THE ANGER WAS SIMMERING long before Donald Trump. Before his pledge to build a wall at the southern border, before his call for a “deportation force” to round up unauthorized immigrants, before his proposals to deport Dreamers and defund sanctuary cities, before his “zero-tolerance” policy that put children in cages, nativist animosity was there.1 Trump began characterizing migrants as agents of contamination long before he dubbed the COVID-19 pandemic “the Chinese virus”—and then “kung flu”—and exploited an obscure public health law to deny refugees the ability to apply for asylum.2
Indeed, such vitriolic and dehumanizing rhetoric against migrants was already part of our national conversation. In calling Mexicans and other immigrants diseased, rapists, and criminals, Trump merely became the loudest voice with the ugliest, most unvarnished rhetoric.3
Indeed, for anyone paying attention, America has long been witness to a seemingly endless stream of xenophobic and racially charged statements, proposals, and policies targeting migrants—particularly Latinx migrants.4 More than a decade before Trump’s election, congressman Steve King of Iowa suggested that the United States build a concrete border wall topped with wire to keep out migrants, stating, “We could also electrify this wire. . . . We do that with livestock all the time.”5 Six years later, King gave a speech comparing immigrants to dogs.6 In 2010, Tennessee Republican Curry Todd likened undocumented immigrants to “rats [who] multiply.” The next year, Kansas state representative Virgil Peck suggested that migrants be shot like “feral hogs” as a solution to America’s “illegal immigration problem.”7 Echoing anti-immigrant politicians, conservative pundits such as Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter have built careers—and fostered an entire industry—based on attacking migrants, characterizing immigration as an existential crisis and encouraging the United States to pursue increasingly restrictive and punitive policies.8
Not only has immigration become increasingly partisan, dividing conservatives from liberals, but anti-immigrant sentiment has grown so intense that it fractures the American Right itself. This divide—between establishment conservatives who favor neoliberal forms of free trade dependent on an exploitable pool of immigrant labor and the more restrictive nativist wing—was on spectacular display at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual gathering attended by conservative activists and elected officials from across the United States and, increasingly, Europe.9 At the only 2018 CPAC panel dedicated to the topic of immigration, audience members “drown[ed] out panelists’ presentation of the data about the benefits of immigration” with boos and jeers:
During a heated question and answer session during the immigration panel, a man from Four Corners, Virginia, went on an extended diatribe about a Latino man who once crashed his car in front of his house. “I had to go down to court to testify, and I was the only white face in the crowd other than the lawyers being paid to translate for these people,” he said. “You can go down to Four Corners Park and see obvious illegal immigrants defecating in the woods, fornicating in the woods, and on and on and on. These people are not the immigrants of the ’20s and ’30s. They will never be able to get good jobs here and be good citizens. Is that in your study?” . . .
As David Bier, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, attempted to lay out research proving that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than native-born Americans, contribute significantly to the economy and are assimilating just as well or better than past generations of immigrations, his fellow panelists derided his statements as “nutty” and angry audience members shouted him down. . . . Whenever Bier cited research to counter incorrect claims from his fellow panelists and the audience that recent immigrants are disproportionately criminal, are an economic drain on government or take several generations to learn English, he was met with vocal hostility.10
Insisting that today’s immigrants are demographically and racially threatening (“I was the only white face”), disproportionately criminal, “obviously” illegal, impossible to assimilate, and spectacularly bestial (“defecating in the woods, fornicating in the woods”), it became clear why CPAC organizers had elected to hold only one panel on the issue of immigration: additional events would have made the deep divide among conservatives even more conspicuous. Yet even at this single event, the split was as unmistakable as it was ontological. Both attendees and even some panelists at CPAC refused to accept not only the accuracy but the very reality of the facts and data presented by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by the Charles Koch Foundation. In refusing to grant legitimacy to information and statistics widely understood to be accurate, participants embodied not only the disagreement but the deep incommensurability between certain segments of the GOP establishment and the nativist beliefs of the party’s electoral base. Indeed, for a specific segment of politicians, pundits, activists, and voters, immigrants seem to serve as a kind of affective trigger, touching off paroxysms of rage and frustration regarding what they see as an existential threat to the United States and its economic future, sovereign integrity, and racial and cultural identity.
