How Professors Helped Slam Shut America's Door


The jacket copy of Daniel Okrent's new book, The Guarded Gate, describes it as \”a work of history relevant for today.\”

So it certainly is-in a minimum of two senses.

The obvious one is how, in Okrent's account, racism would be a substantial factor in the passage from the Immigration Act of 1924-a law that effectively cut immigration to America in two according to quotas that preferred immigrants from Northern and The european union over those from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, or Asia. For all those inclined to see the present efforts at restricting illegal and legal immigration as similarly motivated, it might be mildly reassuring to know that today's trend isn't unprecedented. Or it may be all the more dismaying, when the current effort is really a repeat of past mistakes rather than progress beyond them.

There is also a second, perhaps less-obvious manner in which Okrent's account resonates today-especially for those thinking about education and philanthropy in addition to immigration policy. This way is due to seeing the 1924 episode like a example in erroneous elite groupthink. Scholars at America's most prestigious universities, backed by wealthy donors, influential newspapers, and robust labor leaders, went off the rails. Their eugenics research, investigating the heritability of complex traits and associating them with racial groups, served their own preconceptions of progress, however it was groundless and deeply flawed science, lacking in rigor, cherrypicked, sloppy, disconnected from empirical reality, and morally untethered. It had disastrous public-policy consequences.

Okrent is unsparing in documenting the key role played by academics within the eugenics fad that led to the rewriting of our nation's immigration law. It's a story in regards to a failure in advanced schooling. Professors inspired by Charles Darwin's focus on natural selection and Gregor Mendel's focus on genetics became propagandists advancing the dangerous fantasy that the nation's population might be perfected by government action to promote the \”Nordic race\” and it is supposedly superior physical, moral, and intellectual traits over allegedly inferior Mediterranean, Asiatic, African, and Alpine types. The president of Stanford, David Starr Jordan, chaired the eugenics committee from the American Breeders Association and was a major fundraiser for the research. Edward Ross, the coiner of the phrase \”race suicide,\” were built with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins and taught at Stanford, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Wisconsin. One of the most prominent eugenicists, H. Fairfield Osborn, taught biology at Barnard. Other figures identified by Okrent as \”critically important . . . in the spread of scientific racism and its application towards the immigration issue\” included professors Robert Yerkes and Ellsworth Huntington of Yale, Charles Conant Josey of Dartmouth, William McDougall and Edward East of Harvard, Carl Brigham of Princeton, and Roy Garis of Vanderbilt.

As Okrent tells it, a few of the academics were \”committed progressives\” who argued for outlawing child labor because doing so \”would get rid of the poor's incentive to reproduce.\” The New York Times cheered; Okrent, who served a stint as public editor of that newspaper, has unearthed a 1921 editorial where the Times warned of \”swarms of aliens\” bringing \”diseases of ignorance and Bolshevism.\” At a climactic moment within the immigration debate, the New York Times Book Review, underneath the headline, \”Failure from the Melting Pot,\” lavished praise on a pseudoscientific restrictionist book. The president from the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, himself a Jewish immigrant from England, described unrestricted immigration as a \”pressing evil,\” warning that \”the persistence of racial characteristics\” meant that America might be \”overwhelmed\” by outsiders.

Organized labor's anxiety over increased competition from new arrivals and popular anxiety about \”Bolshevism\” doubtless did modify the 1924 law's passage, though unions and anticommunism were also strong in the 1950s and 1960s, once the law was eventually revised to allow more immigration from places other than Northern and Western Europe. Disentangling historical causation can be complicated. Okrent doesn't spend enough time on possible alternative motives. Instead, he keeps his concentrate on the mountain of evidence concerning the role that eugenics took part in the anti-immigration trend.

The academics were enabled by donors. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant who built U.S. Steel, includes a reputation as a brilliant philanthropist, but his Carnegie Institution of Washington was an earlier and enduring backer of probably the most misguided eugenics research. Another generous and crucial contributor was Mary Williamson Harriman. Her husband, Edward Henry Harriman, who controlled the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, died in 1909, leaving Mary a fortune worth about $2 billion in today's dollars.

As recently as 1960, obama of Columbia, Grayson Kirk, contributed a foreword to some biography of Mary Williamson Harriman. It itself described her \”great interest in the vital subjects of heredity and of eugenics,\” and credited her with congressional action \”which has resulted not only in exclusion of citizens we cannot thanks for visiting our country, however in the process of selection, in which direction our immigration is gradually tending. We're tending toward picking a the very best, the exclusion of the worst.\”

\”The University is privileged to become the instrument through which the memory and the work of 1 of the great women of history generation may continue their influence upon the future,\” Kirk wrote within the foreword, asserting, \”Hers was a life to confound and refute the critics of wealth.\”

If that particular lesson might not be exactly the correct one to draw from this episode, then what's?

Readers of The Guarded Gate can come away with reinvigorated appreciation of the need to be cautious about consensus-based conclusions emanating from internationally acclaimed academic experts. Sometimes, as in this case, the scientific consensus is wrong. Whether or not the science have been correct, the insurance policy recommendations wouldn't logically or morally follow. Okrent speaks of one prominent figure in American eugenics, Harry Laughlin. Laughlin, who earned a doctorate in biology from Princeton, testified before the congressional committee that changed the immigration law. He favored \”continuous decimal elimination,\” barring the underside 10 % of people, including \”defectives and degenerates\” such as deaf, blind, feebleminded, inebriate, \”criminalistic\” or epileptic individuals, from having children. Laughlin was honored in absentia with an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg, Germany's oldest university, at a ceremony featuring the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

A more hopeful theme is the fact that science, and academia, be capable to self-correct. Heroes of Okrent's account include several academics whose lives spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the eugenics movement what food was in its height: Samuel G. Smith of the University of Minnesota; Hebert Spencer Jennings, a Harvard-trained zoologist who was a professor at Johns Hopkins, and Franz Boas, a professor of anthropology at Columbia. They used evidence carefully to exhibit statistical manipulation by the eugenicists.

The story Okrent tells is newly relevant, however it isn't entirely new; Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould covered the science in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man; and also the historian John Higham, Okrent's teacher in the University of Michigan, covered the nativist origins of the immigration law in his 1955 book Strangers in the Land.

The counterarguments to eugenics were either too late or insufficient to dissuade Congress, which acted overwhelmingly; the Immigration Act of 1924 passed 308 -62 in the home and 69 -9 within the Senate and was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge.

The new law had far-reaching consequences. One small example: Max Fidlon had departed Minsk for New York in 1924, leaving his wife after which 9-year-old son, Sidney, behind, with the expectation that they would quickly follow. The modification in law resulted in young Sidney Fidlon could be separated from his father for five years. The trauma of times apart was inescapable. But after Sidney did reach the Usa in 1929, time of separation that had resulted from efforts to exclude \”the worst\” did not diminish his gratitude toward, and patriotism for, his new home. A minimum of as could best be ascertained with this book reviewer, his grandson.

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