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American Xenophobia

A Short Illustrated History of Xenophobia in the United States

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Poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem titled "The New Colossus" in 1883 to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty, which was completed three years later. The poem, often cited as representative of the U.S. approach to immigration, reads in part:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."
But bigotry against even European-American immigrants was rife at the time Lazarus wrote the poem, and immigration quotas based on racial hierarchies formally passed in 1924 and would remain in effect until 1965. Her poem represented an unrealized ideal--and, sadly, still does.

American Indians

When European nations began to colonize the Americas, they ran into a problem: The Americas were already populated. They dealt with this problem by enslaving and ultimately eliminating most of the indigenous population--reducing it by approximately 95%--and deporting the survivors to undeveloped ghettoes that the government unironically referred to as "reservations."

These harsh policies could not have been justified if American Indians were treated like human beings. Colonists wrote that American Indians had no religions and no governments, that they practiced savage and sometimes physically impossible acts--that they, in short, acceptable victims of genocide. In the United States, this legacy of violent conquest remains largely ignored.

African Americans

Before 1965, the United States' few non-white immigrants often had to overcome considerable hurdles to settle here. But until 1808 (legally) and for years thereafter (illegally), the United States forcibly recruited African-American immigrants--in chains--to serve as unpaid laborers.

You'd think that a country that had put so much brutal effort into bringing immigrant forced laborers here would at least welcome them when they'd arrived, but the popular view of Africans was that they were violent, amoral savages who could be made useful only if forced to conform to Christian and European traditions. Post-slavery African immigrants have been subjected to many of the same prejudices, and face many of the same stereotypes that existed two centuries ago.

English and Scottish Americans

Surely Anglos and Scots have never been subject to xenophobia? After all, the United States was originally an Anglo-American institution, wasn't it?

Well, yes and no. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Britain began to be perceived as a villainous empire--and first-generation English immigrants were often viewed with hostility or suspicion. Anti-English sentiment was a significant factor in John Adams' defeat in the 1800 presidential election against the anti-English, pro-French candidate Thomas Jefferson. U.S. opposition to England and Scotland continued up to and including the American Civil War; it was only with the two world wars of the twentieth century that Anglo-U.S. relations finally warmed up.

Chinese Americans

Chinese-American workers began to arrive in large numbers in the late 1840s, and helped build many of the railroads that would form the backbone of the emerging U.S. economy. But by 1880 there were some 110,000 Chinese Americans in the country, and some white Americans didn't like the growing ethnic diversity.

Congress responded with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which stated that Chinese immigration "endangers the good order of certain localities" and would no longer be tolerated. Other responses ranged from bizarre local laws (such as California's tax on the hiring of Chinese-American laborers) to outright violence (such as Oregon's Chinese Massacre of 1887, in which 31 Chinese Americans were murdered by an angry white mob).

German Americans

German Americans make up the largest identified ethnic group in the United States today, but have historically been subjected to xenophobia as well--primarily during the two World Wars, as Germany and the United States were enemies in both.

During World War I, some states went so far as to make it illegal to speak German--a law that was actually enforced on a widespread basis in Montana, and that had a chilling effect on first-generation German-American immigrants living elsewhere.

This anti-German sentiment bubbled up again during World War II, when some 11,000 German Americans were detained indefinitely by executive order without trials or normal due process protections.

Indian Americans

Thousands of Indian Americans had become citizens when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), holding that Indians are not white and therefore may not become U.S. citizens by immigration. Thind, an officer for U.S. Army during World War I, initially had his citizenship revoked but was able to quietly immigrate later. Other Indian Americans were not so lucky, and lost both their citizenship and their land.

Italian Americans

In October 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy lay dying from bullet wounds he received on his way home from work. Locals blamed Itslian-American immigrants, arguing that the "mafia" was responsible for the murder. Police duly arrested 19 immigrants, but had no real evidence against them; charges were dropped against ten of them, and the other nine were acquitted in March of 1891. The day after the acquittal, 11 of the accused were attacked by a white mob and murdered in the streets. Mafia stereotypes affect Italian Americans to this day.

Italy's status as an enemy in World War II was also problematic--leading to arrests, internments, and travel restrictions leveled against thousands of law-abiding Italian Americans.

Japanese Americans

No community was more significantly affected by the World War II "enemy alien" detentions than Japanese Americans. An estimated 110,000 were detained in internment camps during the war, detentions that the U.S. Supreme Court dubiously upheld in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944).

Prior to World War II, Japanese-American immigration was most common in Hawaii and California. In California, in particular, some whites resented the presence of Japanese-American farmers and other landowners--leading to the passage of the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which prohibited Japanese Americans from owning land.

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