Given this dynamic, a number of questions come to the fore: Why has immigration—particularly from Mexico and Latin America—become such a potent and emotionally galvanizing issue for the American Right? What is driving the upsurge in anti-Latinx nativism at this historical moment? And why are Latinos (particularly migrants but often native-born Latinos as well) such an affectively charged population for political conservatives?11
The intensity of nativist sentiment on the Right—their conviction that the United States faces an ever-worsening “crisis at the border” that must be confronted with increasingly draconian and violent measures—is made more striking by the fact that unauthorized immigration has been falling for more than a decade. In 2007, 6.9 million unauthorized Mexicans were living in the United States; ten years later, the number had fallen by 2 million. In fact, since 2015, Mexican migration to the United States has been net negative,12 and Mexicans now compose fewer than half of all unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.13 As Tomás Jiménez and Ana Raquel Minian point out, the incentives for Mexicans to go north had sharply declined even before the economic downturn in 2008 and long before Donald Trump pledged to build his infamous border wall.14 Indeed, the comparatively steady size of the Mexican-origin U.S. population is maintained entirely by the birth of U.S.-born individuals.
The dramatic decline of Mexicans living in the United States has less to do with U.S. policies and border militarization than it does with simple demographics.15 As Minian notes, since the 1970s, the Mexican government had adopted population-control policies that reduced Mexico’s fertility rate.16 The result has been that over the last fifty-odd years, the Mexican birthrate has dropped from almost seven children per mother to just over two, making today’s potential migrant pool much smaller. As Peter Beinart observes, “even a strengthening U.S. economy hasn’t lifted the numbers, because the young Mexican men who in past decades crossed the border today don’t exist in the same numbers.”17 In other words, shifting economic opportunities in Mexico and the United States and changing fertility patterns—not “tough, zero-tolerance” policies—are what have reshaped patterns of migration. And while migrants are still coming from violence-plagued Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to seek legal asylum, those three countries’ populations are much smaller—combined, the three countries contain “about one-quarter as many people as Mexico.”18
Alongside these demographic realities, polls also show that immigration is becoming a far less divisive issue for the majority of the U.S. population. The share of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration has fallen from a high of 65 percent in the mid-1990s to a record low of only 35 percent. The percentage of Americans saying immigrants “mostly help” the economy is at its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993. According to a recent Pew Research poll, about two-thirds of Americans (62 percent) say that immigrants “strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.”19 Yet for nativist voters, the United States remains a nation besieged.20
Scholars and pollsters have long demonstrated that American politics has become increasingly polarized, with race, national identity, and immigration sharply dividing Democratic from Republican voters.21 In their 2017 book White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics, for example, political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal reveal how the issue of immigration has reshaped American politics: “white Americans who harbor anti-immigrant sentiments are much more likely than others to identify as Republican and favor Republican candidates.” Millions of white Americans “who feel real anxiety about immigration” are drawn to the Republican Party because that is the political party “that has promised to ease such concerns.”22 Echoing Abrajano and Hajnal’s findings, Lee Drutman of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that “Trump’s biggest enthusiasts within the party are Republicans who hold the most anti-immigration and anti-Muslim views, demonstrate the most racial resentment, and are most likely to view Social Security and Medicare as important within the Republican Party.” According to Drutman, “almost a third of Trump voters (31.8 percent) responded with the strongest anti-immigration attitude on all three VOTER Survey questions.”23 Similarly, a study of the 2016 presidential election by Diana Mutz and published by the National Academy of Sciences found that Trump voters in 2016 were motivated less by economic anxiety than by fears of cultural displacement and the waning power and status of whiteness. For example, whites who said discrimination against white people is “a serious problem” were much more likely to favor Trump. Even more significantly, white voters who favored deporting immigrants living in the country illegally were 3.3 times more likely to express a preference for Trump than those who did not.24
