The recent case granting marriage equality across the United States – Obergefell v. Hodges – contains four separate dissents from the conservatives on the court. I was struck in particular by the dissent of Justice Clarence Thomas, who focused his argument on the notion that the Constitution does not grant liberty or dignity, but rather operates to restrain government from abridging it. To him, the role of the government is solely to let its citizens be, for in his view it cannot supply them any more liberty or dignity than that with which they are born.
This position led him to the rather startling conclusion that “human dignity cannot be taken away.” He first made an analogy to slavery, arguing that the government’s allowance of slavery did not strip anyone of their dignity. He then added to that this analogy:
“Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them.”
As one of the survivors of the Japanese American internment, I feel compelled to respond.
I was only a child when soldiers with bayonetted rifles marched up our driveway in Los Angeles, banged on our door, and ordered us out. I remember my mothers’ tears as we gathered what little we could carry, and then were sent to live for many weeks in a single cramped horse stall at the Santa Anita racetracks. Our bank accounts were frozen, our businesses shuttered, and our homes with most of our belongings were left behind, all because we happened to look like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was issued on the premise that anyone of Japanese descent could not be trusted and was to be treated as an enemy, even those of us who were American citizens, born in this land. We were viewed not as individual people, but as a yellow menace to be dealt with, and harshly. The guns pointed at us at every point reminded us that if we so much as tried to stand up for our dignity, there would be violent consequences. The order and the ensuing confinement was an egregious violation of the Constitution and of due process as we were held, without trial and without charge, awaiting our fate.
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A few months later, we were shipped off to the swamps of Arkansas, over a thousand miles away, by railcar. They placed in all one hundred twenty thousand of us inside barbed wire fences, machine guns pointed down at us from watch towers. We slept inside bug-infested barracks, ate in a noisy mess hall, and relieved ourselves in common latrines that had no walls between the stalls. We were denied adequate medicines, shelter and supplies. I remember as a child looking up toward a U.S. flag in the room, as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, those ironic words echoing, “With liberty, and justice for all.”
For many, it was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm. Justice Thomas need have spent just one day with us in the mosquito-infested swamplands in that Arkansas heat, eating the slop served from the kitchen, to understand that it was the government’s very intent to strip us of our dignity and our humanity. Whether it succeeded with all of us is another question: There was a guiding spirit of what we called “gaman”—to endure with fortitude, head held high—helping us get through those terrible years. At the end of it all, each internee was handed a bus ticket and twenty-five dollars, on which we were expected to rebuild our lives. Many never did.
To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process. At the very least, the government must treat all its subjects with equal human dignity. To deny a group the rights and privileges of others, based solely on an immutable characteristic such as race – or as in Obergefell, sexual orientation – is to strip them of human dignity and of the liberty to live as others live.
It seems odd that Justice Thomas, as an African American, would be an opponent of marriage equality. His own current marriage, if he had sought to have it some fifty years ago, would have been illegal under then-existing anti-miscegenation laws. I cannot help but wonder if Justice Thomas would have felt any loss of dignity had the clerk’s office doors been shut in his face, simply because he was of a different race than his fiancée. It is a sad irony that he now enjoys the dignity of his marriage, equal in the eyes of the law to any others, while in the same breath proclaiming that the denial of marriage to LGBTs works no indignity.
George Takei is an actor, social justice activist, and social media mega-power.