Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Garden of History: Why anyone looking at the profiling of 'inferior races' in early 20th century America might wish to sing "I Pity the Poor Immigrant"



            It's both sad and astonishing that immigration -- and immigrants -- are currently being regarded as national problems by those seeking to slander certain nationalities and religions for political gain. And all the attention being paid to the demagogues spouting these views is appalling.
            In Bill Bryson's "One Summer: America 1927," one of the country's best nonfiction writers reminds us how popular and influential racial theories such as the pseudo-science of eugenics were in this country ninety years ago. And who they were aimed at.
            One of eugenics's leading lights, the highly respected 'scientist' Charles B. Davenport, "listed Poles, Irish, Italians, Serbians, Greeks, and 'Hebrews' as less intelligent and reliable, and more susceptible to depravity and crimes of violence, than people of sound Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic stock... They were creating an America that was 'darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature and more given to crimes... of assault, murder, rape and sex immorality.'"
            What would America be today without Poles, Irish, Italians, 'Hebrews,' etc.? It wouldn't be America, for one thing.
            Given the high number of new immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe during the first two decades of the 20th century, racial theorists argued that America's immigration policy amounted to "race suicide." The bible of this movement, Bryson writes, is "The Passing of the Great Race" by Madison Grant, which "took it as read that the only really good group of humans was what he called the 'Nordic race,' by which he meant essentially all northern Europeans except the Irish." People got worse, or "progressively more degenerate," as you moved South.
            And eugencis held that introducing any genes from the so-called inferior races into society would taint the superior ones. He quotes Grant: "The cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew."
            Other eugenics supporters included the president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, whose chaired the committee set up to look into the fairness of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial in 1927 and advised the governor to go ahead and kill them. Herbert Hoover, on the cusp of a spectacularly unsuccessful presidency, had it in for "black and Asian" laborers who suffered from what he termed "a low mental order."
            No one today, perhaps, would regard these opinions as based on any sort of "science." When it comes to human beings, race is not a scientific term at all. We are all one species.
            But these nutty ideas and horrendous prejudices disguised as science led to serious real-world consequences in the 1920s: the widespread practice of forced sterilization of people regarded as "defectives,"without consent and often without the victims' knowledge. And the adoption of a massively restrictive immigration policy that favored those from England, say, over all those other countries regarded as less 'white,' in the National Origins Act in 1924.
            Attacks on immigrants, whether 'legal' or lacking officially required documents, have taken place in this country periodically whenever the numbers of new Americans appears to be on the rise, or when 'old' Americans grow frightened and insecure for one reason or another and decide to shut the door. Irish immigrants were hated, discriminated against and physically attacked because they were Catholics. Today some politicians wish to keep out all Muslims.
            During the years before World War II, America's restrictive immigration policy kept refugees from European countries governed by Fascist regimes from finding safety and sanctuary here. Jews fleeing Hitler were turned back and sent to their deaths.
            People don't leave their homes and their native countries, saying goodbye to all they've known and love, lightly or in the expectation of an easy life in a richer land.
            They come because they have to, driven by dysfunctional governments, drug gangs, or the absence of any viable way to make a living. They emigrate for survival, as do Syrian refugees today, escaping a country where the government's barrel bombs and torturers, murderous fanatics such as ISIS, four years of war, and bombing raids by other nations including Russia, France and the US, have killed untold thousands.
            Historically speaking, the worst and (and most gallingly ignorant) aspect of the present anti-immigrant movement, whipped up by demagogues playing on fears, is that immigration has always been the nation's strength, not its weakness. We should embrace those who seek to make a life in this country, not create impossible obstacles. Many native-born Americans are the descendants of people who came here 'without papers' (that's what WOPS means). Immigrants built this country -- literally, when it comes to the physical infrastructure of canals and bridges, railroads, subway tunnels and skyscrapers; but also socially and culturally, in the professions, the sciences, business, the arts. You can tell that by looking at the names in the phonebook; and at the lists of Nobel Prize winners and other rolls of honor.  
            If you're on Facebook, you have probably seen the cartoon of Indians giving a skeptical glance to a boatload of Pilgrims and asking for their documents.
            We all came from somewhere else.