Of course, policies that make life more violent and precarious for immigrants have long been a bipartisan affair.25 Before Trump, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all supported legislation and policies making migration a more punitive and perilous process.26 Yet notwithstanding this long history of both parties criminalizing migration, a growing share of GOP politicians and voters appear to seek something beyond enforcement—they also desire visible displays of cruelty and suffering. Increasingly indignant over what they perceive as government tolerance for “illegal” immigrants, nativists take satisfaction in the violent targeting of those they feel have broken laws with impunity. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, undocumented workers suffered as much as (if not more than) anyone, yet Republicans inserted language into the federal government’s $2.2 trillion aid bill barring $1,200 stimulus checks from going to not only undocumented taxpayers but anyone living in their households.27
Yet while numerous studies show that support for punitive immigration policies is central to why certain voters support Republicans more generally (and Donald Trump in particular), there is little in-depth analysis as to why this is the case. For example, while Abrajano and Hajnal provide outstanding data analysis showing that anti-immigrant (and often anti-Latino) policy preferences play a significant role in the large-scale defection of whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party, the authors admit that “one question we have not answered is why so many white Americans feel threatened by immigration in the first place.”28 Claiming they are “largely agnostic about what it is that drives attitudes concerning immigrants,” the authors acknowledge that there is a “wider range of mechanisms” that need to be looked at.29 Ultimately, the authors simply note that “there is something significant about immigration itself that matters to white Americans when they make basic political decisions.”30
This work seeks to identify that “something significant”—the assemblage of desires, anxieties, and aversions that generates intense anti-immigrant assertions and reactions from a certain segment of nativist voters. More specifically, how have America’s racial and civic legacies helped create the conditions for the anti-migrant nativism we see today? Equally significant, what kind of world do nativists envision? What sorts of experiences or practices do nativists wish for? In sum, what constitutes the nativist imaginary?
And finally, while recognizing that anger, resentment, and fear are central to nativist sentiment, how should we understand the various pleasures that come with describing and enacting anti-migrant practices and policies? Why do certain forms of performative cruelty resonate with so many conservative voters? What sorts of civic satisfaction and meaning are made possible through anti-migrant speech and action? And what is the historical and political context for such delightful horrors?
It’s my contention that making sense of contemporary anti-migrant sentiment requires confronting the violent and emotionally fraught history that political theorist Joel Olson refers to in The Abolition of White Democracy as the “democratic problem of the white citizen” and what W. E. B. Du Bois described as “democratic despotism.”31 Moving beyond studies that treat whiteness as a “neutral physical description of certain persons,” this research approaches whiteness as a political project—a social relation that is both dynamic and historical, a “form of power that shapes the public sphere and is shaped by it.”32 Building on the insights of Olson and Du Bois, this book turns to works of political theory, history, cultural studies, and critical race studies (particularly scholarship in Latinx and whiteness studies) to examine how whiteness emerged as an ideology invested in the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege—a form of racial hierarchy in which “the standing of one section of the population is premised on the debasement of another.”33
In shifting attention to the political practice of whiteness and its relationship to anti-Latinx nativism, my work shares an impulse with the work of Olson and other political theorists who seek to theorize racial violence by “reversing the optic”—focusing attention not only on those who have been injured but on the political and affective desires and racial imaginaries of “those who generate injury.”34
As Olson notes, racial oppression “makes full democracy impossible, but it has also made American democracy possible,” meaning that American democracy “is not just a solution but a political problem” as well.35 In this way, the United States can best be understood as “a white democracy, a polity ruled in the interests of a white citizenry and characterized by simultaneous relations of equality and privilege: equality among whites, who are privileged in relation to those who are not white.”36 As I discuss in the following pages, this collective understanding of the political meaning of whiteness evolved historically, marking a series of political choices that could have been otherwise. Such choices mean that for the majority of its history and until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whiteness has come to function in the United States as a form of racialized standing, a status that “granted all whites a superior social status to all those who were not white, particularly African Americans.”37 And while communities of color continually resisted the politics of white democracy, for generations, only a minority of white citizens acted politically against this form of racialized standing, making such opposition an atypical occurrence among most white citizens. Indeed, for much of its political history, the United States could be characterized as what the sociologist Pierre L. van der Berghe refers to as a Herrenvolk democracy—a regime that is “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for the subordinate groups.”38
