A History of Xenophobia in the United States

Name any minority, and it has probably been the victim of xenophobia. Here we explore the history of xenophobia in the United States.

For anyone who has an internet connection or access to mass media, the word xenophobia has been inescapable for the past two or three years, as voters around the world have made it clear that the sentiment never left their hearts, even if the definition was not part of our everyday lexicon. The Brexit campaign was built on disagreements regarding refugees and the United States elected (by Electoral College, not popular vote) a speech of hate.

How should we define xenophobia? A basic dictionary will succinctly define it as "fear of foreigners or strangers." As simple as it sounds, this issue has grown along with the development of the United States, taken many shapes, and determined policies, art, and culture from the moment the first European settlers stepped on American soil. As a concept, it almost seems harmless -it is nothing but fear-, but when that fear is acted upon, the concept becomes a terrifying behemoth of inhumanity.


As a foreigner, it is easy to feel singled out as the object of the predominant xenophobic feeling in the United States, but upon closer inspection, we can see that it would be stranger to not be considered foreign or strange in a place that was founded on mistrust and destruction of those who where considered “the other.”

Native American Genocide

Often downplayed as the “conquest of the west,” this outright genocide is an inescapable cornerstone of the United States. The exact number of the dead is impossible to quantify, but it is often placed as low as 50 million and as high as 100 million. In their eagerness to take hold of the new land, settlers exterminated in an almost sports-like fashion the original inhabitants of the continent. First, as the natives defended themselves, and then, when they were completely beaten, during “relocation” programs such as the Trail of Tears, that moved the survivors of entire cultures from their land to reservations, killing millions as the tribes were unprepared to face the hardships of the journeys that awaited them.


Among Colonizers

You'd think that, after exterminating the native population, all colonizers of the new land would be pals, facing the hardships of a new world together. Well, no, not really. To this day, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans and all other hyphenated Americans are not considered to be "real" Americans. There are many reasons why this happened. Settlers in the United States were mostly of British origin, and as such, they had a deep hatred of the Irish, who, in the 19th century, fled the poor conditions of their own country (mostly caused by war and conquest by England) and moved to their neighboring country, England, in search for better opportunities. Locals were not happy and rejected the newcomers, calling them drunkards and lazy people, but the main issue with them was religion, as England was adamantly Protestant, and the Irish were Catholic, so it didn't end well. Other issues like language and old feuds led to mistrust towards the German and Italian settlers, rooted of course in this “fear of the other.” Although currently these groups are accepted as part of the "white America", distinctions based on descent are still very much alive.

Foto: Nitish Meena

African Americans

What is there left to say about the treatment of African Americans in the US? It is difficult to attribute the crimes against them as a plain “fear of foreigners or strangers.” The cruelty runs deeper than fear and has left scars in American society that have hardly been allowed to heal in the centuries since slavery was abolished. The main reason for this is that although slaves were freed, African Americans were still mistreated and oppressed. There was even a movement to return the population of freed slaves to Africa, their “homeland,” which was supported by former slave holders and completely rejected by African Americans, who had been born in the United States and never seen the place they were supposed to return to. Since then, things have only improved slightly for African Americans, and in many ways they remain oppressed by mainstream society.


Foto: JD Mason


No matter whether you are from China or not, if you look even remotely Asian, there is a high probability that you'll be called a Chinaman at least once in your life. The word has historical origins. In the 1850s, young men from China were recruited as skilled laborers to work in the United States. This arrangement worked nicely for a while until 1876, when a Depression came, and many Americans began to blame the workers, claiming (you guessed it) that they were taking away their much-needed jobs. So, in 1882, Congress passed a Chinese Exclusion Act that forbade Chinese people from working in the US. Now, before you ask, no, this didn't work. The only thing it achieved was that Japanese and Korean workers replaced the Chinese in these jobs, and the new workers were referred to as "Chinamen" and were victims of discrimination from white people who thought all Asians should have left or returned to their home countries.

But it didn't end there. Asian immigrants who prevailed against xenophobia remained in the country, started their own families and thrived. Then, two or three generations later, World War II came to the United States in the shape of a Japanese attack to Pearl Harbor. Japanese people became the enemy, even more so than Germans, and as such, they were placed in internment camps. But that's a Nazi practice, you say. Well, yes, although the conditions were not as bad and there was no mass extermination, it is true that entire families were torn from their homes based solely on their last names and physical appearance. Americans hardly talk about it, but popular figures such as George Takei, of Star Trek fame, have spoken out about the situation.


Foto: Adam Marcucci


No conversation about xenophobia in the States could be complete without mentioning Latinos. It seems that the current American administration is all about getting rid of that particular other. What with separating families, placing children in cages and even selling young girls to human traffickers, it would seem that things have escalated quickly. But they have not. As a matter of fact, those who consider themselves “real Americans” have been hating Latinos, particularly Mexicans, since the birth of the country. In 1848, nearly half of Mexico's territory became part of the United States (the story is way more complex than that, but that would take an essay on itself, so let's leave it at that) and the people living there were given the chance to relocate or acquire full nationality. Many chose the latter and continued with their regular lives, until an armed force rose in Texas with the sole purpose of hunting down those people. The government intervened and the killings stopped... for the most part. Discrimination on the other hand, didn't end at all.

Foto: Anthony Garand

Those fortunate families who survived this attempt at extermination, and new arrivals from Mexico and other Latin American countries settled in the United States as it rose as a world power. Then came the infamous Depression after the crash of 1929. Work was hard to come by and social programs were choking the American economy, so, what was the solution? Deportation, of course. People who had never set foot on Mexico, didn't speak Spanish, and had lived their entire lives in the United States were put on trains and taken near the center of the country, so it would be harder for them to come back, or they were sent walking across the desert to their "homeland." And they were the lucky ones. Those that were sick in hospitals were put on stretchers and abandoned on the other side of the border. Neither government likes to talk about it, so it is hardly mentioned, even now, but it happened and remained in the memories of those who had to rebuild their lives in Mexico and those who managed to return to the only place they had ever called home.


Was that end of xenophobia in the US? No. We must go back to WWII. All the American work force was shipped to fight the war in Europe or the Pacific, but they had to be fed, and the army was working at maximum capacity, so workers were needed. The Braceros program was set up to take temporary workers from Mexico to the United States to cover mostly agricultural positions. The program continued even after the war had ended. Cheap, hard-working labor was a blessing for many factories and farmers, so many Mexicans and Latinos forgot about the paperwork and began to move to the United States, certain that they would get work even if they were illegal, and they did. Which brings us to our current situation.

It seems that FDR was right after all, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Latinos are not the only ones who still fall victim to this xenophobia; all the groups mentioned here continue to suffer from it one way or another other. There are many campaigns and organizations that are actively fighting against this, from the UN to YWCA's Stand Against Racism, A.N.S.W.E.R. and other smaller coalitions and school and community efforts. Everyone can get involved and participate in their own way, ending stereotypes and finding that within that "other" there's only another one of us.

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