by Chip Berlet, Mitra Rastegar, and Pam Chamberlain


Since the September 11 attacks, there has been a surge in nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment as commentators on the Right have called for increased vigilance to root out the enemy within U.S. borders. They define the enemy as Muslims and Arabs whose allegiances to Islam, to their ethnic communities, and allegedly to their nations of origin are said to be a direct threat to the United States and its citizens. Even when acknowledging that a majority of Muslims or Arabs are not seeking to subvert or destabilize the United States, commentators refer to a significant minority of "Islamists" or militants who have seamlessly integrated themselves into those communities. Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum and frequent TV talk show guest, says that this "Islamist" element of 10 to 15 percent of the total Muslim population may seem "...peaceable in appearance, but they all must be considered potential killers."1 Quoting Pipes, James Fulford, on the White Nationalist forum, proclaimed, "That's an army of about 750,000 already present in the US." He also cited a study alleging that most Muslim immigrants and one-third of Muslim converts felt greater allegiance to another country than to the United States.2

John Podhoretz in the New York Post and Martin Peretz in the New Republic both warned that the United States houses a "fifth column," hidden groups sympathetic to outside threats, most likely of Middle Easterners. As Peretz put it, "these killers are not randomly distributed throughout the population. They are disproportionately located in certain religious and ethnic communities."3 Debbie Schlussel on the conservative website, spoke of her home community in southeast Michigan, which she (incorrectly) says has the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East, as "Ground Zero for those who aid and abet the perpetrators."4 She also said that leaders within the Arab and Muslim American communities have stood up for known terrorists by opposing the use of secret evidence and racial profiling.

This heightened scrutiny of the loyalties and allegiances of Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans has corresponded to an increase in hate crimes and racial profiling against these and other groups. Hate crimes have been reported in over thirty states all over the country, against people who are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab, Pakistani, Afghan, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Greek, Latino and Native American.

The recent rise in suspicion of people from the Middle East and South Asia is not an aberration within the context of U.S. history. In fact, this country has a long history of distrust, persecution and exclusion of those seen as having foreign ties and questionable allegiances. Major social movements have been based on the belief that certain ethnic, racial or political groups are by definition disloyal. These movements are commonly described as nativist.

What is Nativism?

Nativism, combining xenophobia, or a fear of outsiders, with chauvinistic nationalism [see article on nationalism], or a belief in the superiority of one's homeland, is a potent ideology that has found roots in various societies around the globe. In nativism, the xenophobia appears as a fear of or disdain for people or ideas that are seen as foreign, strange, or subversive, though not all foreign-born are targeted. This finds expression in a form of nationalism that doubts the suitability for citizenship (or even residency) of those suspected of being unable or unwilling to function as loyal and patriotic citizens.

In the United States, the term nativism was first used to describe several political and social movements that flourished between 1830 and 1925. When it emerged in the 19th century, nativism marshaled a backlash against newly arrived immigrants who did not fit the mold of the "ideal" citizen or "real" American, which was essentially someone who was White (Anglo-Saxon) and Protestant. Nativism, however, is not simply the dislike of immigrants but an "intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e.,'un–American') connection."5 Thus, "real" Americans must protect the nation from these "alien" intruders. The nativist litmus test can use race, country of origin, religion, language, loyalty to foreign regimes, or dissident political philosophy. Popular Protestant bigotry toward Catholics and other religious traditions simultaneously integrated with and inspired nativism, especially through some interpretations of Protestant Fundamentalism.

While nativism as a major mass movement collapsed in the late 1920s, it continues to flourish both thematically and in small subcultures. Anti-immigrant and "English-Only" groups that gained popularity in the 1990s represented a revival of nativist sentiments, though many shied away from the most baldly chauvinist rhetoric that characterized the earlier movements. These anti-immigrant groups have had significant successes, but it is debatable whether they have achieved the same national status as earlier nativist movements. Whenever Protestant Evangelicals call for the defense of a Christian nation under attack, there are echoes of nativism. A racial-nationalist form of nativism resides in the contemporary Extreme Right, including various Ku Klux Klan units and neonazi groups such as Aryan Nations, The World Church of the Creator, and the National Alliance.