While many scholars have found the concept of Herrenvolk democracy useful, it has also sparked debates regarding how best to understand white supremacy and its political effects. According to der Berghe, in Herrenvolk societies, a white minority maintains its privileged position by cultivating a sense of trust, solidarity, and equality among whites—an equality that stands in stark contrast to the despotic treatment meted out to nonwhite populations. By contrast, historian and American studies scholar David Roediger argues that while the early nineteenth century did see gains in political rights for poorer whites that were connected to the loss of rights by free Blacks, he also notes that “racism was not effectively linked to any significant social or political leveling among whites.” Instead, “there was a simple pushing down on the vulnerable bottom strata of society, even when there was little to be gained, except psychologically, from such a push.”39 Roediger suggests that a more apt term than Herrenvolk democracy would be Herrenvolk republicanism—an ideology premised on a racialized belief in popular sovereignty and the rule of law, alongside a concomitant belief that the will of the people was being corrupted by those above and below. Feeling victimized by the rich and powerful while also feeling under assault from those below (often people of color), Herrenvolk republicanism had the advantage of reassuring white citizens fearful of downward mobility that “one might lose everything but not whiteness.”40 For Roediger, Herrenvolk democracy is the wrong term because racism did not actually lessen inequality among whites or dramatically improve their material lives. Thus Herrenvolk politics was not actually “democratic.” In this way, we can see how Roediger conflates democracy with enhanced economic equality. Thus a more “democratic” society would be engaged in practices of “leveling” inequality.
While I agree with Roediger that there is an important relationship between democracy and economic equality, and that white subjects have often understood their citizenship as being threatened from above and below, my point is that the practice of “pushing down on the vulnerable strata” was itself a practice of domination whose appeal was democratic. Regardless of class status and the various inequalities that existed between whites, white standing put the power to dominate into the hands of all white citizens. That is what I take to mean “democratic for the master race”—not that Herrenvolk democracy gave white citizens the experience of a more level, economically equal society but rather that the power to dominate (to “push down”) was put in the hands of the many. Equally significant, in the United States, Herrenvolk democracy offered white citizens the material, psychological, and political satisfaction of being subjects protected by individual rights and the rule of law, while simultaneously allowing them the freedom to deny those same protections to those deemed nonwhite. Here my analysis draws on Charles Mills’s account of a Herrenvolk ethic—an ethic that constitutes “a moral dividing line by which equality and subordination are reconciled.”41 For Mills, a Herrenvolk ethic means that members of a privileged population are “simultaneously committed to liberal egalitarianism and racial hierarchy.”42
Initially premised on native dispossession and settlement and enriched through the stolen labor of human beings held as property, white democracy was legally sanctioned. Indian removal, chattel slavery, Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, segregated “Mexican schools” in Texas and across the Southwest, all-white police forces, racially exclusive housing covenants, Japanese internment, all-white juries, segregated facilities under Jim Crow in the South and Juan Crow in the Southwest—for the majority of U.S. history, white supremacy was not simply culturally acceptable but legally authorized. Racial discrimination was not de facto but de jure: white citizens had the legal right to deny equal rights to nonwhite citizens. Democratic for whites but tyrannical for subordinate groups, under Herrenvolk democracy, white citizens had access to the key components of constitutional liberalism defined by the rule of law and characterized by civil and political rights and civil liberties. Yet this form of liberalism was situated within a symbiotic relationship with white supremacy, in which the value of liberal citizenship was made manifest through the denial of equal rights and legal equality to nonwhite populations.
The tyrannical character of Herrenvolk democracy made it inevitable that white citizens would not simply come to expect and desire unequal applications of the law—many would seek to be the law, to replace the rule of law with their own actions and judgments and to see racial domination as a practice of freedom. In sum, Herrenvolk democracy in America was a form of democratic violence that begat violence and taught tyranny. Indeed, for the vast majority of our nation’s history, the United States functioned via Herrenvolk logics—operating as a form of rule whereby the majority of white citizens gave each other permission to engage in and express public support for extralegal acts of violence against those deemed nonwhite. White violence—the lynching, raping, defrauding, murdering, and rioting that targeted nonwhite populations—was supported through both the explicit and tacit consent of local, state, and federal governments.
