering the Enola Gay.
Professor Daniels did not need to remind his audience, delegates to the biennial convention of the Japanese American Citizens League, that the Enola Gay is the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The news media must of course report all aspects of the controversy over immigration and refugee policy and the relationship between international trade and economic problems and domestic race relations. It is not self-evident what is the proper or most humane response to these issues and editorial writers and commentators must explore the alternatives and arrive at good-faith conclusions.
But reporters and editors need to be aware of the potential for demagoguery and violence and to be on guard against feeding it.
One of the most important functions of a news organization is building and maintaining the sense of community. A newspaper, magazine, or broadcast not only reflects but also helps shape and define its community. Necessarily, and sometimes unfortunately, "community" involves distinctions between "us" and "them" -- between those who belong, and those who don't; between the home team and the visitors, the strangers, the foreigners, the aliens, the others.
At the same meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League at which Professor Daniels spoke, the organization gave its first civil-rights award to Walt and Milly Woodward, who during World War Two were the owners and most of the editorial staff of the weekly Bainbridge Review, serving Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound near Seattle. They were given the award because theirs was virtually the only newspaper on the West Coast that insisted throughout the war that Japanese-Americans should be counted among "us" rather than "them."
On the night of December 7, 1941, they put out a one-page War Extra ("the only War Extra of any weekly in Washington State," and maybe in the country, said Walt Woodward) that listed civil-defense rules and alarm signals and, among other observations, took note of the fact that some Bainbridge islanders, being of Japanese ancestry, looked a bit like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor. The point was simple. "To other Islanders, the Review says this: "These Japanese-Americans of ours haven't bombed anybody."
But Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, in command of West Coast defenses, said, "A Jap is a Jap." Washington Gov. Arthur Langlie and other state and local officials, as well as unofficial but powerful white supremacist groups, demanded removal and incarceration of the Japanese-Americans.
Four months later, when the army came to take away the 272 Japanese-American residents of the island -- the first Japanese-American community to be evacuated from the Coast -- Woodward promoted Paul Ohtaki, a high-school student who came in after school to sweep up, to salaried correspondent. And every week thereafter there appeared in The Review a column of local news from Camp Manzanar in the California desert: the graduation of one-fourth of the senior class of Bainbridge High School; the marriage of Sam and Kay Nakao; the death of Grandpa Kura. Later, when those at Manzanar were transferred to Camp Minadoka in Idaho, the young men were permitted to join the army; Paul Ohtaki became a counterintelligence officer but the weekly dispatches to The Review were continued by others.
In many if not most West Coast communities, there was fierce resistance at the end of 1944 when the War Department allowed the Japanese-Americans to return to their homes. There were cross-burnings and attacks by mobs. But not on Bainbridge Island.
"They didn't come back as strangers," Walt Woodward said. "We already knew that So-and-so had married So-and-so and had a baby boy and we were looking forward to meeting the new baby."
That level of journalistic intimacy isn't really possible in big cities, but the principle stands. We can have strangers in our midst or we can have neighbors, and the news media can help determine which it will be.