American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants

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Prometheus Books, Oct 23, 2018 - History - 270 pages
This historical review of the US treatment of immigrants and minority groups documents the suspicion and persecution that often met newcomers and those perceived to be different.

Contrary to popular belief, the poor and huddled masses were never welcome in America. Though the engraving on the base of the Statue of Liberty makes that claim, history reveals a far less-welcoming message. This comprehensive survey of cultural and racial exclusion in the United States examines the legacy of hostility toward immigrants over two centuries.

The authors document abuses against Catholics in the early 19th century in response to the influx of German and Irish immigrants; hostility against Mexicans throughout the Southwest, where signs in bars and restaurants read, "No Dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans"; "yellow peril" fears leading to a ban on Chinese immigration for ten years; punitive measures against Native Americans traditions, which became punishable by fines and hard labor; the persecution of German Americans during World War I and Japanese Americans during World War II; the refusal to admit Jewish refugees of the Holocaust; and the ongoing legacy of mistreating African Americans from slavery to the injustices of the present day.

Though the authors note that the United States has accepted tens of millions of immigrants during its relatively short existence, its troubling history of persecution is often overlooked. President Donald Trump's targeting of Muslim and Mexican immigrants is just the most recent chapter in a long, sad history of social panics about "evil" foreigners who are made scapegoats due to their ethnicity or religious beliefs.

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American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants

User Review  - Publishers Weekly

In this concise study, historian Bartholomew and journalist Reumschussel argue that, though some Americans claim to oppose immigration currently on economic grounds, in reality today, as in many ... Read full review


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From the Introduction

In this book, we examine several waves of panic in American history involving the exaggerated fear of immigrants. Outbreaks reflect popular stereotypes of groups targeted solely for their ethnicity or religious beliefs. During periods of great fear, there is a tendency to release pent-up tensions by creating scapegoats. Psychologists refer to this as the "kick-the-dog syndrome" or displaced aggression. When someone has a bad day at work, he may come home and yell at his wife, who in turn may scold her son for the smallest infraction. Having no one to take out his anger on--the son kicks the dog. A similar process occurs in society. During times of crisis, people search for scapegoats. Ironically, the most vulnerable are the easiest targets: immigrants, asylum-seekers, and minorities. This process of blaming others for society''s problems reduces anxiety and offers a simplistic explanation for complex issues of the day.

Despite its reputation as the world''s leading light for justice and equality, the United States has often failed to uphold these ideals. At the base of the Statue of Liberty rests a bronze tablet with the words: "From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome . . . ''Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!''" Written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, these words have come to symbolize America''s history of welcoming immigrants from every corner of the globe, and embracing them regardless of skin color, ethnic heritage, or religious beliefs. Yet this often-touted pillar of American democracy with its emphasis on acceptance, tolerance, and diversity has been true only some of the time. It is more myth than reality. For at certain times in our history, the golden doors have been slammed shut, and the welcome mat removed. These periods of intolerance and fearmongering are fueled by sensational media reports and alarmist claims by politicians, police, lobbyists, and vigilante groups, who are worried over the new threat. Momentum soon snowballs into an unstoppable force that gives rise to harassment, persecution, and scapegoating.

During the nineteenth century, Americans endured the Great Catholic Scare, fostered a fear of Mexicans, imposed a ban on Chinese migrants, and engaged in the systematic persecution of Native Americans. At the time, "Indians" were not citizens and were considered foreigners in their own land. A second wave of scares arose during the twentieth century, amidst the fog of war: the German-American hysteria of World War I, the internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Jewish refugee spy panic of World War II. In each instance, people of a particular ethnicity or religious affiliation were under suspicion for aiding and abetting the enemy, usually on the flimsiest of evidence and little more than rumor and hearsay. One prominent example were Jewish refugees who desperately sought sanctuary on American soil after fleeing Nazi brutality, only to be refused entry over fears that they were agents for Hitler. As a result, countless men, women, and children perished in the Holocaust. These events parallel the American government''s present-day reluctance to accept Islamic refugees, over fears that they are terrorists. The overwhelming majority of the world''s Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. In any given year, Americans are more likely to die from falling out of bed or slipping in their bathtub than at the hands of a terrorist.