At the same time, white citizens saw themselves and their communities as both defenders and beneficiaries of liberal democracy. Indeed, as a space of both opportunity and racial exclusion, white democracy was often experienced by its beneficiaries as a form of freedom; for many white citizens, whiteness as standing worked to create a racialized sensorium that felt less like privilege and more like fairness. Spaces of racial homogeneity were normalized—territories, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces were experienced as spaces of freedom where (white) mobility was encouraged, (white) equality was possible, and the rule of law and the values of constitutional liberalism prevailed.
Of course, the day-to-day reality of those spaces and communities was far from idyllic for anyone, and that fact—that white democracy’s reality was messy, multifarious, and characterized by the failure of some to thrive—helps to both reinforce and obscure the reality of white privilege and white democracy. Lack of success among individual white citizens is read as proof of the system’s fairness, reinforcing the conviction that one’s achievements are personal and merit based rather than simultaneously historical, racial, and constituted by various forms of inequality. In this way, white citizens envision and experience opportunity and accomplishment not as racialized but as rightful and hard-won. Majority-white schools, neighborhoods, and community institutions were made white through violence; racialized exclusions; and the denial of equality, opportunity, and legal protection for nonwhite populations. Yet these racialized exclusions often went unacknowledged, constituted by a white supremacy that could remain unnamed amid forms of daily struggle and achievement that were also deeply felt. At the same time, Herrenvolk democracy was about more than unacknowledged and obscured exclusions or the embodied experience of white equality—it was also, importantly, about overt enactments of racial domination: the violent freedom to both wield and exceed the law.
In sum, by analyzing how white democracy has functioned as a political and participatory undertaking in the United States, my argument is not that racism has revealed the hypocrisy of a nation that espouses the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy; rather, it’s that American conceptions of equality, freedom, and democracy have historically been constituted through white supremacy. In other words, the experience of democracy, equality, and freedom cannot be fully detached from the political project of whiteness in the United States.
Along with scholars who argue that racial subordination “both constructs democratic ideals as well as violates them,” this research shares the belief that racial oppression and American democracy have long been “mutually constitutive rather than antithetical” to one another.43 Appreciating how race has fundamentally shaped our conceptions of sovereignty, tyranny, and the rule of law, this essay echoes Lisa Lowe’s call for a “critical genealogy of liberalism” that explores how liberalism’s abstract promises “were produced through placing particular subjects at a distance from the ‘human.’”44 Put somewhat differently, while critics like Adam Serwer have rightly argued that when it comes to the bond between Trump and his supporters, “the cruelty is the point,” my claim is that such cruelty is not only an experience of community and delight; it’s fundamentally a return to a particular civic experience.45 The simultaneous experience of public happiness and racial tyranny is precisely what freedom and equality felt like in an earlier era of Herrenvolk democracy. In other words, whiteness needs to be reconceived not only as a discriminatory practice but as a particular type of democratic practice—a mass-based, participatory practice of exclusion and performative membership with one’s fellow (white) citizens. For those invested in an ideology of whiteness, racial exclusion, violence, and domination produce a sense of membership, creating a commonsense understanding of community, opportunity, futurity, and possibility.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 dealt Herrenvolk democracy a seemingly lethal blow. Undercutting the legal bedrock of white supremacy, civil rights legislation marked the end of lawful racial discrimination and the sanctioned exercise of whiteness as standing; whites no longer have access to a state explicitly and officially committed to ensuring their personal standing as white. Yet white democracy persists even without legal imprimatur: whiteness continues to operate as “a form of social power,” with many white citizens revealing “an interest in and an expectation of favored treatment in a polity whose fundamental principle is that all men are created equal.”46 Today, white democracy often functions as a system of “tacit and concealed racial privileges”—everyday practices that presume white advantage as the “natural outcome of market forces and individual choices.”47 At the same time, the persistence of white democracy is sometimes obscured by the simultaneous existence of both a growing, visible multiracial elite and a significant shift in how white identity is being understood and enacted. Let me take each point in turn.
