In understanding racism in America, we have paid insufficient attention to xenophobia. Fear and irrational dislike of people from other countries has a long tradition in America. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, episodes of xenophobia have kept recurring.
Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven (now six) Muslim-majority countries as well as his threats to deport millions is not an aberration in American history. It is only the latest example of a long-standing historical pattern.
Going back in American history, nativists and white supremacists have long had an obsession about screening out and deporting those perceived as “undesirables “. Trump is just the latest incarnation.
In the 19th century, proponents of Manifest Destiny, the belief that settlers were destined to expand across North America, often argued the superiority of white Europeans over Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. Although the history is obscured and forgotten today, eugenics was behind much of the racist ideology.
Racists saw ethnic mixing as leading to degeneration, a big 19th century concern. Newspapers and periodicals of the time frequently ran articles arguing against race-mixing. There was much discussion of selective breeding as a means to improve the human stock.
Some scientists of the mid-19th century expressed concerns about inferior stock polluting the nation’s racial order. For example, Dr. Josiah Nott, a southern surgeon and phrenologist, advocated the need for eugenics to keep the white race pure. To quote Nott in 1844:
“Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian, the latter have sunk into barbarism.”
Slavery and 19th century racism relied heavily on pseudo-scientific justifications. I think racism based on fraudulent science was also the ideological backdrop for the nativism and xenophobia that characterized our later 19th century immigration policy. From the 1880’s through the 1940’s, racist, restrictive immigration policies became a norm.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first act to restrict entry of a specific ethnic group. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
Prejudice against the Chinese was widespread especially in the West Coast states. Whites could rob, beat, and murder Chinese people with impunity. Anti-Chinese riots and lynchings were part of the picture. Many Americans saw the Chinese as taking their jobs.
While Chinese workers were widely seen as reliable and willing to work without complaint, they were scapegoated by politicians for allegedly depressing wages. Economic depressions and the desperation of working people created fertile soil for racist demagoguery.
Many Americans of varied political stripes saw the Chinese as an unassimilable race. There was a popular belief the Chinese were dirty and carried germs and disease. The Chinese were victims of a national phobia, the Yellow Peril. Sadly, there were few public voices who spoke out against the virulent anti-Chinese racism.
The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years until President Franklin Roosevelt led the effort to repeal it. Chinese-Americans had their own Jim Crow-like experience where they were subject to discriminatory laws and practices. That harm is rarely acknowledged.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Japanese experience as well. From the start, the immigration of Japanese also met with a negative response. Nativists feared Japanese immigration. Like the Chinese, Japanese people were segregated and denied employment, except for menial jobs. Most western states passed legislation forbidding intermarriage between Asiatics and Caucasians.
While the history deserves far deeper treatment, I did not want to ignore the Japanese-American internment. This is one of the most spectacular examples of xenophobia in American history. Under an Executive Order issued on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans into camps. 62% of the internees were American citizens. Nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. This action came in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It is now widely recognized that the Japanese-American internment was a product of racism and not justified by any military necessity.
The Chinese and the Japanese were certainly not the only victims of xenophobia. In the early 20th century, xenophobia reemerged prominently in regard to other regions. A series of three laws highlight the trend. In 1917 Congress passed an Immigration Act which imposed a literacy test on immigrants. The law barred not only those unable to read, it also excluded “feeble-minded persons”, “idiots”, “epileptics”, “anarchists”, and all immigrants from Asia.
Shortly after in 1921 and 1924 Congress passed an Emergency Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act to limit the flow of immigrants into the country. The Johnson-Reed Act limited the quota to 2% of the total immigrants from a given country living in the United States in 1890.
The law aimed at greatly reducing immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Eastern European Jews. From the late 19th century to 1920, there had been a huge increase in Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, in part, to escape pogroms.
The explicit purpose of the Johnson-Reed Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”. Immigration restrictionists sought to maintain the racial preponderance of native-born Americans. Also, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917, the Red Scare of 1919 raised fears about foreign radicals importing revolution.
As was true with racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, anti-semitism relied on contradictory stereotypes about Jews. Stereotypes ran the gamut. Jews were both money-grubbing capitalists and Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the period before World War II, anti-semitism in America was far more accepted than it is now.
The Johnson-Reed Act ultimately succeeded in tremendously reducing Southern European and Eastern European immigration, especially that of Jewish people. But now we can see the cost and the tragedy. The law acted to prevent millions of refugees from escaping the Holocaust. People could not get out of Europe when they needed to. The United States was not alone among countries in closing the gates. Many millions needlessly perished in the Nazi death camps and gas chambers. The Johnson-Reed Act proved catastrophic.
Though it is not widely known, Anne Frank was denied immigration to the United States twice. Her father, Otto Frank, appealed to the Roosevelt Administration. FDR refused. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It is hard to ignore the historical parallels with our current period. Refugees seeking to escape the war in Syria and undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are in a similar desperate situation to people who wanted out of Europe in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. They are running for their lives.
In his view of the world, President Trump has dehumanized and criminalized the category of refugee. He sees refugees as potential terrorists – not as people trying to escape desperate situations. In his stereotyping, he is Xenophobe-in-Chief. What he is doing with Syrian refugees is no different than what earlier racists did against the Chinese, Japanese, and the Jews.
Just for the record, I would note that far more could be said about our xenophobic history, particularly actions against Latinos. It would be wrong not to mention the Mexican Repatriation.
James Baldwin once wrote:
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
Xenophobia is as American as cherry pie. Trump fits right in. It is late in the game for any pollyanna views of our history.