The Unguarded Gate (Daniel Okrent)

This book by Daniel Okrent charts the 30-year history of anti-immigration forces to restrict immigration to the US, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration essentially to those from Northern Europe.  The anti-immigration forces used the language of science to justify their ideology, combining Darwin’s theory of evolution, crackpot race theories, the conclusory pronouncements of Francis Galton, and Gregor Mendel’s work on plant genetics to argue that America was facing “race suicide” by allowing immigration by inferior racial groups.  They formed groups with names like the American Breeders Association, which in that era referred not to horses or dogs, but human beings.

It’s worth noting that many of these folks divided Europeans into three racial categories:  Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean.  Jews were “Asiatics” and Italians were so close to North Africa they might as well have been Africans.  And, while it’s currently fashionable in academic circles to argue the the definition of “whiteness” has been continually expanding to keep African-Americans at the bottom, that certainly wasn’t true of these decades.  When these guys said “white,” they only meant Nordic.  (They went through some amusing gyrations to “prove” that Dante, Columbus and even Jesus Christ were actually Nordic.)

Many of the immigration restrictionists were often progressives with respect to other causes.  Bostonian Joe Lee funded many school programs for immigrant boys, many of whose parents were illiterate.  New Yorker Madison Grant, whose book The Passing of the Great Race was about as racist as it sounds, was a founder of the Bronx Zoo and also a co-founder of Save the Redwoods.  Most were not scientists, or if they were, their degrees were in unrelated fields like paleontology.  But they were often pillars of their community — US Senators, like Henry Cabot Lodge, professors at major institutions like Stanford, or major philanthropists the widow of railroad magnate E. J. Harriman.    Many others, while not at the forefront of the movement, lent it their support, including Maxwell Perkins, who was Grant’s editor, and Margaret Sanger, whose enthusiasm for the eugenicists cannot be completely explained by political convenience.  Even Calvin Coolidge entered the debate, writing that “biological laws” argued against “race mixing.”  (Silent Cal should probably have kept his mouth shut.). The scientific bona fides of the restrictionists might have been scanty, but their science-like language carried the day.

Most of the eugenicists quietly changed their views in the 1930s, when the rise of Nazi Germany made the theories suddenly toxic.  Those that didn’t were shuffled off to early retirements, or their histories quietly scrubbed.  You’d never know, for example, that NY’s Museum of Natural History used to be host annual meetings of the Galton Society, comprised or leading American eugenicists.

Okrent has a background in journalism (he used to write for The NY Times) and therefore is an engaging writer.  He has an eye for the amusing anecdote, unearthing an late 19th C attempt to determine English beauty by county by a young physician named Arthur Conan Doyle, who soon moved on to other pursuits.  In one of the few heartwarming anecdotes in a book otherwise full of some pretty disgusting stuff, we find Emmanuel Cellar, a first-term Brooklyn Congressman in 1924 who invited real scientists to Congressional hearings to argue against the pseudo-intellectual basis of the new rules.  40 years later, the now senior Congressman stood by Lyndon Johnson’s side as he signed the Hart.Cellar law, which removed the race-based quotas.

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