Today, women and people of color make up more of America’s political and cultural elite than in any time in our nation’s history.48 In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black president; twelve years later, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris became the first Black woman and the first Asian American to appear on a major-party ticket. Yet the growing diversity made visible by such barrier-breaking events exists alongside persistent racial disparities related to issues of poverty, policing, public health, wealth, incarceration, detention, education, and housing. Put somewhat differently, alongside the presence of an increasingly diverse population of professionals, politicians, academics, students, media figures, artists, and cultural workers, low-income communities of color continue to face a civic, economic, and political landscape characterized by forms of structural racism and economic inequality. Beyond examples of diversity in professional and elite spaces, we are also seeing the rise of a more heterogeneous homeland security state. Increasingly, for aspiring working-class communities of color, one of the major paths into the middle class is through employment in the criminal justice system as well as in U.S. immigration and customs enforcement. Today, more than half of all Border Patrol agents are Latinx, while a growing number of police officers and prison guards are female, Black, and/or Latinx. Situated as both police and population, not only are African Americans and Latinos disproportionately harmed by carceral violence—far more likely to be detained, deported, incarcerated, killed, and injured—they are also crucial to the staffing, implementation, and legitimation of today’s modern multicultural security state. In sum, the growing professional, ideological, and affective diversity of racialized and gendered populations is crucial to understanding how white democracy is a persistent yet evolving practice.
At the same time, as white democracy is simultaneously reinforced and reshaped by neoliberal multiculturalism, white identity is becoming increasingly heterogenous—more unstable, in flux, and divided than in previous eras. Today, the variability of white identity is visible in the growing rupture between white citizens who support the politics of white democracy and those increasingly appalled by racist and xenophobic appeals to whiteness.49 The police killing of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis, and the large presence of white people joining with communities of color to oppose racist policing and support the Black Lives Matter movement speak to the shifting and diverging politics of white identity.50 In other words, the ability of white nativists to engage in Herrenvolk practices today is threatened not only by the growth of America’s nonwhite population but by the changing nature of white identity itself.51 Threatened not only by the presence of migrants and other people of color but also by a growing number of white citizens, nativists feel increasingly impeded and persecuted—making the pleasures of white democracy simultaneously more desirable and less acceptable. Today, for nativist voters drawn to the politics of whiteness, access to whiteness as standing appears both tantalizingly conceivable and legally (and often morally) disavowed. Citizens invested in the politics of whiteness—experienced as an increasingly unattainable promise—exist in a state of agitated and outraged betrayal, attached to forms of whiteness to which they feel entitled yet which they find increasingly difficult to attain.
It’s this political environment that makes migrants a particularly potent target for nativist desire, rage, and fear. Indeed, migrants here in the United States (with or without legal sanction) represent the rare population offering nativists an administratively endorsed opportunity to access the power and pleasures of Herrenvolk democracy. As noncitizens, migrants are vulnerable to both state-sanctioned and extralegal practices of violence, enforcement, terror, exclusion, and removal—witnessed and enacted by a government and citizenry who claim democratic legitimacy by arguing that their actions are lawful, necessary, and authorized.52
For nativists who yearn for the freedom to police, punish, and exclude, targeting migrants makes them feel stronger, freer, and more agentic, transforming acts of racialized violence—whether people are committing, witnessing, or merely describing such acts—into feats of heroism, democratic redemption, civic engagement, and virtuous sovereignty.53
At the same time, in taking up the question of white democracy and its relation to anti-migrant rhetoric and policies, this book shares the assessment of numerous Latinx and Indigenous scholars who believe that approaches to whiteness and racism in the United States too often rely on a Black–white binary that fails to address the history of other racialized and colonized populations. With the legacy of Mexican incorporation into the United States continuing to shape the current treatment and perception of migrants, I analyze white democracy through the fields of Chicano and Latinx studies, turning to the politics of Western expansion and the racial politics of the frontier to explore how this legacy of anti-Mexican violence helps to sustain today’s rage-infused politics of American nativism.
