The Long History of Xenophobia in America

From colonial times to today, the demonization of outsiders has existed alongside the idea of the U.S. as a nation built by immigrants
Erika Lee in front oof a mural of children. From colonial times to today, the xenophobic demonization of outsiders has existed alongside the idea of the U.S. as a nation built by immigrants.
“I really believe in the power of storytelling to change the ways in which people think about immigration and to challenge xenophobia and racism,” says Erika Lee. Photo: Lisa Miller/University of Minnesota
September 24, 2020

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The United States has always been a nation of immigrants—and seemingly also always a nation suffused with xenophobia, a fear or hatred of those same immigrants.

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin worried that large numbers of “swarthy” foreigners, speaking their own language among themselves, would swamp the colonies and their British subjects. The dangerous outsiders? They were Germans.

Erika Lee, J91, tells that story, among many others, in her award-winning book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, published last year. Regents Professor and the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Lee says it’s important to know this complex history to be able to overcome it.  

“Xenophobia doesn’t just reveal itself through a bigoted relative who is saying stuff about ‘the Mexicans’ at Thanksgiving dinner,” says Lee. “Xenophobia is a form of racism that has been embedded in our laws.”

One way to overcome the alienation that xenophobia brings is to combat the negative stereotypes about immigrants and refugees, and help see them as fellow human beings just like us, Lee says. She leads an effort to do just that, with the Immigrant Stories digital storytelling project. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project’s 350 digital stories profile immigrants as “real people, not stereotypes,” she says.

Watch a video of Erika Lee talking about xenophobia in America. Video: Jenna Schad

When Lee was at Tufts as an undergraduate, she focused on history, and created her own major in ethnic studies, with advisor Reed Ueda, a professor of history. She also taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement in the Experimental College, “which made me realize how much I love teaching,” she says. “I’m forever grateful for that education.”

With a parade of anti-immigrant measures coming out of Washington, it’s more important than ever to understand what lies behind the xenophobia in this country, Lee says. Tufts Now spoke with her to learn more about that history—and what can be done to overcome it.

Tufts Now: The United States has a very long history of xenophobia, as you document in your book. And yet most Americans don’t know about it. Why is that?

Erika Lee: This is one of the most important questions to ask, because it speaks to why and how xenophobia can persist and endure. We don’t recognize what a strong and pervasive force it has been—or we discount it or willingly ignore it.

But I think it also speaks to a much larger question about history, memory, and the uses of history in crafting our understanding of ourselves.

One of the most important things about xenophobia is that it’s a shapeshifting, wily thing, just like racism. You think it’s gone away, and it comes back. It evolves so that even though one immigrant group finally gains acceptance, it can easily be applied to another.

And sometimes the group that just made it can be very active in leading the charge against the others. It’s unfortunately one of the ways in which racism and our racial hierarchy are at work in the United States.

Are some classes of Americans more xenophobic than others?

I would say that xenophobia flourishes in every community and in every class. One of the great examples of this is Chinese immigration and exclusion. In the book, I focus on the campaigns to drive Chinese people out of Seattle in the late 1800s. There was mob violence that was led by those whom we have been accustomed to identify as working-class whites.

And then there were the more “polite” campaigns, the ones that were led by judges, lawyers, professionals who basically told the agitators, “We agree with you. The Chinese must go, but do we need to resort to lawlessness? How about we organize a campaign of intimidation? Let’s blacklist the housewives—the employers who hire Chinese people, and publish their names in the newspaper. And let’s make it so just horrific to live in Seattle if you’re Chinese that they will self deport.”

Before studying this history, I don’t think I completely understood the depth of that cross-class racism, and the ways in which it can manifest itself differently.

Is the same true about racism in more recent times?

Yes! There are lots of examples of liberal and progressive xenophobia and racism. When I was researching the history behind 1965 Immigration Act—a law that was praised for formally ending discrimination in immigration law and reopening up the country to immigrants—I was struck by how lawmakers could still restrict immigration from the Western hemisphere in what was essentially a Civil Rights law. They described the U.S. being ‘overrun by black and brown immigrants’ at the same time that they insisted on the need to end discrimination.

It seems that this fear of being displaced pushes some lawmakers and others to double down against certain immigrants, especially those from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Immigration is treated as a zero-sum game; new immigration is a threat to us already here. We can’t both gain at the same time. Your gain is my loss.

You write in the book that xenophobia is a form of racism. How does that work—and has it changed over time?

Racism identifies certain groups as good and superior to others. In the early 20th century, it was considered a matter of biology. Today, we often talk about it as being a matter of “culture.” There are “good immigrants” and there are “bad immigrants” who are a threat to “us.” The dividing line between “good” and “bad” has been marked by religion, national origin, class, gender, and sexual orientation. But especially race.

This relationship between xenophobia is a legacy of the racism that justified slavery and settler colonialism. In fact, early immigrants were always judged in relationship to their place on that spectrum of whiteness and blackness.

For example, Germans were first labeled “swarthy,” a term that was meant to signify blackness and to imply that German immigration was undesirable. But we never restricted their immigration or their ability to become naturalized citizens.

