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Culling the Masses

Culling the Masses

The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas

David Scott FitzGerald, David Cook-Martín

ISBN 9780674729049

Publication date: 04/22/2014

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Culling the Masses questions the widely held view that in the long run democracy and racism cannot coexist. David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín show that democracies were the first countries in the Americas to select immigrants by race, and undemocratic states the first to outlaw discrimination. Through analysis of legal records from twenty-two countries between 1790 and 2010, the authors present a history of the rise and fall of racial selection in the Western Hemisphere.

The United States led the way in using legal means to exclude “inferior” ethnic groups. Starting in 1790, Congress began passing nationality and immigration laws that prevented Africans and Asians from becoming citizens, on the grounds that they were inherently incapable of self-government. Similar policies were soon adopted by the self-governing colonies and dominions of the British Empire, eventually spreading across Latin America as well.

Undemocratic regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Cuba reversed their discriminatory laws in the 1930s and 1940s, decades ahead of the United States and Canada. The conventional claim that racism and democracy are antithetical—because democracy depends on ideals of equality and fairness, which are incompatible with the notion of racial inferiority—cannot explain why liberal democracies were leaders in promoting racist policies and laggards in eliminating them. Ultimately, the authors argue, the changed racial geopolitics of World War II and the Cold War was necessary to convince North American countries to reform their immigration and citizenship laws.


  • Culling the Masses is a book of impressive analytical and empirical scope. It consists of truly comparative cross-national research and analysis, examining immigration politics and policy in no fewer than six countries in the Americas: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. It asks important questions about the troubling relationship between racism and democracy. Specifically, it addresses two significant puzzles: why did immigration policy come under the spell of eugenics in the first decades of the twentieth century—and how did an anti-racist turn emerge in later decades, first in the weaker and more authoritarian nations of the Americas before finding its way to the stronger and more liberal-democratic regimes, Canada and the United States? A must read for anyone interested in race, immigration, and democratization.

    —Daniel J. Tichenor, University of Oregon


  • 2016, Winner of the ASA Distinguished Scholarly Book Award


  • David Scott FitzGerald is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
  • David Cook-Martín is Associate Professor of Sociology at Grinnell College.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press