Yet, in seeking to deepen our understanding of the relationship between Mexicans, migration, and the politics of whiteness, I also take seriously Latinos’ complicated relationship to the politics of immigration and of whiteness. Mexicans, for example, have been enmeshed in a complex racial order based on not only a Euro-American racial order but a preexisting Spanish and colonial order that created complex racial dynamics in relation to questions of indigeneity and settlement. During early periods of colonial rule, some Mexicans participated in the enslavement of Indians, while others engaged in alliances with various tribal populations.
Later, elite Mexicans exercised power and worked through the juries and territorial legislatures in the Southwest by claiming white status and distancing themselves from prior alliances with various tribal populations (such as the Pueblo in what would eventually become the state of New Mexico). The ambiguous racial position of Mexicans is a reminder that as a group, Latinos have been characterized at various times as white, nonwhite, Indigenous, Black, and not-Black, reflecting what Latino studies scholars have long noted: that Latinos “have no simple positioning in the U.S. racial order.”54
Indeed, from the original U.S. Naturalization Law of March 26, 1790, that limited naturalization to “free white persons” to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Mexican repatriation in the 1920 and 1930s, much of U.S. immigration law is a history of racialized assaults on particular segments of the American immigrant population. Such attacks on nonwhite immigrant populations help explain why the story of immigration has long been one of various populations trying either to claim whiteness and/or to assert themselves as not-Black in order to claim rights and standing and avoid the state-sanctioned violence and exclusions typically visited upon populations deemed nonwhite. Moreover, as Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph Lowndes insist, “while racial subordination is an enduring feature of U.S. political history, it continually changes in response to shifting social and political conditions, interests and structures. . . . Race performs dynamic and often contradictory work, continuing to produce hierarchy and exclusion while also articulating new forms of mobility and incorporation.”55 In other words, while Latinos have often been victims of white supremacy and white democracy, some have striven to claim whiteness, seeking the privileges and pleasures of a polity that denies rights and dignity to those deemed nonwhite.56
Like HoSang and Lowndes, I approach race and the politics of whiteness and white identity as more protean categories than generally acknowledged. Indeed, I see the internal diversity and racial indeterminacy of Latinos as making certain forms of violence both more feasible and defensible. Put another way, in a political era when state-sanctioned racism is prohibited by law and de facto (if not de jure) racial equality prevails, the racial ambiguity of Latinx populations in relation to whiteness offers nativists the opportunity to deploy racist and dehumanizing accounts of nonwhite “illegals” within a sanctioned legal discourse defined in terms of criminality, sovereignty, legality, and fairness. In sum, opposition to immigration from Mexico and Latin America is the rare issue that combines the pleasures of violent white domination (Herrenvolk practices) with color-blind assertions of the rule of law.
Understanding the politics of Western expansion—especially the participatory politics of Indigenous dispossession and the Mexican-American War—means exploring the relationship between contemporary border politics, anti-migrant sentiment, and an American conception of frontier freedom founded on conquest and the right to movement and expansion. Exploring the conjoined histories of the frontier and the border allows us to see how this racialized legacy of movement and legal and extrajudicial violence have shaped American conceptions of freedom, sovereignty, democracy, citizenship, and the law.57 In analyzing the politics of Western expansion, I see the Herrenvolk politics of the frontier and the U.S.–Mexican border as representing particularly rich sites for considering how the movement of certain subjects is understood to be a manifestation of liberty, while the movement of others is deemed unruly, excessive, and dangerous.58 More specifically, movement on the frontier offered white citizens the freedom to claim territory, challenge borders, and engage in Herrenvolk practices of removal, settlement, and displacement while also acquiring wealth and participating in acts of political creation through founding communities, drawing boundaries, and regulating the movement of others.
