Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.


Democracy in Danger / Episode 4

Published in The Judge in 1903, this cartoon is one of many that bore witness over the years to Americans’ fear of immigrants — showing a tide of newcomers not as huddled masses yearning to breathe free but as “riffraff” threatening to flood the nation and endanger her institutions. Erika Lee’s work suggests that what is surprising about contemporary xenophobia is not that it’s just as transparent, but that we forget its deep roots in American history.

Via Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Donald Trump has called Mexican migrants criminals and rapists, vowed to build a “beautiful” wall along the southern border, and presided over traumatic family separations among asylum seekers. But nativist ideology in U.S. politics — and policy — is nothing new. Immigration scholar Erika Lee walks Will and Siva through America’s spotty record as a nation of immigrants, from the Naturalization Act of 1790, which barred nonwhite people from becoming citizens, to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban in 2017.


About our guest

The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Erika Lee is a leading historian of immigration and of the Asian American experience. She teaches at the University of Minnesota and directs the Immigration History Research Center. Lee is also a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other mainstream publications, and is the author, most recently, of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @prof_erikalee.

Lee joined us by video conference from Minneapolis. The show was recorded in June and posted August 11, 2020.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Published last year by Basic Books, America for Americans traces present-day paranoia about the "browning" of the country as far back as Ben Franklin's disdain for German immigrants, 19th-century scorn toward Irish Catholics, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two.

Lee is also the author of The Making of Asian America: A History and At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.

Last month she wrote this essay for the Washington Post, about how Americans have become the targets of xenophobia in the covid-era — in other countries. This op-ed from November 2019 points to how prominent Americans have challenged anti-immigrant sentiments, and how they might inspire others today.

From around the web

In 2017, NPR’s Code Switch covered the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exlcusion Act.

Li Zhou argues in Vox that "Trump’s racist references to the coronavirus are his latest effort to stoke xenophobia."

And, in case you missed it, read how and why the Supreme Court blocked the president's attempt to end the Dreamers program, which protects undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.


A transcript of this episode is available here. 


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