Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas

AHA Session 85
Immigration and Ethnic History Society 3
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Erika Lee, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Donna R. Gabaccia, University of Toronto
Madeline Y. Hsu, University of Texas at Austin
Jeffrey Lesser, Emory University
José C. Moya, Barnard College, Columbia University
David FitzGerald, University of California, San Diego and David Cook-Martín, Grinnell College

Session Abstract

This roundtable sponsored by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society will bring together historians of international migration, race and ethnicity, and the Americas to discuss Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policies in the Americas (Harvard University Press, 2014). The discussion will squarely center around the conference theme of "Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors." 

Culling the Masses questions the widely held view that in the long run democracy and racism cannot coexist. The authors show that democracies were the first countries in the Americas to select immigrants by race, and undemocratic states the first to outlaw discrimination. Through an unprecedented analysis of legal records from 22 countries between 1790 and 2010, we present a history of the rise and fall of racial selection in the Western Hemisphere. The United States led the way in using legal means to exclude “inferi­or” ethnic groups. Starting in 1790, Congress began passing nation­ality and immigration laws that prevented Africans and Asians from becoming citizens, on the grounds that they were inherently incapa­ble of self-government. Similar policies were soon adopted by the self-governing colonies and dominions of the British Empire, eventual­ly spreading across Latin America as well. Undemocratic regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Cuba re­versed their discriminatory laws in the 1930s and 1940s, decades ahead of the United States and Canada. The conventional claim that racism and democracy are antithetical—because democracy depends on ideals of equality and fairness, which are incompatible with the no­tion of racial inferiority—cannot explain why liberal democracies were leaders in promoting racist policies and laggards in eliminating them. Ultimately, the changed racial geopolitics of World War II and the Cold War was necessary to convince North American countries to reform their immigration and citizenship laws.

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