OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Erika Lee

Portrait of Erika Lee
Image Credit: Eric Mueller

Erika Lee is President-Elect of the Organization of American Historians and a Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and testified before Congress in its historic hearings on anti-Asian discrimination and violence. She is the author of four award-winning books including The Making of Asian America (2015) and America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in America (2019), which won the American Book Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, as well as other honors. Named to many best books lists and identified as an essential book illuminating the Trump era and the 2020 elections, it was recently re-published with a new epilogue on xenophobia and racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Making of Asian America was also recently republished with a new postscript about the latest campaigns against Asian Americans. Lee directs three major digital humanities projects: Immigrant Stories#ImmigrationSyllabusand Immigrants in COVID America and also regularly appears in the media, including featured appearances in the PBS film series “Asian Americans,” the History Channel’s “America: The Promised Land,” and interviews with CNN, PBS NewsHour, National Public Radio, the BBC, the New York Times, ABC News, NBC News, and many podcasts. Her opinion pieces have been published in the Washington Post, Time, the New York Daily News, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. 

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The United States is known as a nation of immigrants. But as award-winning author and historian Erika Lee will discuss, the US is also a nation of xenophobia. Fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants have been a defining feature of our nation from the colonial era to today. Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for their “strange and foreign ways.” Americans’ anxiety over Irish Catholics turned xenophobia into a national political movement. Chinese immigrants were excluded, Japanese incarcerated, and Mexicans deported. Today, Americans fear Muslims, Latinos, the so-called browning of America, and are calling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus." Drawing from her new book, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, Lee forces us to confront this history and explains how xenophobia works, why it has endured, and how it threatens America.
As the fastest growing group in the United States, Asian Americans are helping to change America. But much of their long history has been forgotten. In a lecture that spans centuries and continents, Lee shows that the long history of Asian Americans offers a new way of understanding America itself, its complicated histories of race and immigration, and its place in the world today.
While Ellis Island has come to represent America's welcome to immigrants, Angel Island, its counterpart on the West Coast, reflects America's more complicated history of immigration. In this lecture, award-winning historian Erika Lee reveals the forgotten histories of Asian, European, and Mexican immigrants who entered, were detained at and deported from the U.S. from Angel Island. She shows that the history of Angel Island is ultimately about America itself and its complicated relationship to immigration, a story that continues today.