Racism & Xenophobia

Op-Eds are organized chronologically, with the most recent publications listed first.

“The Page Act of 1875, the first Chinese-exclusion law in the U.S., barred Mongolian prostitutes from entering the country. The law required all women to be interrogated upon entry to prove they were not a prostitute; unsurprisingly, Chinese female immigration plummeted. That satisfied the real motive behind the Page Act, the prevention of Chinese population growth through natural reproduction. The legislation left a legacy of separated families, and helped establish the enduring stereotype of Oriental women as dangerous and desirable.”

Falling back on the notion that Mexicans are different from us, we construct social and cultural borders. Disease tropes strengthen those borders by intensifying immigrants’ otherness, creating a culture that justifies exclusion and demonization. But the importance of providing access to health care and proper workplace conditions for Latinx immigrants does not end at those imagined social borders—the us this nation insists on reifying depends on it. Not only out of integrity but in the interest of self-preservation, we must as a society recognize the humanity of Latinx immigrants.”

ARC | September 15, 2020

Rachel Ida Buff

“Xenophobia often relies on the distortion of language. In order to portray certain groups of people as threatening, and to cordon them off from real Americans, xenophobic initiatives invent and deploy inflamed terminology...The assertion that We the People did not include the foreign born is a bald-faced lie, and it also fans the flames of xenophobia. If we want to combat the initiatives backed by such falsehoods, we can start by clarifying the language used.

The framing of xenophobia as a force that rises and falls has left us unprepared to fully explain how xenophobia can exist and flourish during times of peace and war, economic prosperity and depression, low and high immigration, and racial struggle and racial progress. It also prevents us from seeing how xenophobia has become institutionalized and normalized in the United States today. Xenophobia has never gone away. Like racism, it has simply evolved and adapted. Over the decades, generations of anti-immigrant leaders, politicians, and citizens have molded xenophobia to fit new contexts, identify new threats, and enact new solutions to the problem of immigration.

The history of the United States’ incarceration of Japanese Americans is known as one of the darkest chapters of American history. But there are still many parts of this story that most Americans don’t know. The history of Japanese Latin Americans during World War II is one of those. Not just another example of wartime atrocity, it also sheds light on the impact of American xenophobia around the world and its tragic consequences.

Trump may be the most xenophobic American leader in United States history. From the effort to restrict immigrants from mostly Muslim countries and the drastic reduction in refugee admissions, to efforts to build a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border and the denial of asylum seekers from Central America, Trump’s policies have transformed immigration to the United States.

But the truth is that xenophobia has always been a central part of American life. It is an American tradition that shapes our worldview, mobilizes voters and generates profits.

“The contrast touted today between past European lawfulness and present Latinx “illegality” is artificial and based on partial, mistaken interpretations of U.S. immigration history. Many Americans claiming European immigrant heritage have forgotten that if the laws had been harshly enforced in the 19th century, their own ancestors might not have been allowed to enter and stay. They should stop disparaging and dehumanizing Latinx immigrants — and encouraging inhumane immigration enforcement — by glamorizing their kinsmen.”

“The strict immigration system set up in the 1920s alienated many Allied countries in Asia during World War II and undermined US aspirations of global leadership during the Cold War. It also led to one of the US’s worst moral failures of the 20th century: It turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe because they came from countries with small allotted quotas. Quotas for countries with many Jewish refugees went unfilled through the 1930s and 1940s, including a very generous quota for Germany, because State Department officials systematically denied visas or rejected refugees.”

Trump’s anti-immigrant scare tactics and the sentiments that underlie them are not new. Throughout U.S. history, xenophobia has spiked during times of economic hardship, reflecting a toxic combination of cultural prejudices and blatant racism. It has been directed at immigrants from places as diverse as Ireland and China, Japan and Mexico and countries across Central America and the Middle East.

These days, the relevance of U.S. immigration history—who we have welcomed and who we have banned; who we have resettled and who we have left behind; how we began to enforce the border and how the “border” has moved into the interior—has never been more important. For immigration historians, the past, present, and future are colliding.

Hyping the threat to our southern border has become such a cliche of national politics that even a Republican vice presidential candidate can - in a moment of unintentional candor — become exasperated with that Mexican thing. As it turns out, the thing is nothing new and the dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border have always been more peaceful and less chaotic than the blood meridian of American paranoia might suggest.

The nation of immigrants paradigm is based on the traditional notion that United States history is the story of the peopling of North America through one-way immigration and assimilation. It emerged out of the Chicago School of Sociology of the early twentieth century and, as Donna Gabaccia has noted, divided Americans into immigrants and others. The paradigm gave European immigrants a privileged place in U.S. history, while treating non-European immigrants as secondary actors (at best) and altogether excluding Native Americans and African Americans.

Wong Kim Ark was a 24-year-old native-born American citizen, a Chinese-American restaurant cook born and raised in San Francisco. On the last day of August in 1894, he returned to California after a visit to China. To his surprise, he was denied readmission into the United States, becoming the latest victim in what was then an ongoing war against Chinese immigration...

...Wong Kim Ark vs. United States affirmed that regardless of race or the immigration status of one's parents, all persons born in the United States were entitled to all of the rights that citizenship offered. The court has not re-examined this issue since then — but that hasn't stopped the likes of Trump from dragging the debate back into public...

...As Americans consider the proposal to end birthright citizenship and the candidates who support it, they should also remember Wong Kim Ark and the price he paid so that future generations could enjoy the rights and privileges of birthright citizenship.

While Chinese immigrants may not be scrutinized in the same way that undocumented low-skilled Mexican immigrants are, it would be wrong to assume that America has fully embraced Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

There could be even more resentment if China’s national wealth and strength becomes more pronounced, and more explicitly opposed to American interests.

“The Asiatic exclusion laws, in force from the 1880s to the World War II era, were openly racist attempts to protect America from the yellow peril and unassimilables. These laws not only prohibited most prospective immigrants from China and other Asian countries from entering; they also excluded all Asians from naturalized citizenship, including merchants and professionals who were otherwise legal residents.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that we choose to remember the Thanksgiving of 1621 and to forget the Thanksgiving of 1676. Who, after all, would not prefer to celebrate a moment of peaceful unity rather than one of bloody conflict? But if our public holidays are meant to be moments for self-reflection as well as self-congratulation, we should think of Thanksgiving not as a perpetual reenactment of the first Thanksgiving of 1621 but instead as a dynamic event whose meaning has shifted over time.