Erika Lee. America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2019. 432 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5416-7260-4.
Reviewed by Aileen McKinstry (Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Erika Lee’s America for Americans is an elucidating examination of how US xenophobia has persisted and thrived for centuries, even as the nation celebrates its identity as a nation of immigrants. The book is divided into nine chapters that chronologically detail nine episodes of anti-immigrant political and social movements: Germans (mid-late 1700s); Irish Catholics and the birth of the Know-Nothing Party (1810s–50s); the Chinese, with a focus on immigration to California and the West Coast (post-Civil War); south and eastern Europeans, especially Italians, Jews, and Germans (Industrial Revolution–World War I); Mexicans (Great Depression); Japanese (World War II); an era of reform that still targeted Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, especially Mexicans (1960s); “Illegal” Mexicans (1965 Anti-Immigration Act–present); and Muslims (2001–present). To assert that the book’s approach suggests the episodic nature of US xenophobia contradicts Lee’s argument that there is no period in US history unmarred by an irrational fear of a racialized other.
Lee defines “xenophobia”—a word that she notes has no set definition in academia, human rights discourses, or international law—as an ideology, “a set of beliefs and ideas based on the premise that foreigners are threats to the nation and its people” (pp. 7-8). Xenophobia, she contends, “promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners.... It defines immigration as a crisis, likening the movement of peoples to an invasion.... It is easily weaponized during times of change and anxiety, but it exists and flourishes during times of peace” (p. 8). The themes of irrational hate, immigration as crisis, and the political weaponization thereof are the overarching reality of the US relationship to immigrants and the thread Lee traces through America for Americans. Later chapters draw connections to earlier xenophobic movements, enabling readers to see a distressing continuity over time.
Much of this continuity comes from the interplay between xenophobia, racism, and the threat “otherness” poses to white America. Lee goes so far as to say that “xenophobia is a form of racism. It defines certain groups as racial and religious others who are inherently inferior or dangerous.... It has shaped how Americans classify people by race and rank them in America’s racial hierarchy” (p. 9). Xenophobia became inextricably linked to racism early on. Though the book’s first two chapters focus on groups that nowadays are considered “white,” Germans and Irish Catholics were not the first “others” in America. Rather, Native Americans and Africans/African Americans were readily classified as a lesser “other” to justify colonization and slavery. Thus, anti-immigrant platforms regularly described immigrants in nonwhite terms—or terms that were often associated with nonwhite groups—like “swarthy,” “savage,” and “violent” (p. 8). This demonization only worsened for groups xenophobes determined were inadequately assimilationist or incapable of assimilation. This connection between desirable immigrants and race strengthened over time; during the Progressive Era, eugenics presented a scientific means to categorize, characterize, and stratify racial groups. Lee marks this paradigm shift in racial differentiation from white versus nonwhite to a multipart classification that distinguished between superior and inferior whites; Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, Celts, Germans, and Scandinavians made up the former, and Slavs, Hebrews, Mediterraneans, and Alpines the latter. After the early twentieth century, the targeted immigrant groups Lee examines are all groups presently categorized as people of color.
Lee notes that as race increasingly determined “acceptable” immigrants, xenophobes considered whiter immigrants less of a threat. Irish Catholics, once regarded as the vanguard of a Catholic invasion of the United States, became less of a target when the country grappled with a large influx of Chinese immigrants during the nineteenth century. Some of these Irish Catholics embraced the anti-Chinese movement, proving their own whiteness through anti-white racism. During the twentieth century, the Chinese, along with most Asian groups, were reconfigured as a “model minority” in the face of increasing Latin American (primarily Mexican) immigration. Lee writes, “Asian immigrants, once so despised that they had been largely excluded from the United States, were slowly being remade into supposed ‘model minorities,’ racial minorities who worked hard to overcome obstacles and achieve the American dream ... displaying the attributes most prized by American capitalism and its emphasis on achievement” (p. 257). The model minority myth advanced a racist/xenophobic attribution of Asian success to a combination of their upbringing and genetics. However, this transformation was not based on goodwill but rather served to “delegitimize claims of systemic racism and discrimination ... as the cause for education and income gaps between whites and nonwhites”—if Asian Americans could succeed there was no reason, other than their own fault, that other minority groups couldn’t” (pp. 257-58). Thus, Lee demonstrates that stereotypes that appear flattering still serve xenophobic purposes.
Lee emphasizes the hypocrisy of xenophobic movements that characterized immigration as an invasion, noting that at least four of the seven immigrant groups she focuses on were actually encouraged to come to America by Americans, first to help colonize the land and later to work as laborers (a truth conveniently ignored by xenophobes). Germans came by invitation to settle America in the eighteenth century. The Chinese, fleeing war, imperialism, high taxes, population growth, natural disasters, plagues, and famine, first came as part of the California gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century. They (or rather, their cheap labor) remained in high demand in mines, in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, and more generally in the booming gold rush economy. In fact, Americans traveled to China to encourage Chinese immigration to the United States in the years preceding the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Corporations likewise recruited Mexicans, who by the twentieth century suffered from uncertain economic conditions, high unemployment, and the violence of Mexico’s revolutionary period. Similarly, the Japanese were heavily recruited in the early to mid-twentieth century to work in the United States as labor contractors and were promised comparative economic security.
