Racist Roots of the Anti-Immigration Movement
by Lee Cokorinos
This article originally appeared in the Equal
Justice Society newsletter.
"Two broad strains of anti-immigrant racial supremacism,
one based on culture and the other on heredity and genetics, seem to be
Prominent leaders of the anti-immigration movement would have us believe that
not an ounce of racism lies behind their efforts. The most media-visible
figures in this camp, such as Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, Tom Tancredo and Victor
Davis Hanson may argue the case for restricting, deporting, rounding up and
cutting off public services to those "illegals" stigmatized as
culturally backward, unhealthy potential terrorists. But they protest that
their motives for doing so are as pure as the driven snow.
In their writings and media appearances, the leaders of the anti-immigration
movement claim their politics are based not on a hatred of the racial Other but
on their commitment to the rule of law, the integrity of "our
culture," the objective findings of social science, or better employment
prospects for American workers.
On page after page of In Mortal Danger, Tom Tancredo's diatribe against
non-European immigrants and multiculturalism, the presidential candidate and
congressman repeatedly complains that he and his colleagues have been unfairly
painted as racist or had their arguments misconstrued as racist.
book drips with cultural condescension toward Mexican-Americans, Muslims and
But alongside these complaints Tancredo's book drips with cultural
condescension toward Mexican-Americans, Muslims and African-Americans. While he
claims that illegality is the problem, Tancredo soon moves past this and calls
for revoking the legal citizenship of what he terms Mexican-American
Conjuring up racist and sexist imagery, he declares that "gravid wombs
should not guarantee free medical care." One wonders whether Tancredo,
both of whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, would apply such
terminology to his parents, and thus forfeit his own citizenship.
"Clarity of Thought"
Beset by a "malignant multiculturalism," the "vast majority of
Americans" are, according to Tancredo, forced to deal with its
"raging intolerance of traditional America." This leads to such
outrages, he tells us on the following page, as Vanderbilt University renaming
its Confederate Memorial Hall dormitory to Memorial Hall just "because the
word 'Confederate' made some people uncomfortable."
It apparently doesn't make him feel uncomfortable. Tancredo addressed a meeting
bedecked with Confederate flags and promoted by the neo-Confederate League of the South last
year. Dr. Michael Hill, the League of the South's president, has warned that
the U.S. faces the prospect of "being overrun by hordes of non-white
In his book, Tancredo also reaches back into history to embrace the crudest
forms of colonial racist rhetoric. He points to what he calls a "very
poetic speech" delivered in 1899 by Winston Churchill against Muslims'
"degraded sensualism," "fearful fatalistic apathy,"
"improvident habits," "slovenly forms of agriculture," etc.
These, of course, are exactly the kinds of taunts that the racial nativists of
the American past directed at Tancredo's Italian forebears when they reached
reaches back into history to embrace the crudest forms of colonial racist
Casting about for more current action heroes, Tancredo settles on "noted
constitutional attorney" Ann Coulter. Coulter, a former staffer with the
Center for Individual Rights, has defended Charles Murray and Richard
Herrnstein's The Bell Curve, which links race and IQ, and regularly
heaps racist abuse on Muslims and others, as in "I believe our motto
should be after 9/11: Jihad monkey talks tough; jihad monkey takes the
consequences. Sorry, I realize that's offensive. How about 'camel jockey'?
What? Now what'd I say? Boy, you tent merchants sure are touchy. Grow up, would
Although Tancredo claims that individuals should be judged on their actions and
merits rather than their group identity, he takes up Coulter's proposal that
everyone from "suspect countries" should be immediately deported.
Tancredo has also proposed wholesale deportation of undocumented immigrants.
"If only our political leaders possessed" Coulter's "clarity of
thought," he writes.
The Suburban Plantation
Victor Davis Hanson, author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming and
another prominent think tank/TV talking head in the immigration debate, also
argues for a radical cutback in Mexican immigration and vigorous efforts to
root out multicultural thinking. At the core of his approach is an imperious
demand that immigrants conform to his narrow, Anglicized view of American culture.
