In September of 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered his famous Atlanta Compromise speech heralding self-reliance, industrial education, and social segregation, and the black press immediately hailed him as the first nationally-known New Negro.

Shortly after Washington’s speech, Reverend S. A. Steel, the white editor of the Epworth Era, magazine of the Southern branch of the Methodist Episcopal Church, deplored what he saw as the real “new negro.”  No longer under the “mild and humane system of bondage, almost misnamed slavery,” the “new negro,” according to Rev. Steel, had devolved such that no white woman was safe walking the streets.  For Steel, the “new negro” was “worthless, good-for-nothing. . .insolent, lustful, and trifling, . . .a candidate for ‘the pen,’ or. . . caught in the cyclone of a mob, and dangling, bullet ridden and mutilated, from a limb.”[1]

For such prominent white southern writers as Thomas Nelson Page, writing in New York’s Collier’s Weekly in 1903, even the accommodationist Booker T. Washington couldn’t be trusted.  Despite Washington’s assurances that “[i]n all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, ” in 1901 Washington had had the audacity to accept President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation to the White House.  His acceptance provided proof that, as Page argued, “the most passionate aspiration of the new negro was for social equality,” which, in the racial code of the South, really meant “sexual equality.”[2]

Indeed, Page followed a familiar pattern of white supremacist rhetoric of the time: despite the appearances of change, the “new negro” was hopelessly stuck in ineradicable racial barbarism.  Roosevelt’s invitation and Washington’s acceptance emboldened the New Negro’s sense of race consciousness– “[t]he new negro when he gets an education, . … becomes the ‘Afro-American–’” The more the “new negro” identified as Afro-American, Page suggested, the more he reverted to his primitive “dark continent” self, making it only a matter of time before he adopted “sword and torch” to overthrow the white power structure and claim his real prize, white southern womanhood.[3]

By 1903 and late 1904, when New York’s Harper’s Weekly ran a series on the supposed “New Negro Crime” of black men raping white women, a series which was reprinted in newspapers around the country, the “new negro” in the national white press had been largely overwritten as the black rapist.

In a southern economy that depended on debt peonage and black prison labor, the stereotype of black criminality was useful.  Black rapists couldn’t be black voters.  In the interest of public safety and “good” white governance, large sections of the white press reasoned, the “new negro” must be segregated and disenfranchised.

It is useful to return to the backlash against the New Negro to better understand, not just the stereotype of the black rapist, but also how that racist stereotype has evolved into the brutal new nativism we see today.  President Trump has redeployed the specter of the “new negro crime” to undercut other aspirational tropes of the “new” describing people of color, especially the newest New Americans, south-of-the-border migrants seeking to craft a new life in the United States.

By recasting the supposed “new negro crime” into the new immigrant crime in both his campaign and his presidency, Trump has played effectively to white anxieties concerning demographic shifts as well as black and brown political empowerment–the Obama White House “visit,” after all, lasted eight years.

During his campaign, Trump described Mexican immigrants as criminal invaders: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”  He repeatedly invoked the violent deaths of young attractive white women such as Kate Steinle and Mollie Tibbetts at the hands of undocumented immigrants to call for stricter immigration laws and the building of a wall along the border.  In a 60 Minutes interview in November 2016, then President-Elect Donald Trump falsely claimed that there were millions of criminal undocumented immigrants living in the United States.  Just one month after Trump took office, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched the “new immigrant crime” hotline: Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE).  According to the Boston Globe, since October 2018, Trump has used variants of “invasion” publicly at least 33 times to describe immigrants approaching the southern border.[4]

In May of 2018, Trump’s then Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the federal law criminalizing unauthorized entry into the United States as well as the administration’s zero-tolerance policy to authorize family separations.

That law, known as Section 1325, was conceived in 1929 by South Carolina Senator Cole Blease, an avowed white supremacist, segregationist, and defender of lynching. And as Professor Kelly Lytle Hernández argues,  “There is no immigration reform without grappling with the hold that Jim Crow has on our immigration regime.”[5]

By appealing to ethnoracial fearmongering in order to implement nativist immigration policies, Trump is using a variation of the “southern strategy,” the often deployed Republican political move, which works to undercut labor alliances between working-class native-born whites and black- or brown-skinned people.

The Trump administration has also effectively revived a Jim Crow American narrative, where the immigrant, coded dark-skinned and dark of motive, seeks not refuge and economic opportunity but criminal opportunity, culminating in the rape and murder of white women.  As Trump claims to his crowds of enthusiastic supporters, that American greatness depends on stopping illegal immigrants, invaders who may well be members of gangs like MS-13, who “butcher, kidnap, extort. . .rape. . . rob. . .stomp. . .beat. . .slash [and] stab.”[6]  To use the famous nativist Lothrop Stoddard’s phrase, these migrants risk the degradation or “browning” of “our white America.”

The criminalization of undocumented immigrants, of course, did not begin with Trump, his administration, or his television network, Fox News.  However, he has escalated anti-Hispanic rhetoric to such an extent that it is important to consider his administration in relation to what historian Rayford Logan calls the nadir of anti-black racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which culminated in the “red summer” of 1919, when white mobs attacked black people in twenty-five American cities and towns across the United States.

Last month we witnessed the results of that rhetoric.  Patrick Crusius drove almost ten hours from his home in the predemoninately white Allen, Texas, to the predominately Hispanic border city of El Paso to murder as many Hispanic “invaders” as he could. His manifesto cited fears of what he called the “great replacement,” a French white supremacist theory where people of color replace Anglo-Saxons, a theory which echoes Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920), two popular American white supremacist texts that provided the rationale for the eugenics movement worldwide and the notorious Immigration Act of 1924.[7]

Crusius’ manifesto ends with fears of race mixing—the new immigrant securing his foothold into “social equality” by marrying less “patriotic,” less race-conscious white Americans.  Once the Hispanic “invaders” secure that footing, according to the manifesto, they become a voting block, turning a reliably red state blue:  “Hispanics,” Crusius writes, “will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas.. . . [and] hasten the destruction of our country.”  As Crusius’ rhetoric echoes that of Trump, which, in turn, echoes that of the supposed “new negro crime” a century earlier, Trump’s new nativism seems to have effectively overwhelmed narratives that celebrate the new Americans finding refuge from extreme poverty and violence. Trump’s new nativism, in turn, has been stamped with the old white supremacy, given its southern-strategy fear-mongering and racial terrorism: August has become the red month of 2019.


[1] Steel’s attack on the New Negro was reprinted in “The Modern Negro.” Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, Louisiana). Nov. 28, 1895: 2.

[2] Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.  Gender and Jim Crow, (Durham:  University of North Carolina Press, 1996): 85.

[3] Thomas Nelson Page, “A New Aspect of the Negro Question.” Reprinted from Collier’s WeeklyAtlanta Constitution.  Mar. 2, 1903:  4.

[4] Zoe Greenberg and Christina Prignano, “Despite Condemnation of Hate Trump has Ramped up his Use of ‘Invasion’ Rhetoric in Recent Months.”  Boston Globe, Aug. 5, 2019.

[5] As quoted in Isaac Stanley-Becker, “Who’s behind the law making undocumented immigrants criminals? An ‘unrepentant white supremacist.’” The Washington Post, 27 June, 2019.

[6] Dara Lind, “Trump Has a Long History of Fearmongering about Immigrant Murder.” Vox. Feb. 5, 2019.

[7] John Eligon, The El Paso Screed, and the Racist Doctrine Behind It.”  New York Times, Aug. 7, 2019.