Mexicans remain Lee’s focus for a third of America For Americans, a focus that mirrors the disproportionate attention paid to immigration across the US’s southern border. Initially invited to America by American businesses as laborers in a booming industrial economy, Mexicans have been disproportionately targeted by xenophobes since the nineteenth century. Industries claimed that Mexicans were racially “better suited” to demanding manual labor and agriculture; conveniently for these companies, Mexican labor was also cheaper than white labor (p. 150). Unlike the Chinese, Mexican laborers were not treated as immigrants but as a temporary workforce that would return to their country when the job was done, thus posing no economic or social threats to US citizens. By the twentieth century, Mexicans were also considered docile in comparison to “the stereotypically violent African American or the unionizing, rabble-rousing European immigrant” (p. 151). Despite an enduring high demand for cheap Mexican labor, Lee notes how US corporate interests and US immigration laws are at odds, arguing that it has “long been true that migration from Mexico to the United States was overwhelmingly shaped by US-backed policies,” even as the US government has attempted to restrict Mexican immigration (p. 286). Corporations benefit from cheap Mexican labor (at the expense of the white working class), while white politicians benefit from blaming laborers rather than corporations for the problems of the white working class.
One of the most relevant elements of America for Americans is Lee’s investigation and refutation of one of the most common lies among anti-immigrant movements (a lie most recently repeated by Donald Trump that contributed to his election): that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. This falsehood fuels fearmongering and is how xenophobia gains traction among US citizens. Lee contends that the opposite is true: xenophobia economically disadvantages white Americans by treating nonwhite workers as cheap, expendable labor. She writes: “The US economy has flourished by exploiting workers, especially those whom American society has already defined as dangerous, ‘illegal,’ and unworthy of protection or equal rights. These workers become a permanent class of deportable immigrants who remain socially marginal and economically exploitable even as they continue to serve American economic interests” (p. 13). Blaming immigrants is exactly what exploitative companies want because it “siphon[s] working-class resentment away from corporate greed and economic inequality and direct it toward immigrants” and helps “undermine interracial labor movements that challenge the worst corporate abuses” (p. 14). In addition to exploiting a cheap workforce, some US corporations financially benefit from increasing deportations. Lee uses the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) as an example: in 1984, the CCA opened an immigrant detention center in Houston; its annual revenue in the early 1990s was 50 million dollars; by 1997, its annual revenue was 462 million dollars; in 2008, it was 1.5 billion dollars. A total of 13 percent of this came from immigration enforcement federal government contracts; by 2016, the share was 28 percent (p. 14). Xenophobia, as Lee characterizes it, functions like a vertically integrated business: at every step of the process, US corporations financially benefit from racism while exploiting cheap labor and harming the working class.
Xenophobic complaints about immigrants are not the only recurring language throughout the book. Lee employs the same vocabulary to describe xenophobes—from the 1700s to 2020—and reminds readers of the violence, ignorance, and irrationality of US xenophobia. To accomplish their goals, anti-immigrant movements weaponized the tools at their disposal: fear of the “other,” race hysteria, and even statistics. In response, Lee uses (reliable) statistics to discredit over two hundred years’ worth of trumped-up xenophobic claims. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Immigration Restriction League weaponized unreliable statistics to prove that “foreigners committed more than half of all crime and made up one-third of the entire mentally ill population and nearly 60 percent of all who lived in poverty” (p. 124). When Trump called for a wall to stop illegal immigration, illegal immigration had “plummeted to historic lows,” with an undocumented population of 10.8 million, the lowest number since 2003; net migration from Mexico was below zero (p. 285). Lee demonstrates that US xenophobes ignoring facts from reliable sources has been a running theme for two and a half centuries. Thus, Lee’s choices to describe each anti-immigrant movement she details as “hysterical” or “alarmist,” and to call a xenophobe a xenophobe without qualification, give America for Americans a blunt but necessary clarity.
If America for Americans feels incomplete anywhere, it is in the discussion of specific immigrant subgroups discriminated against—namely homosexuals—as the United States developed immigration laws. In her introduction, Lee mentions that sexual orientation became one of the ways to classify an immigrant as “undesirable” (p. 9). Later, she references the ban on homosexual immigrants included in the 1965 Immigration Act, a ban that was not lifted until 1990. However, since this ban focused on sexual orientation, rather than strictly race, it is understandable that in a book on xenophobia, these allusions to anti-gay discrimination are brief.
Overall, America for Americans functions as an informative chronicle of the United States’s xenophobic tradition, but Lee does more important work than simply rehashing America’s anti-immigrant past. The book’s most valuable contribution is its use of historical examples to expose the insidious and devastating ways that xenophobia made the United States a nation of immigrants by all, but only for white people.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Aileen McKinstry. Review of Lee, Erika, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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