He also abuses his progressive critics for allegedly falsely charging the
anti-immigration movement with racism. "To discuss the issue rationally,"
he claims, "is to expect charges of racist and nativist." He then
blithely condemns American schools for promoting "the fiction of cultural
Hanson, a senior fellow at the right wing Hoover Institution, comes from a long
line of California Central Valley growers and occupies a special niche in the firmament of
reaction, providing a philosophical bridge to earlier forms of anti-immigrant
One of the more enduring mythical themes in the cultural history of white
supremacism in the United States has been the idyllic nature of the Southern
plantation, where everyone knew his or her place in the racial pecking order.
In exchange for accepting this social order the laboring classes, according to
this mythology, would be rewarded with a stable existence, leading to a
condemns American schools for promoting ‘the fiction of cultural
This thinking was championed by mid-20th century adherents of the so-called
"Southern Agrarian" movement such as Richard M. Weaver, one of the
founding intellectual figures of modern conservatism. Skirting around the
questions of slavery and Jim Crow lynching, they romanticized the supposed
gentility and "small is beautiful" values of "civilized"
southern life. Hanson extends some these Agrarianist themes, such as the
dignity of manual labor, to the farms and ranches of the southwest, worked
largely by immigrant workers from Mexico.
While he does not embrace the philosophy of antebellum plantation idealism,
Hanson's writings, particularly the early chapters of Mexifornia, are
filled with misty Agrarian school images of the alleged nobility and order of a
fading rural California farm life (e.g., his nostalgia for "the good times
of our agrarian past").
In southern California the Agrarian mythological tradition has played out in
odd and sinister ways (a eugenics movement was part of it, as Matt Garcia
recounts), combining misplaced nostalgia for social relations on the small
commercial farm and, in its more recent incarnation, a celebration of the
bucolic white suburbs as the pinnacle of civilization.
For Brian Janiskee, Hanson's Claremont Institute colleague, "the seemingly
quiet and bland order of the California suburb is, in effect, a metaphysical
affirmation of the revolutionary core of the American regime."
Needless to say, an intense and sometimes nasty struggle for cultural hegemony
and economic and political power is taking place in the California suburbs
between a shrinking and resistant white population and a growing Latino
community. Journalist Roberto Lovato reports that one participant at an Anaheim
city council meeting said California is becoming "ground zero for
America's second civil war."
"Imperatives to be Honored"
This rural/suburban reality sits rather incongruously with Hanson's shifting
claims that racism is either no longer a big deal (it "belongs largely to
the past") or is immutable ("mankind by its very nature is prone to
be murderous, racist and sexist"). "Today's Big Lie," he tells
us, is that "racism, discrimination [and] labor exploitation" have
been "the burdens of the Mexican-American experience."
Connerly and Glynn Custred have jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon by linking
it with their assault on affirmative action."
Such arguments, of course, have long been directed at African-Americans, and
have a strong appeal for right wing opponents of a strong and effective
government role in promoting racial justice. As they pour out of the think
tanks and media outlets of the right, they are feeding increasingly coordinated
populist assaults on African-American and immigrant communities.
Veterans of the Prop 209 campaign in California, such as Ward Connerly and
Glynn Custred, and others now backing Connerly's
"Super Tuesday" multistate campaign, have also jumped on the
anti-immigration bandwagon by linking it with their assault on affirmative
On the back cover of Mexifornia Linda Chavez of the misnamed Center for
Equal Opportunity, which has been waging war for years against the gains of the
civil rights movement in law, education, employment and fair housing, dutifully
endorses Hanson's view of what she calls "disturbing trends among Mexican
This despite the fact that Chavez seems to have had her own misgivings about
anti-Mexican bias among her right wing colleagues. She specifically calls out
"a fair number of Republican members of Congress, almost all influential
conservative talk radio hosts, some cable news anchors - most prominently, Lou
Dobbs - and a handful of public policy 'experts' at organizations such as the
Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform,
NumbersUSA, in addition to fringe groups like the Minuteman Project."
Those who thought these words might signal a welcome move toward
multiculturalist rationality among the anti-diversity crowd were soon to be
disappointed. Chavez quickly retracted them.
