World / Social Issues

Roanoke mayor apologizes for Japanese internment remarks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The embattled mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, apologized Friday for comments earlier in the week citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II in a statement defending his push to keep Syrian refugees out of the area.

“I apologize to all of those offended by my remarks, Mayor David Bowers said at a special meeting of the Roanoke City Council. “In particular, I apologize to Americans of Japanese descent for the unwise and inappropriate comparison between the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II and the current refugee crisis.”

Bowers said that he had not anticipated his comments would reach a global audience over the Internet. The remarks spread like wildfire via social media and blogs, with the vast majority condemning the mayor’s remarks as inappropriate.

“I anticipated that the statement might receive some coverage in the Roanoke Valley, but I did not have any idea that it would trend internationally over the Internet,” he said.

In the statement issued Wednesday, Bowers wrote: “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

ISIS is another name for the Islamic State extremist group, which has taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

It was this comparison — and the allusion that those interned were “foreign” and not mostly American citizens — that angered many.

Bowers’ statement prompted rebukes from a range of critics, including Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and Japanese-American actor George Takei, who played the character Sulu in the original “Star Trek” TV series.

Despite calls for Bowers’ resignation, however, the mayor made it clear that he was not considering quitting, saying that he hoped he could join with the community in “rectifying” the issue.

Bowers, who has served two separate terms as mayor for a total of 16 years, called Roanoke a city of openness and diversity, and urged people not to associate it with what he termed “a mistake.”

“My statement was intended to be respectful, measured and moderate in tone and substance, but it fell short, obviously,” Bowers told the special session.

“I’ve worked hard to be a friendly mayor to all 105 nationalities in our city. … It’s just not in my heart to be racist or a bigot.”