Moving between frontier freedom and frontier justice, settlers struggled to establish and extend white democracy, a process involving violent assaults on Mexicans and Indians. By “demonstrating [their] mastery over the unmastered wild,” settlers saw themselves as engaged in a violent and epic struggle for the future, willing to risk their lives to bring justice and civilization to a dangerous and savage world.59
Today, with Herrenvolk democracy and other forms of white supremacy increasingly socially and legally censured, citizens invested in the politics of nativism and white nationalism remain nostalgically attached to forms of freedom and movement they find increasingly difficult to access. The frontier promise of “perennial rebirth” through practices of violent movement is far less available to white citizens today.60 No longer animated by a sense of possibility, white nativists today often feel trapped by history, defined by their perceived losses and facing what they see as an increasingly bleak and constricted future. A people who used to think they were captains of the future are now prisoners of the past. Defined by a growing sense of injury, white nativists’ insistence on their own racial and cultural superiority now coexists alongside popular accounts of demographic, economic, and cultural decline—including a surge in “deaths of despair” among white Americans.61
Yet, while nativists are feeling increasingly pessimistic about their own sense of freedom, movement, and futurity, today it is migrants, particularly unauthorized migrants, who are on the move, changing their futures, challenging borders, and claiming the right to movement. Prepared to both use and exceed the law in their efforts to achieve freedom and escape repression and subjugation, unauthorized migrants risk their lives to claim opportunity for themselves and their families. Fighting resolutely for new futures in which they can prosper and thrive, migrants are now the population widely perceived as claiming freedom through movement, agents engaged in an epic struggle to both survive and prosper.
Not surprisingly, nativists find this situation infuriating. Historically, the right to move with impunity—to defy, disregard, and reconceive borders—that was the purview of white citizenship and frontier freedom. Today, to witness nonwhite migrants claiming their own freedom through movement—and for such action to be seen by many as courageous and worthy of sympathy—provokes intense nativist outrage. Indeed, nativists see such actions as a brutal assault on their own futures. Unable to envision practices of movement outside their own Herrenvolk desires, nativists can only imagine cross-border movement as a form of dispossession and violent domination. Limited by the zero-sum logic of white nationalism, in which migrant flourishing means citizen suffering, and compassion for migrants implies a callous disregard for citizens, for nativists in the thrall of whiteness, migrant movement is imagined as an inversion of white democracy—a world where whites are the victims of violence and dispossession as nonwhite populations inflict a vengeful politics of white extinction, open borders, invasion, and racial conquest (Reconquista). Fearful of “losing their country” and being robbed of their history and heritage, revisiting Herrenvolk practices offers nativists a powerful kind of satisfaction and solace.
Today, the desire to experience and revisit Herrenvolk membership is visible in contemporary nativists’ rhetoric, associations, actions, and anti-Latinx policies. The outrageous and aggressive speech acts that occur at Trump rallies; the abusive behavior and ugly rhetoric of current and former Border Patrol agents; the paramilitary voluntary border squads; the increasingly violent policies of raids, detentions, and deportations—all of these practices allow nativists to revisit and reenact an available version of settler-colonial and anti-Mexican Herrenvolk politics. For nativists, then, appeals to the “rule of law” are not about equality under the law, an independent judiciary, access to the courts, or abiding by the Constitution; rather, such appeals are about revisiting an era that once sanctioned judicial and extrajudicial violence along racial lines.
The rage of anti-immigrant nativists demonstrates just how profoundly white supremacy has damaged and distorted America’s democratic imaginary. Rather than envisioning a multiracial democracy where forms of self-rule are characterized by plenitude, fairness, community, meaningful work, solidarity, joy, movement, and dignity—a vision worth fighting to create together—Herrenvolk logics envision democratic citizenship, freedom, prosperity, and popular sovereignty through racialized narratives of deprivation, exclusion, suffering, and removal. Rather than working to conceive and create a better and more beautiful world, white democracy can think only in terms of a recursive scarcity logic that premises one’s own thriving on the denial of such thriving to others. Today, Herrenvolk democracy must be destroyed, and its destruction requires transformative policies as well as an aesthetics of justice that can attract and inspire new multiracial democratic majorities, both in the United States and globally.