Praising Hanson's book in the Wall Street Journal for its
"highbrow, agrarian outlook," Chavez' sidekick Roger Clegg offers his
own racialized and imperious endorsement of "the core values that define
American citizenship," such as "don't demand anything because of your
race or ethnicity" and "don't view working hard and studying hard as
These are not a matter of choice for free individuals in a democratic society,
but, he sternly instructs us (acting white?) "habits to be inculcated and
imperatives to be honored."
Clegg's "core values" are an open book. "I have a lot of
sympathy," he tells us, "for those who want to recognize the heroism
of Confederate soldiers, and even more for those who have a reflexive and
negative reaction to the NAACP's pronouncements these days. My father's parents
were from Mississippi, and my parents and I are Texans, and in all my years
growing up and playing army I can never remember choosing to be a Yankee rather
than a Rebel."
Racial Nationalism and Immigration
Pat Buchanan, a veteran figure in anti-immigration politics, has a substantial
following among the "pitchfork brigade" at the grassroots of the populist right, and is
also a regular presence on MSNBC. His sister Angela "Bay" Buchanan
served as chair of Tom Tancredo's Virginia-based Team America PAC, which
promotes anti-immigration candidates, and has now joined his presidential
campaign team. Bay Buchanan and Tancredo attended the Tombstone, Arizona
kick-off rally of the Minuteman Project in April 2005.
Although he pays lip service to the legal changes brought about by the civil
rights movement from the mid-1950s onwards, in his book State of Emergency:
The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, Pat Buchanan deplores
what he calls America's "national guilt over racism."
Buchanan believes this guilt is leading toward national and racial suicide
("demography is destiny"), a theme once championed by Theodore
Roosevelt that has a long history in the American nativist movement. In
attempting to explain this guilt phenomenon, he points to the
"seminal" work of Peter Brimelow, who argues that America's alleged
obsessive guilt about racism was caused essentially by an overreaction to the
genocidal crimes of the Nazis.
"Pat Buchanan deplores what he calls America's ‘national
guilt over racism.'"
By committing to "cleanse itself from all taints of racism and
xenophobia," Buchanan quotes Brimelow, the "U.S. political
elite" eventually "enacted the epochal Immigration Act of 1965,"
which did away with a quota system based on national origins that favored
Brimelow, an English immigrant who runs VDARE, a website filled with white
supremacist and anti-Semitic material, has called the Pioneer Fund, a
foundation that has backed racial eugenics research, a "perfectly
respectable institution." Buchanan writes a regular column for VDARE, for
which Tom Tancredo has also written.
In the acknowledgments section of State of Emergency, Buchanan singles out the
late Sam Francis (who edited the white supremacist Council of Conservative
Citizens' paper, The Citizens Informer) and Brimelow as the vanguard of
the anti-immigration movement. And while he praises the leaders of the
anti-immigrant think tank infrastructure, such as Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, Mark
Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and Dan Stein of the Federation
for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), he cites a slew of VDARE columnists in
the book and thanks James Fulford of VDARE for help with the manuscript.
The racist roots of the anti-immigration movement run deep. In his important
study of American immigration politics up to the 1920's, Strangers in the Land,
John Higham identifies two broad strains of anti-immigrant racial supremacism,
one based on culture and the other, with the rise of Social Darwinism, based on
heredity and genetics. These trends now seem to be converging, and are being
mainstreamed into the American media through Buchanan's high visibility.
Nativism Goes to Harvard
As Higham points out, anti-immigrant racial nativism was not restricted to
populist demagogues who directed their appeals to poor and working class whites
(e.g., an anti-immigrant Minute Men organization was formed in 1886 in New
York). Powerful strains of racially-charged propaganda directed at immigrants
have also emanated from the political elite and top universities.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., stood up in the Senate in 1896 and warned in a debate
over imposing literacy tests on immigrants that America's national character was
in danger of being "bred out." Francis A. Walker, the president of
MIT, developed a theory in the late 1890s that "beaten men from beaten
races" were, with their higher birthrate, dooming white America.
Books such as Madison Grant's 1916 The Passing of the Great Race,
proclaimed that "democracy is fatal to progress when two races of unequal
value live side by side." The book helped spur a nativist movement, backed
by the Ku Klux Klan, that contributed to the passage of draconian restrictions on immigration in 1924. The new nativist movement of
today has also spurred a resurgence of the racist Klan.
