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Fears of a Latino invasion: demographic panic then and now

How are Donald Trump’s racist tweets about “rat-infested” Baltimore, his tacit endorsement of chants of “send her home” about representative Ilhan Omar at his rallies, and the mass shooting in El Paso, TX, targeting Latinos by a gunman concerned about a Mexican “invasion” of the United States connected? The idea of an immigrant invasion that would swamp the Anglo-Saxon population was originally popularized by Madison Grant (1865-1937), an early 20th-century eugenicist and conservationist, who was a proponent of immigration restrictions and legally mandated racial segregation to preserve white racial purity. Grant wrote one of the most widely influential texts of scientific racism produced in the United States, which was translated into multiple languages and embraced by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, among others. At the time, non-white intellectuals from different parts of the Americas—such as the African-American W. E. B. DuBois and Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos—challenged Grant’s ideas because of their dire implications for people of color inside and outside the United States.

In his best-selling The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History (first published in 1916), Grant argued that dominance of the supposedly superior Nordic race in the United States was being threatened by nonwhite immigration and mixture with inferior races. Grant’s ideas about Anglo-Saxon racial superiority and the need to preserve strict boundaries between different racial groups helped shape public policy in the United States, including immigration and domestic racial segregation. They paved the way for restrictions on immigration to the United States by Southern and Eastern Europeans and for total bans on Asian immigration, such as those enacted in the national origin quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924, which was the country’s first widely restrictive immigration law. The main purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to try to preserve an Anglo-Saxon white majority in the U.S. population. According to the office of the U.S. Historian: “In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.”

Grant also championed anti-miscegenation laws that helped codify the “one-drop rule” and Jim Crow racial segregation, such as the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which became a model for other racial segregation statutes in the South. The aim of the Racial Integrity Act was to demarcate the boundaries of whiteness at the state level. It required that a person’s race to be recorded on birth and marriage certificates, prohibited interracial marriage, and defined who counted as a white person. Such anti-miscegenation statutes initially banned unions between whites and African-Americans, but were expanded to all nonwhites, including Native Americans in the case of Virginia. The Racial Integrity Act remained in force until 1967, when it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia. Efforts to enforce strict racial boundaries and prevent non-white immigration in the first decades of the twentieth century reflected fears about the need to enforce white racial purity and stem a perceived “browning” of the United States, echoes of which can be heard in contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Grant’s ideas were opposed by both African-American thinkers in the United States and Latin American intellectuals. Du Bois, for example, was an early opponent of anti-miscegenation laws, at a time when this was not a widely shared position, even by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While racists justified lynching (which was rampant at the time) as a way to preserve racial purity by protecting white women against black men, Du Bois defended intermarriage and highlighted the fact that historically racial mixture had largely been the result of sexual violence by white men Eventually the NAACP would lead resistance to attempts by northern legislatures to pass bans on interracial marriage in the 1910s and 1920s. From Latin America, meanwhile, Vasconcelos rejected Grant’s claims that racial mixing between whites and non-whites led to degeneration, and argued that Latin Americans should embrace their status as mestizos (racially mixed people). Vasconcelos also warned Latin Americans of the racism they would face if they crossed the border regardless of their skin color. Latinos were also the targets of racial violence, heightened by anti-immigrant sentiment at the time. From the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, thousands of Latinos, especially Mexican Americans in the Southwest, were lynched.

Today’s resurgent white nationalism in the United States thus harkens back to early twentieth-century policies on immigration and racial segregation justified in part by Grant’s racist pseudo-science. Then as now, panic about demographic change was the driving force behind racism. In different ways Du Bois and Vasconcelos both responded by arguing that seemingly disparate anti-racist struggles were connected. We need to do the same in our time if we want to oppose xenophobia and racism.

Featured image credit: “Mexican workers await legal employment in the United States, Mexicali, Mexico” by Los Angeles Times. CC BY 4.0 via Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library.

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