Forms of Early U.S. Nativism

American nativism emerged as three varieties, each with roots planted before the Civil War: anti–Catholicism, antiradicalism, and Anglo–Saxon racialism.6 Various strains of Protestantism have embraced one or more of these tendencies at points in their history.


Richard Hofstader called early American anti–Catholicism "the pornography of the Puritan."7 Early Protestant settlers saw a "great war going on in the Western world between political reaction and [Catholic orthodoxy] on one side and political and religious liberties on the other;" while a common view was that "America was a bastion of freedom, and hence an inevitable target for popes and despots."8 Similar rhetoric after September 11 claims the United States was attacked for its belief in freedom.

Scholars have documented that many colonies passed laws restricting the rights of Catholics. By the end of the American Revolution, "seven states, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia insisted on Protestant office holders and other states inflicted additional liabilities on Catholics in their constitutions."9

In the opinion of many Protestant nativists, "Catholic traditions continued to look dangerously un-American partly because they did not harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom imbedded in the national culture."10 The authoritarian hierarchy of Catholicism also seemed wedded to feudal or monarchical governments of Europe. The influx of Catholic immigration in the 1800's exacerbated this conflict.


A longstanding fear that subversive radicals were conspiring to undermine the nation posed a special problem for U.S. nativism because it had to overcome the positive image of the American Revolution where colonial patriots were pictured as heroes for overthrowing the tyrannical rule of a European power. How could contemporary radicals be denounced for being revolutionaries? Anti-elitist European radicals were cleverly portrayed as anarchist and socialist rabble-rousers threatening the stable republican form of government created by colonial Patriots. As John Higham explained, a "persistent contrast between a generally hopeful psychology of mobility in America and the more desperate politics born in class–ridden Europe has fostered the belief that violent and sweeping opposition to the status quo is characteristically European and profoundly un-American."11

Anglo–Saxon Racialism

Those who believed in Anglo-Saxon racialism argued that superior "White" racial stock birthed the people responsible for all the major advances of Western culture; and conversely that inferior racial types were diluting superior bloodlines and harming the future of civilization. In the 1800s, unlike today, someone who was Irish, Italian, or Polish was not considered "White." Racialism moved from diffuse ideas of ethnic pride and a homogenous national character in the late 1700s to a pseudoscientific theory of supremacy that predominated in the late 1800s.12

In this period, the idea of scientific racism was not only popular but was also taught in biology and genetics courses at major universities. When parents hoped their children married someone "with the proper breeding" they meant that in the literal, genetic sense. A nativist "eugenics" movement encouraged people with "good" genes to procreate, while those with "bad" genes were targeted for programs discouraging "dysgenic" reproduction. Sometimes this included forced sterilization.13

Nativism: Early Roots and Branches

The roots of U.S. nativism can be traced to the 1790s and fears of subversion in the early days of independence. In 1798 John Adams secured the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts which reflected the fear that foreigners on U.S. soil would not be loyal to the newly formed country.14 When the anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson became President, these acts fell into disfavor. Yet even Jefferson at one point suggested barring citizenship from any man "who took a title or gift from European powers."15

A widespread anti-immigrant backlash fueled nativism during much of the nineteenth century. While we often think of the great waves of immigration taking place at the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. population was expanding quickly between the 1820s and 1860s. In the mid 1830s distrust of immigrant foreigners was so intense that native-born Protestant political activists in New York formed the New York Native Democratic Association. Their primary targets were Irish Catholic immigrants. In New England, Samuel F. B. Morse warned that the "evil of immigration brings to these shores illiterate Roman Catholics, the tools of reckless and unprincipled politicians, the obedient instruments of their more knowing priestly leaders."16

Another wave of nativism crested in the mid 1850s with the appearance of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner known popularly as the "Know Nothings" because the secretive group told its members to say they "knew nothing" about the organization. From its base in New York State the group eventually recruited hundreds of thousands of members nationwide.17 The Know Nothings' appeal was based on their ability to name immigration as the single cause of the structural changes in industry that were making skilled positions obsolete.18

The Know Nothing movement collapsed as quickly as it had emerged, and by 1857 was rapidly disappearing from the national political scene. Nativism retreated but did not vanish. After the Civil War, nativist themes were woven into the "middle-class reform movements" of the late 1800s, and "crusaders for temperance and for women's rights assailed the immigrant's subversive, European attitudes on these problems."19

The passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act resulted from nativist organizing. Chinese immigrants were also targets of violence from the West Coast to the Rocky Mountain States. Antipathy toward Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants flourished nationwide well into the first decade of the 20th century.

