George Will: Last century’s immigration debate makes today’s seem enlightened
“Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng …
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?”
— Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1892)
WASHINGTON— If you think we have reached peak stupidity — that America’s per-capita quantity has never been higher — there is solace, of sorts, in Daniel Okrent’s guided tour through the immigration debate that was heading toward a nasty legislative conclusion a century ago. “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America” provides evidence that today’s public arguments are comparatively enlightened.
Late in the 19th century, immigration surged, as did alarm about it, especially in society’s upper crust. Darwinian theory and emerging genetic science were bowdlerized by bad scientists, faux scientists and numerous philistine ax-grinders with political agendas bent on arguing for engineering a better stock of American humans through immigration restrictions and eugenics — selective breeding.
Their theory was that nurture (education, socialization, family structure) matters little because nature is determinative. They asserted that even morality and individuals’ characters are biologically determined by race. And they spun an imaginative taxonomy of races, including European “Alpine,” “Teutonic” (aka “Nordic”) and “Mediterranean” races.
Racist thinking about immigration saturated mainstream newspapers and elite journals. The nation’s most important periodical, The Saturday Evening Post, devoted tens of thousands of words to the braided crusades for eugenics and race-based immigration policies. Popular poet Edgar Lee Masters (“Spoon River Anthology” ) wrote “The Great Race Passes”:
On State Street throngs crowd and push,
Wriggle and writhe like maggots.
Their noses are flat,
Their faces are broad …
Amateur ethnologists conveniently discovered that exemplary southern Europeans (Dante, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci) were actually from the north. Okrent writes: “In an Alabama case, a black man who married an Italian woman was convicted of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law, then found surprising absolution when the conviction was vacated by an appellate court’s provocative declaration: ‘The mere fact that the testimony showed this woman came from Sicily can in no sense be taken as conclusive evidence that she was therefore a white woman.’”
The canonical text of the immigration-eugenics complex, Madison Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race,” is available today in at least eight editions and is frequently cited in the internet’s fetid swamps of white supremacy sites. At the 1946 Nuremberg “Doctors’ Trial,” Nazi defendants invoked that book as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision upholding states’ sterilization of “defectives” and America’s severely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. It based national quotas on 1890 immigration data — before the surge of the “motley throng.” Okrent writes, “These men didn’t say they were ‘following orders,’ in the self-exonerating language of the moment; they said they were following Americans.”
Four years before the 1924 act, 76% of immigrants came from Eastern or Southern Europe. After it, 11% did. Some of those excluded went instead to Auschwitz.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.