Nativism - Nativism's death knell?




In 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson sought to achieve a Great Society at home and in Southeast Asia, Congress passed an epochal immigration act that appeared to signal the death knell of nativism. Reflecting the nation's growing commitment to confronting racism, this law replaced the discriminatory national origins quotas of 1924 with an agenda based on family preference. The law exempted close relatives of persons already in the United States and limited newcomers from the Eastern Hemisphere to 170,000 persons annually and from the Western Hemisphere to 120,000 annually. Although Congress expected most immigrants to come from Europe, an upswing in Europe's economy, deteriorating conditions in Latin America, and the agonizing war in Southeast Asia produced a different outcome. In fact, the tide of immigration and refugees in 1976–1986 ranked the newcomers, in descending order of numbers: Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Nationalist China (Taiwan), and Cuba. Never had the nation been more multicultural.

Nativism did not disappear, however, and in the last quarter of the twentieth century antiforeign sentiment erupted during periods of economic duress, especially in areas in which these groups settled and in contexts where political candidates like Pat Buchanan courted voters with antiforeign themes. Residents of the postindustrial rust belt seemed most sensitive to antiforeign ideas, which often emerged with antigovernment tones. For example, the downturn in the American automotive market negatively affected Asian Americans. The Ku Klux Klan and other survivalist and hate groups still sputtered along, erupting occasionally, as an unhappy underside of multicultural reality. Defenders of an older America denounced nonwhite newcomers, as their predecessors dunned immigrants in the 1840s, 1890s, and 1920s. But the nostalgic nativism at the beginning of the twenty-first century—never more than a minority position—did not hide the point that newcomers since the 1970s had often done the kinds of work that native-born Americans choose not to do. In this way newcomers continued to reap the promise of what was still the most powerful force on earth—the American dream. The terrorist plane crash into the Pentagon and the destruction of the New York World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001, however, heralded a new chapter in nativism. Americans of Middle Eastern descent now faced uncertainty as the Republic gathered its resources to meet a new kind of threat to its national security.

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