The threat of Bolshevism and anarchism emerged as a major nativist issue after World War I. Beginning in late 1919, the Palmer Raids, a series of arrests and deportations by the federal government that targeted Russian and Italian immigrants, were justified as needed to block anti-American plots. This countersubversion hysteria was often racialized, with deportation ships carrying immigrants and their "alien" ideas back to Italy and Russia. The trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchist immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, took place at the height of this wave of nativism. The 1924 National Origins Act set immigration quotas favoring Northern Europeans over people from Southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. At the same time, a nativist "Americanization" campaign sought to teach the remaining immigrants the proper character traits for true citizenship.

The popularity of Americanization helped reinvigorate the Ku Klux Klan, which in the 1920s attracted somewhere between 2 to 5 million members. KKK supporters captured political control of Indiana, and influenced state politics nationwide. The Klan's "attacks on Catholics and foreigners and the vows to protect imperiled American women" tied it to earlier nativist movements.20

20th Century Nativism

World War II saw a wave of nativism directed against Japanese Americans, most vividly manifested in the internment of 127,000 Japanese Americans, both U.S.-born citizens and immigrants legally barred from naturalization. After WWII, the distaste for European Fascism and Nazism made it difficult for nativist activists to build a mass base, although the McCarthy period Red Scare contained elements of nativist countersubversion. White anti-integration groups in the 1960s, such as the Citizens' Councils, revived nativist themes in attacking the Civil Rights Movement, and KKK terror had murderous consequences. Yet no national nativist movement emerged, civil rights legislation was passed by Congress, and the 1965 Immigration Act ended the discriminatory quota system installed in 1924. Ironically, it was this legislation that fueled the modern anti-immigrant movement. Reviled by anti-immigrant groups, this Act made family reunification the primary rationale for admitting immigrants, resulting in many more newcomers of color.

With The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, the 1990s saw a renewal of the biological determinist claim that genetic racial differences accounted for social and economic inequalities.21 Though these claims were refuted,22 racist arguments remained the subtext for many policy debates over street crime, welfare, and immigration, as well as political campaigns by David Duke and Patrick Buchanan. Anti-immigrant organizing garnered national headlines with the 1994 passage of California's Proposition 187 barring undocumented immigrants from many public services. Voters in several states passed popular initiatives and referenda promoting English as the only proper language for education, documents, or signage.

September 11, 2001

As we have already seen, many commentators have perpetuated nativist fears of people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent because of what is presented as their conflicting allegiances to "un-American" forces, most prominently Islam. Whether presented as passively complicit in terrorism or as a functional "fifth column," the message is that these communities are harboring traitors. Clearly, these sentiments have their roots in a long history of suspicion and animosity towards those seen as foreign, an entity that has changed forms but continues to have some consistent features. One of these is that the group under suspicion must overcome great obstacles to be seen as patriotic or trustworthy. Calls to the Muslim and Arab communities to more forcefully denounce terrorism, or to reclaim Islam from those who have perverted it, imply that failure to do so indicates support for the attacks. Despite the Bush administration's symbolic (and important) attempts to show solidarity with select Muslim communities, the long-standing demonization of Islam and of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures in general has continued.

The anti-immigrant movement found its most recent opening into the national conversation following September 11. Their portrayal of recent immigrants as threatening on multiple levels could now find its expression in a very concrete and horrifying event. Groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and Negative Population Growth implied that if their proposed immigration policies had been adopted, then the attacks might have been averted.23 Glenn Spencer of the small but outspoken California group, Voices of Citizens Together, put out emails calling on supporters to contact their elected officials and demand that all noncitizens leave the country immediately.24 Nowhere in this barrage of scapegoating was an acknowledgement that substantial numbers of people killed in New York were themselves immigrants and people of color.

