One hundred years of American fear

By Alexia Underwood

When U.S. lawmakers and presidential candidates blame Muslims for violent events it may seem shocking — but it’s not so unusual. Over the past 100 years, in moments of political crisis or fear, the U.S. government has often engaged in fearmongering. U.S. lawmakers have passed laws targeting specific groups which they deemed a threat to national cohesion or security so often that we decided to choose one group per decade that was specifically targeted. (Disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list, and we do not mean to imply that discrimination against these particular groups was limited to a single decade. We do hope these examples lead to further discussion about the effects of legalizing discrimination.)

1910s: Chinese Laborers

In the mid-1800s, a large number of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. looking for work and a better life. They found jobs as laborers, and worked in gold mines and on farms. They also built railroads. But other workers grew fearful that Chinese immigrants were taking jobs from them because they were willing to work for lower wages. In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (the first act in U.S. history to put major restrictions on immigration) and strengthened it 10 years later with the Geary Act, which virtually stopped all Chinese immigration. Many Chinese immigrants in the U.S. were forced to register with the government and obtain a certificate of residence, or be deported. Beginning in 1910, Chinese immigrants were detained in places like the Angel Island Immigration station near San Francisco and interrogated for weeks, months and even years. The Chinese Exclusion act was repealed in 1943 with the hope of improving the U.S. diplomatic relationship with China during WWII.

1920s: Organized Labor

In post-WWI America, employers cracked down on unions, wages declined and large numbers of workers were laid off. U.S. Republican ‘pro-business’ administrations passed anti-labor laws, and several Supreme Court rulings targeted unions and worker protections. “Yellow-dog” contracts, where employees promised not to join a union as a condition of their employment, were common. Throughout the 1920s, U.S. employers used the term the “American Plan” to describe how they refused to negotiate with unions. One of the largest unions, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was greatly weakened in the aftermath of a failed 1926 strike.

1930s: Mexican Americans

The 1930s were marked by the Great Depression, when nearly a quarter of Americans were unemployed. Americans turned their ire on Mexican immigrants, among others, whom they believed were taking their jobs. Officials at the federal, state and local level took part in “Mexican repatriation campaigns,” which included rounding up Mexicans and Mexican Americans and deporting them. Up to 2 million people were deported to Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s; about half were U.S. citizens.

1940s: Japanese Americans

During WWII, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used Executive Order 9066 to relocate about 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans to incarceration camps (two-thirds of the people placed in camps were U.S. citizens). The majority of these “evacuations” occurred on the West Coast, but people were placed in camps across the country. Most of the people incarcerated lost their personal property and homes. Smaller numbers of German Americans and Italian Americans were also forcibly relocated to camps. The order was rescinded after WWII, and the last camp closed in 1946.

1950s: Communists

The postwar era in the U.S. was marked by heightened fear toward so-called political radicals, foremost among them, Communists. The Communist Control Act of 1954 officially outlawed the Communist Party in the U.S. and made membership in the party a criminal act. Also known as McCarthyism (for notorious anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy), the Second Red Scare was a time when the government prosecuted people they believed to be associated with the Communist Party. Public employees like teachers were required to take loyalty oaths in over 39 states, books like “The Grapes of Wrath” were banned, and high-profile directors and screenwriters were investigated and prosecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After McCarthy started targeting people in the U.S. Army, many prominent politicians began to fight back, and his influence (and public fears about Communists) started to diminish.

1960s: New Left

In the tumultuous 1960s, activists known as the New Left, which included civil rights leaders, feminists and Native Americans, were put under surveillance by the FBI. COINTELPRO (the FBI’s covert action programs against domestic groups) targeted high-profile civil rights leaders like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI even sent King a letter referring to his extramarital affairs and implied that he should commit suicide. In 1971, the program was exposed when activists broke into FBI offices, stole thousands of documents, then released them to the media.

1970s: The Protester

In reaction to the ongoing war in Vietnam, the 1970s was a decade marked by protests and civil action, and often included police overreach. The Kent State protests followed President Richard Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia and his intention to draft 150,000 more soldiers into the Army. At that demonstration, National Guardsmen fired into the crowd and killed four students, which led to hundreds more protests and strikes against the war. In 1973, about 200 members of the Oglala Lakota (part of the Great Sioux Nation) and supporters of Native American rights occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee for more than 70 days. They were protesting both the failure of an Ogala Sioux group’s attempt to impeach their president on corruption charges and the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native Americans.

1980s: The Gay Community

During the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the American gay community faced several new discriminatory pieces of legislation. In 1982, the U.S. Department of Defense said that homosexuality was “incompatible” with serving in the military and nearly 17,000 gay troops were discharged over the next eight years. The U.S. government also delayed responding to the AIDS epidemic; after six years of silence, President Ronald Reagan finally referred to the virus by name in public and established a presidential commission on HIV. In 1988, Senator Helms proposed an amendment that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from funding any AIDS program that might “promote, condone or encourage homosexual activities.” By the end of the 1980s over 27,000 people in the U.S. had died of AIDS-related illnesses.

1990s: Welfare Recipients

Though welfare recipients have been mocked and disparaged since at least the 1960s, the term “welfare queen” gained popularity in the ‘70s. Reagan, campaigning for president, seized upon the story of one woman in Chicago, Linda Taylor, who was indicted on welfare fraud (she had also been accused of homicide, kidnapping and more). The term has been used by politicians and the media to evoke the image of a single mother who is abusing the welfare system and taking advantage of taxpayers. The welfare queen stereotype was used as an argument to defund federal welfare programs. Though welfare recipients are often depicted as African American, the vast majority of people in the U.S. who receive benefits like food stamps are Caucasian. A 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton limited welfare funds for unmarried parents under 18, and put restrictions on any funding for immigrants.

2000s: Muslims

After the September 11 attacks, anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. sky-rocketed. The government passed the Patriot Act, which granted law enforcement agencies expanded powers to target Muslims and U.S. citizens in general. (The FBI has used the Patriot Act to target entire immigrant communities and interrogate people at will, as well as go through a person’s personal records without any actual evidence.) Various cities attempted to restrict the building of mosques, and according to Human Rights Watch, more than 500 terrorism cases that have been prosecuted in U.S. federal courts since 2001 targeted individuals — mostly Muslim — who were not involved in or connected to terrorist plots. Hate crimes against Muslims greatly increased as well.

2010s: Undocumented Immigrants

In recent years, anti-immigrant rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. States have passed laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which contain wide-ranging restrictions, like requiring non U.S. citizens over 14 to register and carry documents proving their legal status, and allowing police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops. People who transported, sheltered or employed undocumented immigrants could be penalized. According to Mother Jones, more than 160 anti-immigration laws were passed in the brief period from 2010–2012.

*The still photos in this Medium post are taken from the above AJ+ video and are meant to represent the groups referenced.