Fear of Immigrants: An Economic Strategy

based on a book by Erika Lee

A large segment of the U.S. population worried that immigrants were too numerous and would rise in armed revolt to change U.S. laws. These immigrants were considered drunken, ignorant criminals, while simultaneously able to take jobs from the working class, at such low wages that employers were essentially forced to hire them.

It was claimed that the intent of these foreigners was to undermine American democracy. They were considered an inferior race: men were violent, apelike animals; women were uncivilized domestic servants who stole from their employers. One political party pledged to restore America to its greatness. Deportations ejected people who had lived in the U.S. for decades.

It was the mid-1800s. The “Know Nothing” party was not taking aim at Latinx, Muslim, Black, or Indigenous people. The fear and loathing was aimed at Catholics, particularly those from Ireland.

Erika Lee, a University of Minnesota professor of immigrant history,  details the ways violence and blame have been directed at different ethnic groups in the U.S. since the beginning. In her book “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States,” she includes the Minnesota example of a German- American farmer who was tarred and feathered in 1918 because of nationalistic hysteria against barbaric “Huns.”

Lee writes that our country’s core has been centered around racism, white supremacy, and nationalism because, among other things, it is economically advantageous to exploit “inferiors” in labor and to distract working-class resentment away from the innate inequities of capitalism. It is a useful narrative to blame impoverished “others” for sapping the moral, political, and economic resources.

“Xenophobia is not only about immigration,” Lee indicates. “It is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not.”

Our historic narrative is that the U.S. has been a celebratory nation of immigrants coming together. The long history of our fear-mongering has been forgotten, or taught as a series of past mistakes. “This historical amnesia has left Americans ill-equipped to make sense of xenophobia today,” Lee writes. “Confronting the truth of this history is not enough to defeat xenophobia. But it is a start.”


Book Notes

Thanks to an affiliate partnership with Magers & Quinn booksellers, Minnesota Women’s Press readers who want to dive deeper into our monthly themes are able to place online orders that contribute a percentage of sales  to our Storytelling Fund.

“Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money,” by Christian McEwen — a compilation of first-person stories about money, from childhood memories to adult inequities to the joys of generosity.

“Let Me In: A Japanese-American Woman Crashes the Corporate Club 1976-1996,” by Elaine Koyama — How a Japanese-American woman persevered at Cargill.

“Holistic Wealth,” by Keisha Blair — tips for financial independence, including coping with a life that is not what you hoped it would be.

“REPRESENT: The Woman’s Guide to Running for Office & Changing the World,” by June Diane Raphael — includes a chapter on how to raise money for a campaign, and practical advice in an irreverent voice.

“Start Where You Are,” by Ruth Hayden — a get-real guide to plan for retirement.

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