While some of the more mainstream anti-immigrant groups have joined the Bush administration in denouncing those who blame immigrants specifically (CIS said, "we must be careful not to seek scapegoats among the foreigners who live among us"25), they have also contributed a nativist tone to the current political discussion. For them, scapegoating immigration is an acceptable response to virtually every social, economic and environmental problem, including attacks from abroad. Whether they are criticizing the immigration policy or the immigrants themselves, the goals of these groups are the same: to keep immigrants, 85 percent of whom are people of color, out of the United States. Only then will they feel that the nation can be safe from harmful influences that exist within our borders and are inevitably linked to the external forces that threaten the country. The real threat, however, is that nativism's basic beliefs obstruct a vision of democracy for this country that attempts to embrace all people. Looking at the history, organizational structure and the relative success that past nativist movements have had in institutionalizing restrictionist attitudes can help us understand the current cycle of nativism and its potential harm.

End Notes

1. Daniel Pipes, "Protecting Muslims while Rooting out Islamists," The Daily Telegraph (London), September 14, 2001.

2. James Fulford, "National Origins Quotas Or Moratorium? America Smells The Coffee [Arab Invention]," September 19, 2001. (January 9, 2002).

3. Dan Kennedy and Harvey Silverglate, "How the terrorist crisis threatens our personal liberties: As we wrap ourselves in the flag, let's not forget to cling tightly to the Bill of Rights," Boston Phoenix, October 18, 2001, quoting John Podhoretz, "The fifth column," New York Post, September, 20, 2001; Martin Peretz, "When America-Haters Become Americans: Entry Level," The New Republic, October 15, 2001. (January 9, 2002).

4. Debbie Schlussel, "Terrorist-enabling neighbors," September 18, 2001. (January 9, 2002).

5. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925 (New York: Atheneum), 4. See also, Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000); David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971); Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Hard Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983).

6. Higham, Strangers, 3-11.

7. Richard Hofstader, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965), 21.

8. Ibid., 19.

9. Ray Allen Billington, The Origins of Nativism in the United States 1800-1844 (New York: Arno Press, 1974), 39.

10. Higham, Strangers, 6.

11. Higham, Strangers, 7-8. The roots of this fear of subversion trace back to the 1790s when a series of books and pamphlets (first published in Europe) warned that a conspiracy of the secret Illuminati society operating within the Freemasons was plotting to overthrow all world governments. This echoes apocalyptic themes in the Biblical book of Revelation which contains prophesies of an End Times conspiracy to build a One World Government in league with the Satanic Antichrist. This prophetic vision continues to influence many Fundamentalists today.

12. Key texts include the 19th century works of Gobineau, Frances Galton's 1870 Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences, and Madison Grant's 1916 The Passing of the Great Race, which gained renewed popularity when reprinted in the 1920s. See for instance, Madison Grant and Henry Fairchild Osborn, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1923, 4th rev. ed.).

13. Margaret Quigley, "The Roots of the I.Q. Debate: Eugenics and Social Control," in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed., Chip Berlet (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 210-222. See also

14. Billington, Origins, 45.

15. Ibid., 46.

16. H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 40.

17. See E. Hutchinson, Startling Facts for Native Americans Called "Know-Nothings": or a Vivid Presentation of the Dangers to American Liberty, to be Apprehended from Foreign Influence (New York: By the author, 1855).

18. Dale T. Knoebel, "America for the Americans" (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996), 102.

19. Higham, Strangers, 41.

20. Bennett, Party of Fear, 220.

21. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve (New York: Free Press, 1994).

22. Joel L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, and Aaron D. Greeson, III, eds., Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).

23. Federation for American Immigration Reform, "Defending America Against International Terrorism Requires Better Screening of Aliens," September 12, 2001. (January 9, 2002); Mark Krikorian and Steven Camarota, "How did the terrorists get in?" San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 2001. (January 9, 2002); Negative Population Growth, "NPG Population News Update," NPG Population News Listserv, (on behalf of (September 21, 2001). On file at PRA.

24. Glenn Spencer, "SAVE AMERICA," (September 11, 2001). On file at PRA.

25. Krikorian, "How did the terrorists get in?"

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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