Throughout history, every society has experienced scares involving sinister forces. Whether the threats are real or imaginary, fear stokes the flames of hysteria far beyond the actual danger posed to the public. Sociologists refer to these episodes as social panics. Over the past fifty years, there have been many examples. They range from sensational claims over the dangers of the spread of AIDS and video-game violence, to serial killers, overuse of mobile phones and the internet by teenagers, and Satanic cults. While no one denies that serial killers exist, or that teens are not preoccupied with social media, in each instance, the threat is dramatically overblown.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, there were a spate of claims about a network of Satanic cults abusing children and sacrificing infants during secret rituals. Many people were falsely accused. During the early 2000s, a similar panic emerged over the threat posed by online sexual predators, which prompted US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to name as his top priority in 2005 the apprehension of an estimated 50,000 online offenders. A flurry of news reports highlighted the problem. In May 2006, ABC News reported that one in five children had been approached by an online predator. This claim was traced to a study that defined "sexual solicitation" so broadly as to include teen-on-teen flirting. This explains why not one of the "solicitations" led to a sexual encounter or assault. As for the claim of 50,000 web predators, it turns out that it was from the TV show Dateline NBC. When pressed for their source, host Chris Hansen admitted that there was none; he had attributed the figure "to law enforcement, as an estimate."

In chapter 1, we examine Roman Catholics. From 1830 to 1860, a fear of all things Catholic swept America. While followers were a feature of the social landscape since colonial times, anti-Catholic sentiments rose dramatically in the 1830s with the upswell of nativism, which held that established or native-born citizens were superior to new or recent arrivals. Nativists opposed all immigration, but especially the immigration of Catholics, who were rumored to owe their allegiance to the pope instead of the president of the United States. Followers were widely believed to be part of a conspiracy to bring down the government and install a Catholic leader. In the three decades before the Civil War, anti-Catholic propaganda was rife in the popular press. During the scare, riots broke out in several cities. One of the worst clashes took place in 1844 when the streets of Philadelphia ran red with blood as thirteen people died and Catholic homes and churches burned to the ground. Within this cauldron of suspicion and fear, misinformation and wild tales flourished. Rumors centered on claims that convents were hotbeds of depraved sexual activity and moral perversion, including accounts of orgies and the ritual killing of babies born to deflowered nuns.

Chapter 2 investigates the unequal treatment of Americans of Mexican ancestry since the 1840s, when the US "annexed" parts of Mexico and the inhabitants became citizens. Mexican Americans were portrayed as an inferior race that was dirty, lazy, and inherently prone to thievery and gang recruitment. Signs proclaiming "No Dogs, No Negroes, No Mexicans" were proudly displayed in the windows of many bars and restaurants across the American Southwest from the late nineteenth century to the early 1950s. Between 1848 and 1928, nearly six hundred people of Mexican heritage were lynched. During the Great Depression, upward of a million Mexicans were forced onto trains and sent back to Mexico over the misguided belief that they were taking "American" jobs. Many were lawful American citizens or residents who had every right to stay. When in 2015, then presidential candidate Donald Trump warned of Mexican immigrants being rapists and drug dealers, he evoked stereotypes that older Mexican Americans would vividly recall.

President Trump''s efforts to ban travelers and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries for fear of them being terrorists parallels the events of 1882 when Congress blocked Chinese immigration for ten years. In chapter 3, we examine this period, which was in response to fears that Chinese migrants were taking jobs from "real" Americans, and diluting the "racial purity" of the "white" population. Instead of reducing tensions with the Chinese community, the law''s passage triggered a surge in reports of harassment and violence along the West Coast. There were even several murders of Chinese workers after they refused to leave their gold claims or defied attempts to run them out of town. By 1892, the ban was extended and was not repealed until 1943.

Chapter 4 looks at attempts to eradicate "savage" customs of Native Americans by declaring them criminal offenses punishable by fines and hard labor. At the time, "Indians" were considered foreigners; they were not granted citizenship until 1924. As Europeans immigrated to the New World, the clash of civilizations resulted in violent skirmishes with the early colonists. Even after the government made peace with the various tribes, the fear of Native culture remained so great that in 1883 war was declared on Native "superstitions." The Code of Indian Offenses outawed such practices as plural marriages, traditional dances, communal feasts, and the use of medicine men. The code was a form of ethnocide--an attempt to wipe out an entire set of cultures and insert in their place "superior" Western values. The code was not amended until 1933.

During World War I, the fear of German spies and saboteurs gripped the nation. At its height in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson warned Congress that German subversives loyal to the fatherland "filled our unsuspecting communities with spies and conspirators." Chapter 5 documents this tumultuous time as German Americans were harassed or beaten on suspicion of having sympathies with the kaiser. Several were murdered by vigilante mobs. Many communities took the extreme measure of banning the teaching of German in schools and the playing of German music, while Germa

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