June 19, 2019


How Professors Helped Slam Shut America's Door : A review of "The Guarded Gate" by Daniel Okrent (Ira Stoll, 6/19/19, Education Next)

[R]acism was a substantial factor in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924--a law that effectively cut immigration to America in half based on quotas that preferred immigrants from Northern and Western Europe over those from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, or Asia. For those inclined to see the current efforts at restricting illegal and legal immigration as similarly motivated, it might be mildly reassuring to know that today's trend is not unprecedented. Or it may be all the more dismaying, if the current effort is a repeat of past mistakes rather than progress beyond them.

There is also a second, perhaps less-obvious way in which Okrent's account resonates today--especially for those interested in education and philanthropy as well as immigration policy. This way has to do with seeing the 1924 episode as a case study in erroneous elite groupthink. Scholars at America's most prestigious universities, backed by wealthy donors, influential newspapers, and powerful 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, but 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.

Cover of "The Guarded Gate" by Daniel OkrentOkrent is unsparing in documenting the leading role played by academics in the eugenics fad that contributed to the rewriting of our nation's immigration law. It's a story about a failure in higher education. Professors inspired by Charles Darwin's work on natural selection and Gregor Mendel's work on genetics became propagandists advancing the dangerous fantasy that a nation's population could be perfected by government action to promote the "Nordic race" and its 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 of the American Breeders Association and was a major fundraiser for the research. Edward Ross, the coiner of the phrase "race suicide," had 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 to 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, some of the academics were "committed progressives" who argued for outlawing child labor because doing so "would take away the poor's incentive to breed." The New York Times cheered; Okrent, who served a stint as public editor of that newspaper, has unearthed a 1921 editorial in which the Times warned of "swarms of aliens" bringing "diseases of ignorance and Bolshevism." At a climactic moment in the immigration debate, the New York Times Book Review, under the headline, "Failure of the Melting Pot," lavished praise on a pseudoscientific restrictionist book. Even the president of 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 could be "overwhelmed" by outsiders.

Posted by at June 19, 2019 4:00 AM