Xenophobia: “an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”
That is the key word here: not “that which is foreign or strange”, particularly at a time when the fear being stoked is of things that are not really foreign or strange.
Immigrants to the US from Spanish-speaking countries are not in fact foreign in a country where large areas of the west and southwest were populated by Spanish speakers long before that territory was integrated into the US. Their culture is not in fact strange in a country where fast food includes not only burgers and fries, but tacos and burritos.
Followers of Islam may seem easier to exoticize: assumed not to have been part of the original waves of occupation of the North American territory that wrested control from Native Americans, and suspect for following a religion outside a claimed Judeo-Christian core of values.
Yet this is simply historical ignorance: as The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States indicates, Muslims immigrated to the country between 1880 and 1914 in considerable numbers. Historical records show that the initial Dutch settlement of what today is New York included a prominent landowner, Anthony Janszoon van Salee, who was a practicing Muslim. Enslaved or formerly enslaved Africans who came to the Americas under the Spanish empire, or through the slave trade, also included numbers of practicing Muslims, perhaps as many as 10% of the enslaved population.
It bears repeating: this country was religiously and culturally pluralistic from the beginning.
And regrettably, this country has a history of fear of that very diversity. In 1999, the Houston Catholic Worker published an article by Brian Frazelle documenting the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US as early as the 1840s, noting that “Chances are, what is said today about Hispanic immigrants was once said about your own ancestors.”
Don’t believe it? consider this case that Frazelle describes where immigration from a foreign country to a specific state reaches the point that:
the immigrant population becomes so great that the public school system institutes bilingual education in many areas. … One disgruntled state legislator declares, “If these people are Americans, let them speak our language.” Does this story describe California or Texas in the 1990s? No, it describes Nebraska in the early part of this century. The immigrants in question are German immigrants.
Millions of Germans and Irish, including some of my ancestors, composed the first unwelcome wave of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. Many fled the certainty of starvation. Many practiced an exotic and suspect religion: Roman Catholicism.
in 1834 a Catholic convent near Boston was burned by a mob, followed by subsequent attacks on Catholic schools and churches. … Violence against Catholics on the East coast was so common that insurance companies practically refused to insure them.
What the Irish and the Germans experienced in the mid-19th century– including suspicion of loyalties based on religion– was echoed yet again in the next wave of immigration, in the late 19th and early 20th century. This time, the targets were people from southern Europe: “Italians, Poles, East European Jews, Hungarians, Albanians, Romanians, Russians, and Lithuanians”.
Immigration to the US has always stirred up beliefs in innate inferiority of the new populations.
Frazelle quotes a 1751 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind by, of all people, Benjamin Franklin, animated by fear of German immigration in the 1700s, to illustrate how profoundly deep are the roots of racialist arguments converting human difference into inequality:
“The number of purely white People in the World is proportionally very small . . . in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are Germans also, the Saxons only accepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”
All that has changed, really, is the definition of who is white.
In the 19th century, the arguments of nativists gained support, regrettably, from the nascent discipline of anthropology. Historian of anthropology George Stocking writes about this episode:
“”Human history came thus to be viewed as a single evolutionary development through a series of stages which were often loosely referred to as savagery, barbarism, and civilization.”
“In turn of the century evolutionary thinking, savagery, dark skin, and a small brain and incoherent mind were, for many, all part of the single evolutionary picture of ‘primitive’ man, who even yet walked the earth.”
While in the late 19th century, these arguments were rooted in a misreading of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the thinking they advanced long predated Darwin. Stocking quotes Scotland’s Lord Kames in 1775 arguing that God created
“many pairs of the human race, differing from each other both externally and internally; that he fitted these pairs for different climates, and placed each pair in its proper climate; [and] that the peculiarities of the original pairs were preserved…in their descendants”.
It follows from this erroneous argument that human groups that move from one “climate” to another cannot change, giving a basis for the anxiety caused by large-scale movements of populations from different parts of the world to North America.
Most significant for understanding the infernal mixture underlying the current surge of xenophobia, Stocking shows that in 19th century social thought, the concept of social “assimilation” was related to the biological concepts of racial “mixture”.
Defined as “a growing alike in character, thoughts and institutions” social assimilation would be psychological, achieved through imitation, and was impeded by “race consciousness”.
This biologically based (yet biologically inaccurate) understanding of human physical differences as signs of populations that can be ranked on a scale of more and less advanced and that resist cultural change still lurks under the surface of anti-immigrant arguments.
All that has changed is who the targets are.
Linked to racialist fear of others assumed to be physically inferior is a parallel anxiety about cultural inferiority: a fear that the supposedly inferior people will not be able to maintain the supposedly advanced cultural developments of those who adopt these xenophobic, racialist, views.
Frazelle quotes Prescott F. Hall, one of the founders of the Immigration Restriction League in the late 19th century, asking if the US was
“to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic [meaning Jewish] races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
The mix of culture, “race”, and religion in xenophobic episodes is clear in the historical record.
Earlier this year, the University of North Carolina Press published Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. It amply documents the many historical incidents in which the promise of religious freedom embodied in Article 6 of the US Constitution has been violated, and the changing nature of the targets: Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and as we see today, Muslims, have all suffered from a failure of the majority and its representatives in government to adhere to the aspirations of the US constitution.
Politically, what is at stake in current debates about depriving some of those born in the US of citizenship, or limiting the freedom of others to practice their religion in proximity to specific places, is a fundamental yet little-understood principle of democracy: the need to protect the rights of minorities against the “tyranny of majority rule”:
“If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.“
Alexis de Tocqueville, “Tyranny of the Majority,” Chapter XV, Book 1, Democracy in America
The danger that de Tocqueville saw facing the new United States of America in 1835 was anticipated by the founding fathers:
the founders worried that the majority could abuse its powers to oppress a minority just as easily as a king. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both warn in their letters about the dangers of the tyranny of the legislature and of the executive.
Madison, alluding to slavery, went further, writing, “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”
We are at a historic moment when the challenge to meet this ideal is at real risk. Will we rise to the occasion, as citizens, and demand that the government that represents us protect those who are minorities– new immigrants, practitioners of religions less common than others– from discrimination? will we fulfill the vision of Madison and Jefferson?
Can we be reasonable about difference at last?