A history book for our times

America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States

By Erika Lee (New York: Basic Books, 2019, 432 pp., $32, hard cover)

Erika Lee’s new book, “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States,” is one that speaks to our times. Well-respected among academics, Lee is among the foundational historians of the new generation of immigration history of the last 20 years, and influential in the rise in historiography on Chinese American history. Lee’s new book, however, centers not only on Asian American history, but on the vast history of xenophobia in the United States.

Lee’s book is what historians describe as a trade book, one that synthesizes the existing historical literature for wider audiences. While Lee’s book does not address every case of xenophobia, it succeeds in distilling a story well-known to academics for everyday audiences.

As Lee points out, the hatred given today to refugees and newcomers by the current president and his allies is not born out of new circumstances, but follows a long, cyclical tradition of targeting immigrants and scapegoating them for the problems of the nation. The majority of the book centers on the 19th and 20th centuries, chronicling the movements against the Irish, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Japanese, and more recently, Muslims. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Lee’s timeline begins from the early colonial era and Benjamin Franklin’s criticism of German immigrants, whom he described as “swarthy” and “not the best” from their native land (pp. 17). Still, Lee is quick to point out that while Franklin and other colonists of British ancestry despised these European immigrants for not assimilating properly, at least they offered the Europeans more chances to make a place for themselves in colonial society than the Native Americans and enslaved Africans who faced brutal oppression and exclusion form legal rights until after the Civil War (Native Americans did not receive citizenship until 1924). And, as later shown, Europeans still did not face the dangers of other non-white immigrants in later years.

For Japanese American readers, Lee presents the familiar stories of the anti-Japanese movement on the West Coast, the mass arrest of community leaders by the FBI, and the decreeing of Executive Order 9066 and creation of American concentration camps. Less familiar to a broad audience are Lee’s references to the Japanese Latin Americans deported to the United States from countries such as Peru, whose story underlines Lee’s argument that xenophobia was “an integral part of America’s foreign relations during World War II” (pp. 185). Although Lee mentions the Tule Lake renunciants’ story, a detailed explanation would have enriched the story of the Nikkei incarceration experience even further.

Images of recent immigration protests and narratives of President Donald Trump’s rise to power remind readers that the story of nativism and exclusion is far from finished. In the end, Lee leaves us with a daunting yet hopeful message: With so much at stake in the near future for the United States, xenophobia, not immigration, “is our greatest threat today” (pp. 338).

By shifting the debate from xenophobia to pro-immigrant cosmopolitanism, we can redirect the course of history toward a better future. While this book is not the final word on the topic, Lee has set the bar high for a concise and accessible history of xenophobia in the U.S.

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