Xenophobia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fear and suspicion of immigrants inspired discrimination and persecution of immigrant groups in the United States long before the term “xenophobia” was coined during the early twentieth century. Xenophobia is distinguished from bigotry and prejudice in that the latter denote disrespect and contempt based on one’s belief in another group’s alleged cultural or even biological inferiority, whereas xenophobia is prompted by a perceived threat to the culture and mores of the group to which one feels one’s greatest allegiance.

Xenophobic behavior in the United States has been made manifest in many ways throughout the nation’s history and often involved the nativist notion of “America for Americans,” an ironic slogan given that those who used the phrase were themselves descendants of immigrants. Many xenophobic activities over the years have been carried out by secret organizations such as the Ku Klux KlanKu Klux Klan, which terrorized not only African Americans but also Roman Catholics and Jews–all of whom Klan members regarded as deemed “foreign” and “un-American.” Other manifestions of xenophobia have included secret, unofficial rules, such as gentlemen’s agreements, that kept immigrants, especially Jewish and Catholic ones, out of certain neighborhoods, businesses, and clubs.XenophobiaNativism;and xenophobia[xenophobia]XenophobiaNativism;and xenophobia[xenophobia][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS ANDPOLICIES;Xenophobia[cat]NATIVISM;Xenophobia[cat]VIOLENCE;Xenophobia[cat]STEREOTYPES;Xenophobia

This turn-of-the-twentieth century advertisement for rat poison carried a double message: It used the negative stereotype of a Chinese "coolie" eating rats to make its point about the effectiveness of the product, while pointing a finger at the Chinese figure above the words, "They must go!"

(Asian American Studies Library, University of California at Berkeley)

Xenophobic acts were also conducted by aboveboard, highly public organizations such as the Asiatic Exclusion LeagueAsiatic Exclusion League, founded in 1905 by labor leaders to fight against what they saw as a Chinese menace to American business, and the American Protective AssociationAmerican Protective Association of the late nineteenth century, which militated against the perceived threat to American society and Protestantism posed by the surge in Irish Catholic immigration. The popular Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party]Know-Nothing Party of the mid-nineteenth century was virulently opposed to the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants; in some states, such as ArkansasArkansas, the party incited church burnings and attacks on Roman Catholic clergy. Some of the worst examples of xenophobic actions in the United States were spontaneous: vicious riots, such as those against Irish immigrants in Philadelphia in 1844. Other xenophobic measures were carefully planned and scrupulously drawn up: for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which implemented a ten-year moratorium on the immigration of Chinese laborers.One of the worst examples of a violent outburst of xenophobia in American history was the slaughter of almost three dozen Chinese miners along the Snake River in Oregon in 1887.

During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, American xenophobia began to manifest in subtler ways, as civil rights laws now militated against the sorts of violent outrages that had taken place in the past. From the 1970’s onward, fear of foreigners and foreign influence often took the form of calls for strict quotas and other restrictions on immigration and a concern for the preservation of the English language as a particularly American institution. Across the nation, cities, counties, and entire states considered implementing laws declaring English the official language and restricting the appearance of other languages on public signs, on ballots, and in legal documents. Some even sought to ban the public use of languages other than English.XenophobiaNativism;and xenophobia[xenophobia]

Further Reading
  • Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Caldwell, Wilber W. American Narcissism: The Myth of National Superiority. New York: Algora, 2006.
  • Curran, Thomas J. Xenophobia and Immigration, 1820-1930. Boston: Twayne, 1975.
  • Schildkraut, Deborah. Press “One” for English: Language Policy, Public Opinion, and American Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.

American Protective Association


Anti-Chinese movement


Asiatic Exclusion League

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

English-only and official English movements

Know-Nothing Party


Philadelphia anti-Irish riots

Snake River Massacre

Categories: History