America’s intolerance of foreigners has a long and ugly history. After the Civil War, Italian immigrants were accused of being racially inferior and prone to criminality. Irish immigrants arriving after the potato famine of 1845 were reviled for their Catholicism. The presence of both immigrant groups fueled nativist fire that sometimes turned violent. While people of Irish and Italian heritage eventually assimilated, Asians, who have suffered social and political exclusion and violence since the 1850s, continue to confront vitriolic anti-immigrant sentiment. Racist attacks against people of Asian descent have escalated significantly during the pandemic, spurred on by President Donald Trump’s insistence on publicly calling covid-19 the “Chinese flu” and the “kung flu.” A recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino revealed that hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent have risen 150 percent since the pandemic began.

We may be inclined to believe that xenophobia is embedded in the human DNA — that it has existed since the dawn of human life. But psychiatrist and author George Makari suggests otherwise. In “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia,” Makari argues that xenophobia is a recent concept. As a social construct, xenophobia is a product of the modern era, arising under the conditions of intercultural mixing that have marked globalization. Makari traces the term from its first appearance in print to the ways it has been deployed in recent years, particularly since global social upheavals such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic crisis of 2008, and the mass displacement of refugees due to war and conflict.

In ancient Greek, “xénos” was used to connote not only strangers but also guests, and to describe the code of hospitality between hosts and guests. While the ancient Greeks were hardly welcoming to outsiders, “xénos” was not attached to “phobos” until the early 1900s.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “xenophobia” first appeared in a London weekly in 1909, when German and Italian archaeologists attacked a French historian and geographer, Paul Frédéric Gauckler, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his discovery of an ancient shrine in the middle of Rome dedicated to Syrian deities. Although the presence of such a shrine challenged the historical separation of the mystical “East” from the rational “West,” the “xenophoby” was reserved for Gauckler, whose worst crime was being an archaeological outsider. “Xenophoby,” Makari asserts, “referred to the rejection of a French scholar by competitive Germans and Italians.”

Makari traces the usage of “xenophobia” further back than the Oxford dictionary mention, toward the budding medical interest in nervous disorders and anxiety in the late 19th century, which led to the defining of “phobias” in 1871. “Agoraphobia” opened the floodgates, followed by “a swarm of phobias [that] seemed to menace the populace.” Joining anxieties such as claustrophobia and hydrophobia, xenophobia appeared in medical dictionaries of the time as “the morbid dread of meeting strangers.”

Simultaneously, in the 1880s, the term “xenophobia” began to appear “during the heyday of newspaper publishing” as a synonym for “nationalism gone utterly mad.” In this case, it was a word hurled at European nations that sought to expel groups from their midst defined as “different” from Christian majority groups, whether because of their foreign origins or their religions (typically Judaism). But during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 in China, xenophobia became associated with colonialism.

Almost since its inception, colonialism assumed that the people Europeans encountered in their travels were barbarians because of their cultural differences, which justified not only occupation but also moral outrage and harsh treatment when the natives did not meet the colonizers with open arms. As early as 1873, a French Catholic missionary warned of a possible “xénophobie” directed against the pope’s decision to expand missionary activities in China. By the late 19th century, European powers had begun to invade and carve up East Asia. When the Chinese sought to expel foreign and missionary elements during the Boxer Rebellion, eight colonial nations united in their outrage to violently suppress the uprising. In the press, xenophobia “no longer applied to some rare medical illness or a broad rivalry between Western nations,” Makari writes. “It now served as an explanation of the fearsome trouble Western globalists might encounter in the East, where an irrational, violent hatred of all outsiders might take hold as exemplified by spirit-worshipping, rampaging Boxers.”

For quite some time thereafter, xenophobes were the Indigenous people who did not exhibit the requisite gratitude and hospitality toward their colonial overlords. Xenophobia could be expressed only by “primitive” peoples who did not understand that the colonizers had their best interests at heart. Their supposed irrationality “licensed limitless violence against the inhabitants encountered, for it would always be their own fault.”

From here, Makari traces the gradual unraveling of colonialism, documenting its worst atrocities and the often singular voices that spoke out against it. A few dared to extend “xenophobia” to the colonizers themselves, and as refugees and immigrants from colonized nations began to move to Europe, the term finally began to address the inhospitality Western nations expressed toward the formerly colonized “others” who sought a place in their midst. Xenophobia could also be applied to those whose ancestry made them different, as in the case of those of Jewish or African descent in Europe and the United States.

Xenophobia found justification in the work of early-20th-century scientists, who claimed that random physical traits like skull shape demonstrated the inferiority of certain races. But a growing movement in social science sought to counter this. Anthropologist Franz Boas conducted research showing that environmental influences could alter racial characteristics and that so-called “primitive” cultures actually possessed complex forms of social organization. World War II, however, would effectively challenge any hopes for tolerance as Nazi Germany murdered 17 million European prisoners, including 6 million Jews.

What could one make of such a genocide in ostensibly civilized Europe? Makari shows how psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers have attempted to address the “why” of xenophobia. Behaviorism and other psychological theories suggested that learned behaviors could be altered. But new technologies such as film have contributed to the stereotyping of minorities, adding a powerful visual component that can influence viewers into rigid beliefs about racial inferiority. While Makari strays from the intensive focus on the term “xenophobia” in the second half of the book, he does shed light on the many ways human beings turn differences such as religion, race and gender into otherness and use that otherness to justify domination.

Xenophobia has experienced a recent resurgence in populist politics the world over. The fall of communism destabilized the postwar order, and Makari finds that “newly empowered voices, oblivious to the post-Holo­caust moral order, emerged. Xenophobia had come back from the dead.” Closer to home, despite some fearmongering, early polls have shown considerable acceptance of Afghan refugees coming to the United States after the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in late August and early September found that 68 percent of U.S. adults supported taking in the refugees, while 27 percent disapproved.

Perhaps xenophobic instincts can diminish in some circumstances. By shedding light on the trajectory of xenophobia during its 150-year history, this skillfully written account helps point us toward ways to combat it.

Of Fear and Strangers

A History of Xenophobia

By George Makari

Norton.
346 pp. $27.95