Grant, a lawyer and president of the New York Zoological Society, was vice
president of the Immigration Restriction League, which was, Higham tells us, "born at a
meeting of five young blue bloods in the law office of Charles Warren, later a
noted constitutional historian." All five had attended Harvard together in
the 1880's and had gone on to do graduate work at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific
School or its law school.
new nativist movement of today has also spurred a resurgence of the racist
The IRL, which eventually turned to eugenics and briefly considered renaming
itself the Eugenic
Immigration League, quickly developed close ties with the leading nativist
factions and lobbyists in Congress and went on to fight immigration under the
direction of prominent attorney Prescott Hall and Harvard professor Robert
"Pat Buchanan with Footnotes"
A century after the formation of the IRL, the tradition of highbrow panic about
the perils of immigration still finds a home at Harvard. In Who Are We? The
Challenges to America's National Identity, Samuel P. Huntington, arguably
the leading political scientist in the U.S., strikes the very same themes that
Buchanan, Tancredo and Hanson do in their less footnoted (or in the case of
Hanson, non-footnoted) nativist diatribes: white Protestant culture, which
forms the core of America's identity, is being marginalized by immigration,
multiculturalism, and (Huntington adds) the "denationalization" of
For good measure, he produces a lengthy section on how affirmative action has
contributed to the "deconstruction of America" through its alleged
abandonment of the intent doctrine, starting with the labor department's
enforcement of the anti- discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, and continuing through the Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power (401
U.S. 424, 1971).
Huntington's notion that the intent doctrine has been abandoned would surely
come as a surprise to those who see it as a major legal impediment to
challenging racial discrimination. Nevertheless, he writes that affirmative
action, along with "the challenge to English" has contributed to the
rise of "subnational identities" (African-Americans and Latinos) that
are posing a dire threat to "the core culture."
"Hispanization," he tells us, echoing the rhetoric of the Minutemen,
is threatening a "demographic reconquista" of the southwest U.S. America's unity, which he falsely sees
as based on "Anglo-Protestant" culture, is being undermined by
largely Mexican influences. But Huntington, while steering clear of racist
pseudo-science, goes beyond the argument about culture to suggest that
"white nativist movements are a possible and plausible response" to
the prospect that whites may someday become a minority in the U.S.
writes that affirmative action, along with ‘the challenge to English' has
contributed to the rise of ‘subnational identities' (African-Americans and
Latinos) that are posing a dire threat to ‘the core culture.'"
As Boston University political scientist Alan Wolfe has remarked, "the
word 'plausible' catches the eye. To say that something is possible or probable
is to make a prediction; to call it plausible is to endorse it."
Huntington's argument, "at times bordering on hysteria," is "Pat
Buchanan with footnotes."
Huntington's tacit nod to the white populist movement has been reciprocated by
Peter Brimelow, who describes him as "a friend of VDARE."
Racial Nativism and the Conservative Infrastructure
Ideological advocacy has played an important role in the resurgence of racial
nativism in the anti-immigration movement. But the conservative think tank and foundation
infrastructure has played an important part in this revival, both by
mainstreaming its ideas through books, op-eds and media appearances and by
supporting the organizations promoting the demographic
and other research that has fed it. This intellectual infrastructure feeds this
movement at the base.
Charles L. Heatherly, one of the architects of the Heritage Foundation's model
for furnishing right wing politicians with actionable policy ideas as editor of
several of its Mandate for Leadership handbooks, provided a
"priceless contribution" to In Mortal Danger, Tom Tancredo
writes. A former staffer for Tancredo, Heatherly now works as a senior aide to
the congressman (see his appearance on Tancredo's behalf on YouTube).
Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia was written at the suggestion of Peter
Collier, the founding publisher of Encounter Books, which has been backed by
the Koch, Bradley and Olin Foundations. It is an expanded version of an article
published by Hanson in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's flagship publication. Myron Magnet, the journal's editor,
helped edit the article and book.
"This intellectual infrastructure feeds this