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This Isn't The 1st Time Americans Have Debated What To Call Detention Centers


Two words - concentration camps. That is what New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been calling the government's migrant detention centers on the southern border. Now, her use of that label has drawn intense criticism, also intense support. And this is not the first time Americans have debated the term.

Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch podcast tells us about a similar controversy two decades ago over what to call the camps the U.S. government used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: They're commonly called internment camps, but in the early '90s, Karen Ishizuka, a curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, decided that term would not work for an exhibit she was creating.

KAREN ISHIZUKA: So we decided to call it "America's Concentration Camps."

FLORIDO: She'd consulted historians, researched concentration camps going way back to Cuba and South Africa in the 1800s and learned that even President Roosevelt had used the term to refer to the Japanese American incarceration. Internment was a euphemism, she said. Concentration camp was just accurate.

ISHIZUKA: So it opened here without any controversy at all.

FLORIDO: Her exhibit was a success. And one day, she got an invitation to bring it to Ellis Island in New York - a great opportunity. But then in early 1998, a few months before it was set to open there, she got a letter from the Ellis Island museum's director. It said concentration camp had to go from the title.

ISHIZUKA: As it might offend the large Jewish population in New York.

FLORIDO: Because the term was so closely associated with World War II Nazi death camps used to murder 6 million Jews. Ishizuka considered dropping the term, but her colleagues urged her to stand firm, so they flew to New York to meet with Jewish leaders.

ISHIZUKA: We did not publicize it because we did not want it to look like a squabble between two American ethnic groups.

FLORIDO: But it leaked to the press, and it became a public controversy. One of the people originally opposed to Ishizuka's title was David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee.

DAVID HARRIS: What we were really trying to say to our Japanese American friends is, you understand what we went through; we understand what you went through. Both were shameful, but they were different degrees of horror.

FLORIDO: The camps used to incarcerate Japanese Americans may have fit a technical definition of concentration camps, he told them, but Adolf Hitler had redefined that term.

HARRIS: And we don't want to dilute language to the point where it no longer has meaning.

FLORIDO: The solution came after a man named Benjamin Meed, a respected Holocaust survivor, suggested that the two sides come up with their own definition.

ISHIZUKA: So we did. We spent four hours plus, you know, on one paragraph.

FLORIDO: Here's what it said.

ISHIZUKA: A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed but simply because of who they are.

FLORIDO: It listed concentration camps throughout history but made clear that none compared to Nazi Germany's.

ISHIZUKA: Despite the difference, all had one thing in common. The people in power removed a minority group from the general population, and the rest of society let it happen.

FLORIDO: They agreed to post this definition at the exhibition allowing its title, "America's Concentration Camps," to remain. Ishizuka says the whole episode forced people to grapple with how language had been used to minimize the severity of what had happened to her community. That's why she still uses concentration camp.

ISHIZUKA: To do otherwise is to really mitigate the injustice of the incarceration and thereby make it easier to happen again.

FLORIDO: She's also using the term to describe the detention centers at the southern border. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.