A Definition of Xenophobia and Examples to Describe the Practice

Protesters rally against undocumented immigration. Mike Schinkel/Flickr.com

Xenophobia is as ubiquitous as the common cold. It shapes public policy, drives political campaigns and even sparks hate crimes. Yet, the meaning of this multi-syllabic word remains a mystery to many of the people who adopt xenophobic attitudes or find themselves subjected to them. This review of xenophobia illuminates the practice with a definition, contemporary and historical examples and an analysis of how xenophobia intersects with racism.

Xenophobia: A Definition

Pronounced zeen-oh-fobe-ee-ah, xenophobia is the fear or contempt of foreign people, places or things. People with this “fear” are known as xenophobes and the attitudes they have as xenophobic. While phobia refers to fear, xenophobes aren’t scared of foreign people in the same way that a person with arachnophobia fears spiders. Instead, their “fear” can best be compared to homophobia, as hatred largely drives their repulsion to foreigners. 

Xenophobia can occur anywhere. In the United States, known for being the land of immigrants, a number of groups have been the targets of xenophobia, including the Italians, Irish, Poles, Slavs, Chinese, Japanese and a variety of immigrants from Latin America. As a result of xenophobia, immigrants from these backgrounds and others faced discrimination in employment, housing and other sectors. The U.S. government even passed laws to restrict the number of Chinese nationals in the country and to strip Japanese Americans from the country’s coasts.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and Executive Order 9066

More than 200,000 Chinese nationals traveled to the U.S. after the gold rush of 1849. In a three-decade period, they became 9 percent of California’s population and a quarter of the state’s labor force, according to the second volume of America’s History.

Although whites excluded the Chinese from higher-wage jobs, the immigrants from the East made a name for themselves in industries such as cigar-making. Before long, white workers came to resent the Chinese and actually threatened to burn the docks from which these newcomers arrived in the U.S. The slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” became a rallying cry for Californians with anti-Chinese biases.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to halt the migration of Chinese nationals into the U.S. America’s History describes how xenophobia fueled this decision.

“In other parts of the country, popular racism was directed against African Americans; in California (where blacks were few in number) it found a target in the Chinese. They were an ‘infusible’ element who could not be assimilated into American society, wrote the young journalist Henry George in a famous 1869 letter that made his reputation as a spokesman for California labor. ‘They practice all the unnameable vices of the East. [They are] utter heathens, treacherous, sensual, cowardly and cruel.’”

George’s words perpetuate xenophobia by casting the Chinese and their homeland as vice-ridden and, thus, threatening to the U.S. As George framed them, the Chinese were untrustworthy and inferior to Westerners.

Such xenophobic opinions not only kept Chinese workers on the sidelines of the labor force and dehumanized them but also led to U.S. lawmakers banning Chinese immigrants from entering the country.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is far from the only U.S. legislation passed with xenophobic roots. Just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the federal government to force more than 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast from their homes and into internment camps. He signed the order under the guise that any American of Japanese descent was a potential threat to the U.S., as they could join forces with Japan to commit espionage or other attacks against the country. Historians point out, however, that anti-Japanese sentiment in places such as California fueled the move.

The president had no reason to view Japanese Americans as threats, especially since the federal government never linked any such person to espionage or plots against the U.S. 

The U.S. appeared to make some headway in its treatment of immigrants in 1943 and 1944, when it, respectively, repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and allowed Japanese American internees to return to their homes. More than four decades later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered a formal apology to Japanese American internees and a payout of $20,000 to internment camp survivors. It took until June 2012 for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution apologizing for the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Proposition 187 and SB 1070

Xenophobic public policy isn’t limited to the anti-Asian legislation of America’s past. More recent laws, such as California’s Proposition 187 and Arizona’s SB 1070, have also been labeled xenophobic for striving to create a sort of police state for undocumented immigrants in which they’d constantly be under scrutiny and denied basic social services.

Named the Save Our State initiative, Prop. 187 aimed to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving public services such as education or medical treatment.

It also mandated teachers, healthcare workers and others to report individuals they suspected of being undocumented to the authorities. Although the ballot measure passed with 59 percent of the vote, federal courts later struck it down for being unconstitutional.

Sixteen years after the controversial passage of California’s Prop. 187, the Arizona legislature passed SB 1070, which required police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be in the country illegally. This mandate, predictably, led to concerns about racial profiling. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately gutted some parts of the law, including the provision allowing police to arrest immigrants without probable cause and the provision making it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants not to carry registration papers at all times.

The high court, however, left in the provision allowing authorities to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws if they have reasonable cause to believe the individuals resides in the U.S. illegally.

While that marked a small victory for the state, Arizona suffered a highly publicized boycott because of its immigration policy. The city of Phoenix lost $141 million in tourism revenue as a result, according to the Center for American Progress. 

How Xenophobia and Racism Intersect

Xenophobia and racism often coexist.

While whites have been targets of xenophobia, such whites usually fall into the “white ethnic” category—Slavs, Poles, Jews. In other words, they’re not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the Western Europeans historically deemed as desirable whites. In the early 20th century, prominent whites expressed fear that white ethnics were reproducing at higher rates than the WASP population. In the 21st century, such fears continue to be raised.

Roger Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative political group Eagle Forum,   expressed his dismay in 2012 about a New York Times article that covered the rise of the Latino birthrate and the dip in the white birthrate. He lamented the growing number of immigrants with little in common with the 1950s American family, which he describes as “happy, self-sufficient, autonomous, law-abiding, honorable, patriotic, hard-working.”

 In contrast, according to Schlafly, Latino immigrants are transforming the U.S. to its detriment. They “do not share those values, and … have high rates of illiteracy, illegitimacy, and gang crime, and they will vote Democrat when the Democrats promise them more food stamps.”

In short, because Latinos aren’t 1950s WASPs, they must be bad news for the U.S. Just as blacks have been characterized as welfare dependent, Schlafly argues that Latinos are too and will flock to Democrats for “food stamps.”

Wrapping Up

While white ethnics, Latinos and other immigrants of color face negative stereotypes, Americans typically hold Western Europeans in high regard. They praise the British for being cultured and refined and the French for their cuisine and fashion. Immigrants of color, however, routinely fight off the idea that they’re inferior to whites. They lack intelligence and integrity or bring disease and crime into the country, xenophobes claim. Sadly, more than 100 years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, xenophobia remains prevalent in U.S. society.