Cartoons of Irish Catholics from the 19th century make them look very similar to apes. This was effective in marking the Irish as a threat, because African Americans were already drawn in similar stereotypical and dehumanizing ways. But again, we never restricted Irish immigration or prohibited them from becoming naturalized citizens.

But then the Chinese came, and here we can see the difference that race makes. The Chinese were automatically seen as more like Native Americans and African Americans than European immigrants. The Chinese were excluded and barred from becoming naturalized citizens.

Xenophobia has influenced government policy from the time of Benjamin Franklin right up to the present. Do you think it is worse now?

It is, but one of the things that I try to emphasize is that you could not have Donald Trump and his policies without Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You couldn’t have so many Americans shouting “build the wall” without the 2006 Fence Act that George W. Bush signed into law, and that Barack Obama helped to implement, or without Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which was put in place by Bill Clinton.

What is worse today is the explicit, unabashed, unapologetic, vitriolic language. That is a centerpiece of President Trump’s campaign, first in 2015 when he said Mexicans are rapists and criminals, to today where he’s doubling down on xenophobia ahead of the 2020 elections. He was just here in Minnesota and one of his favorite targets is Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Black woman—a U.S. citizen and a Democratic Congresswoman who he told to ‘go back’ to where she had come from last year.

Previous presidents’ policies certainly had been xenophobic, but they also gave lip service to the idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants, that diversity is a strength. You don’t get any of that with this president, and it makes a difference.

So this administration is more xenophobic than average?

The immigration policies that have been put into effect during this administration have been so numerous, so broad in their scope, and so cruel that they are unparalleled in any other period or other administration.

They have impacted every category of immigrant—from refugees, asylum seekers, illegal, and legal immigrants. And because they have been put in place by executive order, there has been no debate, no calling of witnesses, no rebuttal, no ability for experts, advocates, or lawmakers on either side to be able to contest the justification of the laws.

And that was before COVID-19. I’ve just finished compiling and analyzing the 63 different immigration-related executive actions that have been put in place since January 30, 2020. Sixty-three! They have effectively ended immigration in all forms under the guise of public health concerns even though the infection rates are much, much higher within our country than in any other. We have already identified this era as the most restrictive immigration era in U.S. history.

Has this very obvious xenophobia throughout U.S. history deterred immigrants?

Absolutely. It’s deterred people, and it has encouraged—even forced—people to return home. One of the other aspects of immigration history that we never focus enough attention on is how 30 percent of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and especially amongst certain groups like Italians in the early 20th century, actually returned home. There could be many reasons for that—jobs that didn’t work out, failed marriages—but a lot of it was that they just didn’t feel welcome here.

Have you seen that personally?

One of the saddest things I’ve seen in the past few years is an internalization of xenophobia. I have volunteered in my kids’ public high school, helping mostly refugee students write their college essays. Here in Minneapolis, they are largely from Somalia.

In 2017, some of my students had been in this country for only four years. They learned English and were working two part-time jobs in addition to going to school. They had compelling personal stories, but when I read their essays, I noticed that they did not mention anything about being refugees.

I’d ask them, “Is there a reason why you don’t want to put that part of your story in your college essay? I think it is phenomenal.” They said, “I don’t want to because ‘refugee’ is a bad word, isn’t it? They won’t want me. Right?” And my heart just sank.

So yes, xenophobia absolutely has an impact. There’s the violence of xenophobia. Families being split apart, etc. But even if you’re not at risk of that, it can manifest itself in deeply personal ways.

While there are vocal anti-immigrant groups, who is advocating now for immigrants?

One of the things that has changed in recent years is that people are leading spontaneous and mass protests against many anti-immigrant measures. I’m sure you remember January 27th, 2017, the Friday that the Muslim ban was announced by the Trump administration.

It was late in the afternoon. By that evening, there were lawyers, advocates, and crowds of people at many of the international airports in the United States with “you are welcome here” signs.

This kind of mass protest didn’t happen before when we passed the Exclusion Act, when we deported Mexican and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression, when we interned Japanese Americans during World War II. These challenges and protests today are so fundamental and so important. They give me hope.

And of course, with the elections coming up, we have the chance to vote xenophobic politicians out of office.

And how can the view of immigrants be more positive, especially among those who fear the effects of immigration?

I think about this on a daily basis. I really want to try to change the narrative about immigration, to combat the threat narrative.

I direct the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. It started 55 years ago as an immigrant archive. Its founders believed that it was necessary to document the experiences and life histories of what was then called the “new immigration” from southern, central, and eastern Europe. One goal was “to recover the full-bodied humanity of immigrants” through oral histories, research, and archive-building.

We are still working hard to achieve this mission in a new era of global migration. In 2012, I wanted to do the same for this new generation of immigrants and refugees, and especially the young people who were in my classrooms.

So my colleagues and I started the Immigrant Stories digital storytelling project, and it grew nationally and internationally. It’s a digital storytelling website that allows anyone anywhere to create, preserve, and share their story for free with video, audio, and text. There are now over 350 stories in the collection representing 55-plus ethnic groups.

I really believe in the power of storytelling to change the ways in which people think about immigration and to challenge xenophobia and racism. They help us see immigrants and refugees as real people, not stereotypes. And they remind us what unites us, rather than divides us.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.