A Century Ago America Built Another Kind of Wall

There was a time when even Ivy League scientists supported racial restrictions at the border, says Daniel Okrent in the NY Times. Their advocacy of racial disparity led to the passage in 1924 of The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act). The Act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.

Okrent writes:

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 scientific arguments Coolidge invoked were advanced by men bearing imposing credentials. Together, they popularized “racial eugenics,” a junk science that made ethnically based racism respectable. 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.”

They 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.

First published in 1916, “The Passing of the Great Race,” a book by Madison Grant, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and the era’s most prominent conservationist,  savagely denigrated the peoples of eastern and southern Europe while exalting the “Nordics” of northwestern Europe.

Princeton faculty member Carl C. Brigham, the inventor of the SAT, wrote, “There can be no doubt that recent history has shown a movement of inferior peoples or inferior representatives of peoples to this country.”

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