X is for Xenophobia (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)

ROARING TWENTIES - Xenophobia - The 1920s were years of excitment and good life, but also of irrational fears and anxiety. Xenophobia is a perfect example of this

XIn spite of its bustling life, the excitement for so many new innovations, the increased quality of life in many parts of the country and the new freedom many people enjoyed, the Twenties was also a time of great (sometimes irrational) fear and anxiety.

There are many reasons why American society as a whole felt insecure.
The very fast change of ways of life and morals foreshadows an unpredictable future that, if it was exciting for some (especially young people) it was scary for many. Cities were fast growing, changing their faces both in terms of environment and population. There was a new way to do nearly everything, and people had to adjust to it whether they felt comfortable about it or not.
In addition to this, many things were happening outside the US that forced their way in.
World War I broke out in Europe, and even if America tried to stay out of it for a long time, she was eventually forced to enter the conflict, sending her young men across the ocean never to see many of them return. This left an undercurrent of insecurity in all that generation that sparked (some say) the demand for life and fun in the Twenties but implanted insecurity deep down.
Right after the war ended, Revolution broke out in Russia, bringing about a communist regime. The idea that that ideology could reach across the ocean and destroy the right to ownership so important to American society created an hysteria (the Red Scare) that, though largely unfounded, was nonetheless powerful and informed many sections of American life.
Immingrants coming to the United States 1920sProhibition created the possibility for many gangs and gangsters to raise an unbelievable racket that brought a different war in the streets of the major cities. New immigrants willing to work for substandard wages and to brake union strikes flooded into cities across the nation.

There seemed to be a common element to much of this: the causes of much of this insecurity were imported. They came from outside, carried over by the crowds of people coming from across the oceans, especially from Europe. So there was a solution: the gates must be closed.

Up to the end of the XIX century, immigration policy had been quite liberal. The young nation was growing fast and it needed people and workers, so basically anyone would be let in, as long as they were wiling to become regular Americans as everyone else.
But in the Twenties, one third of the population had immigrated or was born to immigrated parents. They were still so new to America, they could hardly be considered Americans yet. Most of time, they still practiced their own original culture. They may bring in ideas from their original countries.
The first Immigration Act was passed in 1917, right after America entered WWI and it restricted access to only people who could read and write in English or any other language.
After the race riots of the summer 1919, the wave of strikes that smelt of communism in 1919-1920 and the beginning of the “crime wave” brought about by ethnic gangs, Congress passed an emergency immigration act in 1921. For the first time, this act stated a maximum quota to immigration from Europe to 3%of the number of people from any single nationality as they appeared in the 1910 census.
But the master law was the Immigration Act of 1924, which brought down the percentage to 2% of any single nationality as it appeared in the census of 1880.
That left only a trickle of immigration from Northern Europe. The gates were closed.



The Social Studies Help Center – To what extent was American xenophibic in the 1920s?
Office of the Historian – The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)
Immigration in America – The Immigration Act of 1924BBC – What was the Red Scare?

The Immigration Act of 1924 (pdf)

Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

22 Comments on "X is for Xenophobia (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)"

  1. ‘The very fast change of ways of life and morals foreshadows an unpredictable future that, if it was exciting for some (especially young people) it was scary for many’. I think this a constant, regardless of the decade.

    The only constant is change. People always resist change and fear it. But the younger generation either embraces it or leads it. And that threatens their elders.

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)
    Mee Magnum recently posted…“W” is for Wonton #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

    • I agree, fear of change is a constant in our history. But I don’t necessarily agree that the younger generations are more open and ready to accept it.
      Of course, it also depends what kind of change we are talking 😉

  2. What an exciting time, yet I can also see how it would be scary. Even today, change happens fairly quickly. I wonder where we’ll be in another 50 – 100 years.
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…Witch Hazel and WillowMy Profile

  3. It really makes me sick thinking about how my own country conspired to keep out so many deserving would-be immigrants and signed their death warrants by keeping them trapped in Europe and the USSR. It’s also horrific how one of these quotas was alternately called “The Emergency Immigration Quota.” Yes, what an emergency, WASPs having to share their country with people from Asia, Southern Europe, and Eastern Europe!
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Stefania Wilczynska (Madame Stefa)My Profile

    • But at least, I hope we’ll be able to learn from the past. And we certainly need it now.
      The same feeling of scare is widespeard now in Europe, with people coming in from all around us.
      I hear many politicians say (at least here in Italy) this is not an emergency, but a generational and epocal event and it should be handled (and understood) as such. I think this is true, but when a population is experiencing it, it’s very hard to see it that way.

  4. I wish this was something we could say was behind us – but it isn’t. I’ve read two X posts already this morning on present-day xenophobia. Here in the UK I worry about the foothold UKIP (a xenophobic, racist party even though they say they aren’t) might get in parliament after the election next week.
    Anabel Marsh recently posted…Gallus Glasgow X: Glasgow CrossMy Profile

    • UKIP concern me greatly to, Anabel. If they were to get into power, it would be the beginning if the end for the UK in my opinion

      TD Harvey
      A to Z participant

    • With boats landing every day on Sicily shores, the situation is quite dire here in Italy too. It seems easy to say, if we don’t allow them to come, everything will be easier, and some people play hard on this sentiment, especially since many migrants come from Libia, that is from ISIS territory. But unfortunately, there’s nothing easy about this, and this is, I think, the scariest thing.

  5. It’s funny how things change and still stay the same – we still see this attitude in some places now. In the end it is all about balancing the old with the new.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…AtoZChallenge2015 – X is for XoanonMy Profile

  6. I do believe Xenophobia is still a big issue today. Here in the UK, we’re told to fear invasion from Eastern European counties joining the EU. I also believe there are still old prejudices and fears left over from the twenties and later. Generations teach each other their fears. It’s a sad fact of life.

    I agree we have much in common with the twenties. Both periods were times of massive flux. I’m not sure who managed it better us or them!

    TD Harvey
    A to Z participant
    TD Harvey recently posted…X Xenic XultureMy Profile

    • Hard to say.
      I don’t know up there in the UK, but here in the Mediterranean, fear of people coming in mixes with fear of terrorism, specifically ISIS terrorism. It’s a very dangerous mix.

  7. This post is another great example of why I am so happy to have found this blog during the #Challenge and am now following. Well done..again!
    Stepheny Houghtlin recently posted…AtoZ Blog Challenge – X – A taXi in RomeMy Profile

  8. A great pick for ‘X’ and another wonderfully written, thoughtful article. I can’t believe that tomorrow’s the penultimate day – where did the time go?

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z
    Fee recently posted…eXcalibur: The Tale of Canonbie DickMy Profile

  9. The more I read your oh-so-well-done blog, the more I am amazed at the historical parallels. As I read about riots in the 20’s and hear the radio detailing riots in Baltimore – although some of the reasons are not exactly the same, there is a movement in America to limit immigration, to denigrate those who have alternate cultures. I wonder if I was reading your blog in the 1980’s or 1940’s, say, if I would be reacting the same way. History repeats itself for sure.
    Jeri Burns recently posted…Daily Ghost Post – W is for Will-o’-the-WispMy Profile

  10. Great article. I love ghost stories and your trilogy sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Christiane and thanks so much for stopping by.
      I’m happy you’re intrigued by my trilogy. It was a great fun to write (well, it is still a great fun to write) so I hope readers will have fun reading it too… assuming one day it will be published 😉

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