Although in the first part of the 21st century, Western xenophobia is associated largely with Muslims, xenophobia is hardly a new phenomenon in politics and culture. Naturally, the influx of Muslim refugees primarily from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya into Europe has intensified not just strong sentiment among racists, but exacerbated the xenophobic rhetoric in the political arena and media. Serving as a convenient distraction from practical solutions to society’s systemic problems because it scapegoats migrants, xenophobia engenders fear about a specific tangible enemy. Instead of pointing to the structural flaws in the political economy, politicians and media point to someone to hate for undermining society – the Syrian refugee family that is a potential terrorist, the Mexican family that takes away American jobs and feeds off the welfare system.
Europeans and Americans hardly have a monopoly on xenophobia and this is not a recent phenomenon considering there is evidence of it throughout history in many parts of the world. There are more than 700 books and several thousand articles on this subject that has been prominent from the Golden Age of Pericles in 5th century Athens to the so-called post-racial Obama era that has in reality experienced a sharp rise in xenophobia. Just as the Athenian city-state had formalized the status of foreigners known as Metics and treated them as lesser citizens, the modern state is not much different in so far as it has the power to marginalize legal and illegal immigrants from the mainstream as well as project a negative image of them to society regardless of their contributions to the economy and culture.
Besides fear, ignorance and the irrational in human beings prompted by media indoctrination that molds the dominant culture, mainstream institutions from businesses to churches do their part to keep xenophobia in the public debate. However, the relative decline of the Western middle class and rise of the Asian economy, especially China amid a new Gilded Age when capital is so thoroughly concentrated accounts for the rise of xenophobia. In other words, when the middle class fears its future and that of its children it does not blame the capitalist economy under globalization and neoliberal policies but refugees and immigrants who take low-end jobs to survive in their adopted land.
‘Scapegoating psychology’ becomes an integral part of the mainstream because it is simply politically and socially unacceptable to challenge the root causes of mass migration from poor and politically unstable countries to richer and more stables one. “In scapegoating, by definition, the enemy must be weaker than those on the attack — which is why even at the height of the financial crisis, popular anger at bankers never became as strong as current Islamophobia. It’s the same as the way a guy who’s treated as a drudge at work then finds his “strength” by abusing his wife. The more that Muslims can be made to feel like outsiders, the more those who have defined them as other can feel empowered.” (Paul Woodward, “Scapegoating-psychology and rising xenophobia in America” September 14, 2010) http://warincontext.org/2010/09/14/scapegoating-psychology-and-rising-xenophobia-in-america/
Besides the mass psychology of scapegoating that the media and politicians create and perpetuate, the world-economy’s weakened core in northwest Europe and US plays a catalytic role in convincing a segment of the masses that their “real enemy” is not caused by domestic and foreign policies intended to continue capital concentration at the expense of the vast majority. The shifting capitalist core from the West to East Asia affects the Western social structure in so far as middle class living standards historically high in industrialized countries have been sliding downward in the past four decades and they are unlikely to improve. In fact, downward socioeconomic mobility will continue across the entire Western World. This trend will only exacerbate xenophobia and afford the opportunity not just the right wing, but even mainstream bourgeois political leaders to blame influx of immigrants for all calamities befalling society. It serves the interests of the political and economic elites to blame the illegal immigrants and Muslim refugees rather than fault the political economy that results in downward socioeconomic mobility.
The “war on terror” has added to the culture of fear surrounding xenophobia that only makes it more legitimate rather than an issue neo-Nazis and other extremists espouse. This allows xenophobes to argue it is all about national security and their ideological position has nothing to do with underlying racism. When the state is itself xenophobic and racist in its policies despite employing democratic rhetoric to present an image of an open society, why would the masses, at least a segment of them, be much different? This is as true in the US that leads the world in “war on terror” with policies intended to justify the continuation of the waning Pax Americana, as it is for the European countries.
As an integral part of a “Nativist” ideology, xenophobia has become part of the mainstream because it has the stamp of legitimacy from the state that rhetorically opposes it but whose policies and practices promote it not just domestically but globally. Although it could be argued this is just a case of nationalism, there are degrees of nationalism ranging from moderate to neo-Nazi aspects that have become part of the political mainstream both in Europe and US.
European and US Protest of illegal immigration
In the case of Mexico, a nation “so far from God and so close to the US”, the issue is strictly economic conditions of a very corrupt country with detrimental social conditions that some people try to escape. While the Hispanic population in the US is about 17.5%, about 7% of that comes primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Mexicans make uproughly 10%, depending on various sources. The number of Caribbean immigrants is estimated at around 1.3 million of a total Hispanic immigrant population estimated at 55.4 million. Because politicians and the media in the US lump together the so-called “immigration problem”, and because Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as criminals and Muslims as terrorists, many people hardly bother with nuances of immigrant groups or the causes for their endeavors to reach the US.