The United Kingdom has been in the midst of a giant immigration backlash prompted by the net arrival of roughly 1.4 million Eastern Europeans since 2004. From my perspective, that was surprising. After all, the Eastern Europeans are white and Christian or post-Christian. Don’t we all know that the reason the United States — or at least Trump supporters — gets all wiggy about Mexican immigration is because most Mexicans don’t look “white”?
Well, do we really know that?
There is evidence that racial phenotypes have had a strong impact on Mexican-Americans. Before 1945, many southwestern states (well, Texas) treated Mexican-Americans as black for the purposes of segregation. The historic impact of that has been under-studied. There is evidence, however, that once the legal barriers fell away in the late 1940s and 1950s, Mexican-Americans began moving into the “white” category, both de jure and de facto ... until the 1970s and the advent of mass immigration from Mexico.
At that point, native-born whites began to react against the arrival of Spanish-speaking immigrants. But because those immigrants were (in most but not all cases) phenotypically different, native-born Anglos began to discriminate against anyone who looked like the new immigrants. That in turn made race more salient in the lives of native-born Mexican-Americans and impeded assimilation. This is the finding advanced by Tomás Jiménez in his book. (Discussed here in the context of Reihan Salam’s misinterpretation of Jiménez’s results.)
So there is evidence that prejudice against immigrants hits most second, some third, and a few fourth-generation Mexican-Americans.*
But imagine for a moment that the United States bordered Russia to the south, instead of Mexico. Is there any evidence that Americans would have reacted better to the net arrival of 12 million Russian-speakers between 1970 and 2015? Russia is a violent and corrupt country. Assuming (reasonably) that a Russia right next to the United States would have neither nuclear weapons nor imperial ambitions, it is not at all clear to me that the anti-immigration reaction right now would be any less were most of the immigrants pale-skinned, blond-haired Russians.**
Rather, the difference would be that native-born Russian-Americans would be far less likely to be bothered by anti-immigrant sentiments than native-born Mexican-Americans. Not because the Russian-Americans would be any different than the Mexican-Americans in their underlying attitude. Rather, native-born Russian-Americans, being clearly white and indistinguishable from other white people, would not face day-to-day prejudice imposed upon them by the reaction of non-Russians to the presence of their newly-arrived cousins.
In short, in that world, Trumpism might be stronger.
* Mexican-Americans are more like the Germans than the Irish: if you are of mixed ancestry or appear Anglo, then you are less likely to tell anyone that you are Mexican-American. Readers from Wisconsin and West Texas will understand, I hope, that their experiences of German-Americans are not representative.
** Obviously, there are too many other differences to make this a reasonable experiment: we are really asking, what if Mexicans looked like Russians? But it is fun to imagine President Polk launching an expansionist war against Tsarist Russia over the equivalent of Finland and Poland, in a world where they share a long land border with the United States. I like to pretend we would win, but I know at least one military historian of Russia reads this blog. Mexico had a population around 7 million in 1846, against 17 million Americans ... and 38 million European Russians.