NSF PROJECT: Race, Immigration, and Citizenship in the Americas (now a book manuscript entitled Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, co-authored with David FitzGerald and under contract with Harvard University Press). From our book proposal: For most Americans, the idea that some human beings are inherently inferior to others is repugnant to democratic ideals of equality and fairness. Generations of scholars have argued that racism is a kind of foreign object that eventually works its way out of the skin of the democratic body politic. Culling the Masses challenges this assumption by showing how governments have deliberately chosen their populations through laws of immigration and nationality. Laws deciding which ethnic groups can enter a country to become part of the national citizenry reveal who policymakers think is equal and who is inferior. Our comprehensive study shows that contrary to popular belief, racial selection of immigrants began in democratic—not authoritarian—countries. The United States led the way in creating racist policies in its nationality laws in 1790 and its immigration laws in 1803, followed by the self-governing colonies and dominions of the British Empire. While all countries in the Americas eventually adopted racist selection policies, authoritarian regimes—not the democracies, first reversed their discriminatory laws in the late 1930s and 40s, as much as a generation before liberal-democratic Canada and the United States did the same.
The conventional claim that racism and democracy are incompatible fails to explain why liberal-democracies were leaders and then laggards in removing such policies. By analyzing immigration and nationality laws at an unprecedented scale—in the 22 principal countries of the Americas from 1790 to 2010—Culling the Masses explains the rise and fall of racial selection and its morally uncomfortable relationship with democracy in practice. Historical case studies show that ideologies of liberalism and the institutions of democracy actually promoted racist immigration policies in nineteenth-century North America. Policymakers argued that Asians, Africans, and Southern Europeans were inherently incapable of participating in self-government. Workers who felt threatened by particular immigrant groups effectively used elections and the free press to demand racial restriction. When autocratic governments in Latin America turned populist and opened up their political systems to voices from below in the early 1930s, their immigration policies also became more racist. Democracy and populism created more racial inequality, not less. The demise of racist immigration policies began in Latin America in the late 1930s and finally spread to North America in the 1960s and through most of the globe by the 1980s. The explanation for why those policies converged in that sequence can't be found with orthodox approaches to immigration policy that study an individual country as if it were an isolated unit. The policy of each country is affected by the policies of others. By taking an innovative approach to understanding the interaction between domestic and international politics, we find that geopolitical factors drove the demise of racial selection. The greater assertiveness of Latin American countries in their relationship with the United States during the Good Neighbor Policy of the late 1930s, the existential struggle of World War II that prompted Anglophone powers to promise to treat non-European immigrants more equitably, and the global battle for the hearts and minds of the decolonizing Third World during the Cold War eventually forced North America to end its racial selection of immigrants and adopt international principles of racial equality. Third World countries successfully ended the international humiliation of seeing their nationals and co-ethnics singled out for discrimination by countries of immigration. Surprisingly, governments of weaker countries were able to use the UN and other institutions created by the great powers to push forward principles of racial equality that the Anglophone powers resisted.