[Marxism] A Century Ago, America Built Another Kind of Wall

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 5 10:51:04 MDT 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, May 5, 2019
A Century Ago, America Built Another Kind of Wall
By Daniel Okrent

In early 1921, an article in Good Housekeeping signaled the coming of a 
law that makes President Trump’s campaign for immigration restriction 
seem mild by comparison. “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent 
people will not mix or blend,” it read. “The dead weight of alien 
accretion stifles national progress.” The author was Calvin Coolidge, 
about to be sworn in as vice president of the United States. Three years 
later, the most severe immigration law in American history entered the 
statute books, shepherded by believers in those “biological laws.”

The anti-immigrant fervor at the heart of current White House 
policymaking is not a new phenomenon, nor is the xenophobia that has 
infected the political mainstream. In fact, race-based nativism comes 
with an exalted pedigree — and that pedigree is something we all should 
remember as the Trump administration continues its assault on immigrants 
of specific nationalities. The scientific arguments Coolidge invoked 
were advanced by men bearing imposing credentials. Some were highly 
regarded scholars from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford. One ran 
the nation’s foremost genetics laboratory. Another was America’s leading 
environmentalist at the time. Yet another was the director of the 
country’s most respected natural history museum.

Together, they popularized “racial eugenics,” a junk science that made 
ethnically based racism respectable. “The day of the sociologist is 
passing,” said the Harvard professor Robert DeCourcy Ward, “and the day 
of the biologist has come.” The biologists and their publicists achieved 
what their political allies had failed to accomplish for 30 years: 
enactment of a law stemming the influx of Jews, Italians, Greeks and 
other eastern and southern Europeans. “The need of restriction is 
manifest,” The New York Times declared in an editorial, for “American 
institutions are menaced” by “swarms of aliens.”

What was different about the new, putatively scientific campaign was 
that even whiteness was no ticket to entry.

Writing about Slavic immigrants, the sociologist Edward A. Ross of the 
University of Wisconsin — later the national chairman of the American 
Civil Liberties Union — declared, they “are immune to certain kinds of 
dirt. They can stand what would kill a white man.” The president of 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology said newcomers from eastern and 
southern Europe were “vast masses of filth” who were “living like swine.”

The Washington Post editorialized that 90 percent of Italians coming to 
the United States were “the degenerate spawn” of “Asiatic hordes.” A 
Boston philanthropist, Joseph Lee, his city’s leading supporter of 
progressive causes, explained to friends why he became the single 
largest financial backer of the anti-immigrant campaign: His concern, he 
wrote, was that without a restriction law, Europe would be “drained of 
Jews — to its benefit no doubt but not to ours.”

The “biological” justifications for this nativism were first developed 
in Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, in laboratories financed by the 
widow of the railroad baron E.H. Harriman. (One of her goals, Mary 
Harriman said, was preventing “the decay of the American race.”) The 
laboratory’s head, the zoologist Charles B. Davenport, took the ideas of 
the British gentleman scientist Francis Galton — who had coined the word 
“eugenics” in 1883 — welded them to a gross misunderstanding of the 
genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel, and concluded that the makeup of 
the nation’s population could be improved by the careful control of 
human breeding. One of the first steps, he believed, was to impose new 
controls on open immigration.

At first, Davenport wished to bar the immigration only of people 
afflicted by specific disorders — epileptics, the “feebleminded” and 
others of similarly troublesome (to Davenport) disability. But soon he 
was caught up in a racialist whirlwind initiated by “The Passing of the 
Great Race,” a book by Madison Grant, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and 
the era’s most prominent conservationist. A bilious stew of dubious 
history, bogus anthropology and completely unfounded genetic theory, 
Grant’s work persuaded Davenport and others that the American 
bloodstream was threatened not by suspect individuals, but by entire 
ethnic groups.

First published in 1916 and reissued in a series of revisions over the 
next eight years — all of them brought into print by Maxwell Perkins, 
the celebrated editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — “The 
Passing of the Great Race” savagely denigrated the peoples of eastern 
and southern Europe while exalting the “Nordics” of northwestern Europe. 
With the presumed authority of scholarship, he summarized the essential 
argument of racial eugenics.

“Whether we like to admit it or not,” Grant wrote, “the result of the 
mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting” to the 
“lower type.” Lower than Nordics were the questionable “Alpines.” Lower 
than the “Alpines” were the woeful “Mediterraneans.” And, he concluded, 
“the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

Grant was not an actual scientist. But Henry Fairfield Osborn, a 
world-famous paleontologist and his closest friend, definitely was. 
Osborn, who once expressed his opposition to the extension of the 
Westchester Parkway near his country estate because it would bring 
thousands of “East Side Jews” to the area, presided over the American 
Museum of Natural History for 25 years, and made that institution the 
beating heart of the combined eugenics and anti-immigration movement. “I 
am convinced,” said Osborn, that the “spiritual, physical, moral and 
intellectual structure” of individuals is “based on racial 
characteristics.” It wasn’t a matter of ethnic bias, he said — it was 
“cold-blooded” science.

Other scholars rallied to the cause. Robert M. Yerkes — his name 
immortalized today at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 
Atlanta — conducted a severely flawed series of tests of American 
servicemen purporting to establish the intellectual inferiority of 
eastern and southern Europeans. Charles W. Gould, a lawyer in New York, 
sponsored “A Study of American Intelligence,” by Carl C. Brigham, a 
young Princeton psychologist (and later the inventor of the SAT). 
Brigham’s conclusion: “There can be no doubt that recent history has 
shown a movement of inferior peoples or inferior representatives of 
peoples to this country.”

At the same time, Perkins and his colleagues at Charles Scribner’s Sons 
published a raft of books promoting racialized eugenics. Scribner 
publicists wrote in one promotion piece: “The inrush of lower races is 
threatening the very blood of our country.” Perkins’s authors were 
echoed in the country’s leading magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. 
“Race character is as fixed a fact as race color,” the Post declared. 
“Thirty years ago,” the magazine insisted in another article, “science 
had not perhaps sufficiently advanced to make us fully aware” of the 
danger of open immigration. Now it had.

When the 1924 Immigration Act reached the floor of Congress, passage was 
assured. Albert Johnson, chairman of the House Immigration and 
Naturalization Committee, declared that “the fundamental reason” for 
immigration restriction was “biological.” During the floor debate, one 
congressman said the law was provoked by “the necessity for purifying 
and keeping pure the blood of America.” Given the arguments presented by 
so many of the nation’s leading scientific figures, who could disagree?

The resulting law established quotas by nation; they cut like a scythe. 
In the last year before their introduction, more than 220,000 Italians 
entered the United States. The quota slashed that number to less than 
4,000. Reductions nearly as harsh were imposed on other eastern and 
southern European groups, while tens of thousands of slots reserved for 
Britons, Scandinavians and other “Nordics” went unfilled.

The 1924 quotas remained in force for more than 40 years — while the 
economic devastation of a worldwide depression hit southern Europe 
especially hard; while a 1939 measure that would have allowed 20,000 
German Jewish children into the United States died in Congress, and the 
savagery of the Holocaust began; while the Nazis and their allies 
starved 350,000 Greeks and slaughtered 200,000 Serbs; and while 
displaced-persons camps stretched across the ruins of postwar Europe.

In 1920, Charles Davenport had asked Madison Grant, “Can we build a wall 
high enough around this country” to keep out the unwanted? They could, 
and they did.

Daniel Okrent is the author of “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and 
the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European 
Immigrants Out of America.”

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