Thomas Borstelmann


On his book Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020


One of the problems with academics, in general, and with scholarly historians, in particular, is their tendency to view racism and xenophobia as constants in American life, seemingly growing either stronger or more insidious. These are certainly persistent forces with horrific, ongoing impact, and they are radically underestimated by many contemporary Americans, particularly on the right end of the political spectrum, where a culture of white grievance festers.

But racism and xenophobia are not the entire nor even the most powerful shapers of the American narrative. The mainstream of American society, over time, has proved to be more inclusive than we sometimes recognize: more economically incorporating, more culturally assimilative, more politically flexible, and more diplomatically adaptive. The Cold War forced a dramatic widening of this historic process of inclusion. While China, by contrast, has few immigrants and does not seek to make new Chinese, the United States remains, despite contemporary Trumpism, the nation that pulls in newcomers who then go on to help reshape American life.

Regardless of the future, this has been the predominant story so far of the American relationship with foreigners. It offers a deep well to draw from as we go forward.