Between 1870-1920 America saw a massive influx of 26 million immigrants from Ireland, Southern Europe, Central Europe, Slavic nations, and China. In the 1830s 98% of Americans were native born. By 1850 only 90% of the population was native born, and the number of foreign-born Americans started skyrocketing. This cause mass hysteria among some of the native born population:
“Nativists feared the new arrivals Lack the political social and occupational skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a “melting pot”, or if it had just become a “dumping ground”, and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics and culture.”
Why were the nativists so freaked out? Mainly because the newcomers weren’t “white” protestants. The Greeks, Italians, Russians, Poles, and Irish weren’t “white” back then. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren became white when they started speaking English with an American accent and gained economic security. The Jewish immigrants were considered a threat to the purity of America too, and although Jews are now ‘white’ there is still rampant anti-Semitism in the US.
The Irish and German Catholics were also regarded with the same fear and suspicion as Muslim Americans face today; Catholics were seen as inherently dangerous because of their radical religion. Nativists warned that these non-white and Catholic interlopers were going to drag down America and push out the “real” Americans. The Irish, being both non-white and Catholic, were especially targeted — “American workers, who were afraid the Irish would take jobs away from them, made virulent attacks against the Irish, branding them as lazy drunks who were more akin to apes than human beings.”
Immigrants were blamed for everything, including low wages and systemic inequality cause by a lack of unions and low taxes for the uber-wealthy. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt each fought for unions and upped taxes on the 1%, and it was from their efforts to provide a way for the working class to become middle class that narrowly avoided the US becoming communist. Both Roosevelts were socialists, and moderate socialism provided enough equality so that communism didn’t seem appealing. However, many people ignored the complexity of the socio-political forces at work against them and swallowed the simple & easy anti-immigrant rhetoric of the nativists hook, line, and sinker.
Real Americans – AKA white Protestants — were urged to “take back” their country and many joined radical right-wing political parties and supported politicians that promised to keep these scary migrants OUT. For example, there was the “American Party” … who were also called the Know-Nothing Party: “Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, resentment and anger against them was national, and the American Party initially polled well in the South, attracting the votes of many former southern Whigs. The party name gained wide but brief popularity. Nativism became a new American rage: Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and Know-Nothing toothpicks appeared. Stagecoaches were dubbed “The Know-Nothing”. In Trescott, Maine, a shipowner dubbed his new 700-ton freighter, Know-Nothing. The party was occasionally referred to contemporaneously in a slightly pejorative shortening, Knism.”
The popular support of nativism (AKA racism) had enough political traction that it pushed both the Immigration Act of 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 through Congress. The Immigration Act of 1882 “provided the basis for future federal immigration policy as it detailed what types of “undesirable” people would be blocked from entering the United States”, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 “banned the immigration of all Chinese peoples into the United States and called for a one-year prison sentence and $500 fine for any person attempting to smuggle Chinese laborers into the country. An 1882 newspaper article from the Wisconsin State Journal outlines much of the racial motivation behind the legislation: “(Nevada Senator John P. Jones’) final conclusion was that the Chinese race is as obnoxious to us and as impossible for us to assimilate with as was the negro race. His race has outlived every other because it is homogeneous, and for that reason alone it has imposed its religion and peculiarities upon its conquerors and still lived. If immigration is not checked now, when it is within manageable limits, it will be too late to check it.”
Hmmm … hysteria over non-white immigrants and immigrants of the “wrong” religion mobilizing millions, aided by the growth and prevalence of income inequality? Gee, why does that look familiar?
Right now Donald Trump is playing to nativist fears (which are racist whether the nativists want to admit it or not) by promising to make America great again. Like the nativists of yesteryear, Trump wants to get rid of “birthright citizenship” by amending the Constitution. See? The answer isn’t taxing billionaires and investing that money in schools, infrastructure, and social safety nets! The answer is getting rid of those icky non-white, non-Protestant immigrants! Look over there! Not at the rich person behind the curtain stealing your pension and your future!
Meanwhile, immigration has leveled off and started to decline. The number of ‘illegal immigrants’ is about 4% of the US population; much, MUCH less than the 10% of foreign–born citizens that were postulated to destroy America in 1900. Legal immigration is declining steadily as well, and has been for more than a decade. The systemic inequality in the US means it is no longer being seen as the land of opportunity. The new generation of Americans will live shorter lives and have less economic opportunities than their parents and grandparents for the first time in 100 years. Middle class kids are going to grow up to become poor, and poor kids are totally screwed.
Nativism is STILL just the creepy candy coating of racist simplification that elides the large social problems caused by inequality.