The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America
In May 1921 The Saturday Evening Post, America’s most popular magazine, warned its readers of the grave “immigration problem” threatening to bring about “racial degeneration” in the United States. Yet happily, scientific advances based on the discoveries of Gregor Mendel would ensure Americans need never “forfeit their high estate and join the lowly ranks of the mongrel races.” Poor Mendel, quietly cultivating his peas sixty years earlier, never said a word about racial degeneration, but that didn’t stop anti-immigration campaigners like the Post’s editor, George Horace Lorimer, from claiming that Mendel’s work on heredity corroborated a new science validating ancient bigotries—namely, eugenics. In offering a supposedly scientific foundation for nativism, eugenics kicked off a national epidemic of confirmation bias.
“Nordicism,” as American scientific racism was known, held that people of Northern European “stock” were biologically superior to everyone else. “The mental ability of the Southeastern European is below that of the Northern and Western European,” readers were instructed, in typical terms. “Northern and Western Europeans govern themselves better than Southern and Eastern Europeans govern themselves.” Every few weeks, Lorimer used his bully pulpit to hammer the same restrictionist message, railing against “our policy of putting the alien and his interests first,” in editorials such as “America Last.” The Post’s two million readers in 1922 would have recognized in that title a clear allusion to a familiar, belligerently nativist slogan—“America First.”
Lorimer also hired a mouthpiece named Kenneth L. Roberts and sent him to Europe to issue scaremongering diatribes from the immigration front lines, expounding upon “certain biological laws which govern the crossing of different breeds, whether the breeds be dogs or horses or men.” In “Plain Remarks on Immigration for Plain Americans,” Roberts claimed that stopping immigration was “a matter of life and death for America,” repeating the same ominous phrase four times in the essay’s first five paragraphs. He acknowledged that millions of Europeans were living in abject misery after World War I, only to rhetorically shrug his shoulders:
The economic distress of these wretched people, for one reason or another, has always been so close to the extreme limit, that they were dulled to distress’s finer points. If they lived on beans and beets in 1912 their distress didn’t increase if the beans were moldy and the beets decayed in 1920.
The people too dull to appreciate the finer points of their own misery were, Roberts explains, “Hebrews” from Poland and Russia.
Such arguments borrowed their authority primarily from two hugely influential books, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), both heralded as offering…
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