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America for Americans

A History of Xenophobia in the United States: In conversation with Erika Lee
By Erika Lee |
DECEMBER 18, 2019

In this installment of SAADA's "In the Mix: Conversations with Creators" series, we're sitting down with Erika Lee, past member of SAADA's Academic Council and one of the nation’s leading immigration and Asian American historians, to discuss her newly released book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (2019).

Erika Lee teaches American history at the University of Minnesota, where she is a Regents Professor, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended Tufts University, and received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She was recently awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, (also known as the nation’s “brainy award,”) and was named Incoming Vice President of the Organization of American Historians.

What ideas are at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about them?

It's clear that xenophobia has a hold on the United States. New walls, bans, and raids are terrorizing immigrants and wreaking havoc on our democracy. The question driving my book is: How is this happening in America today, the “nation of immigrants?"

In America for Americans, I have found that an irrational fear, hatred, and hostility towards immigrants has been a defining feature of our nation from the colonial era to today. Xenophobia has not been an exception to America’s immigrant tradition, an episodic aberration to America’s inevitable march toward inclusion. It is, in fact, an American tradition in its own right.

This is a problem that runs far deeper than who is currently in the White House. If we want to really tackle xenophobia in the United States, we need to know this history of how xenophobia works, why it has endured, and how it threatens us all.

Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?

There is no doubt that this book is more than just an academic exercise. It is deeply personal to me. My grandparents were immigrants from China who managed to come to the United States while the Chinese exclusion laws were in effect (1882-1943). One came with false papers – we would call him either an undocumented immigrant or an “illegal criminal alien” depending on word choice and political leaning. Another was abandoned in China while her immigration slot was given away to a male cousin. Their experiences – and the massive absence of those experiences in most American history books – inspired me to write three books about the immigrant and Asian American experience. The fact that the same demonization and the same discriminatory laws that impacted my grandparents are now terrorizing immigrants and refugees today motivated me to write this new book. Writing America for Americans has been a necessary political act of resistance. Few spoke out against Chinese exclusion when my grandparents were struggling in the United States. But I can speak out now.

What did you learn while researching or writing that surprised you?

Xenophobia is easily weaponized during times of change and anxiety. But one of the most important things that I discovered is how xenophobia can flourish during times of peace and war, economic prosperity and depression, low and high immigration, and racial struggle and racial progress. Even during the Civil Rights Movement.

For someone who might not be interested in this book’s specific topic, why should they still read this and what do you hope they will get out of it?

Xenophobia is not only about immigration; 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. Xenophobia doesn’t just threaten immigrants. It threatens all of us. It threatens American democracy and the ideals upon which this country was founded. It targets both immigrants and those perceived to be “foreign,” or “other,” regardless of immigration or citizenship status. It has effectively de-Americanized generations of U.S. citizens. Xenophobia is something that we should all be concerned about, whether we are newly arrived in the United States, or have deep roots in this country.

What resonance do you think your book has for parts of the South Asian diaspora, per se?

South Asians have been amongst xenophobia’s biggest targets in both the past and the present. I’ve written about the anti-immigrant history that labeled South Asians a “Hindu invasion” in the early twentieth century and the campaign to bar South Asians from the United States in my books on Angel Island and The Making of Asian America. After 9/11, South Asian Americans, especially Muslim and Sikh, were routinely terrorized by local and federal programs that sought to root out suspected terrorists; programs that turned into racial campaigns that targeted entire communities. South Asian Americans have also been victims of rising levels of hate violence and crimes. The history of South Asian Americans has always been, unfortunately, a history of xenophobia.

If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?

I believe that the first step is to understand how our anti-immigrant attitudes and laws have been steeped in racism then and now. In the past, we used explicitly racist language. Today, code words like “law and order” and “national security” obscure policies that are still racist in their intent and execution.

Another concrete action that we can all take is to remain informed about immigration issues and how immigration works so that we can be prepared to recognize “fake news,” mistruths, and distorted facts.

Lastly, we need to resolved to the idea that solving xenophobia will not happen overnight. This is a much bigger and deeper problem than just electing a new president. It is deeply rooted in our worldview, our politics, and our laws. We can all get involved. There has been a tremendous backlash to Trump era immigration policies. If you agree that this administration’s approach to immigration is hurting, rather than helping our country, then let your voice (and your vote) be heard.

What books would you suggest readers turn to in order to learn more?

Jose Antonio Vargas, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen; Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide; Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear, Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration; David FitzGerald, Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repeal Asylum Seekers

Erika Lee is a professor of American history and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.