U.S. Immigration Debate’s Ugliness Is Nothing New

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Census Bureau reported this month that the white population in much of the U.S. is dying off more quickly than it is being replaced. By contrast, among Hispanics, births continue to exceed deaths.

The figures for 2017 are further evidence of a profound demographic shift that is predicted to make whites a minority by 2040 or earlier. The data dovetails with President Donald Trump's increasingly inflamed rhetoric on immigration. As more than one pundit has observed, he has been able to channel a resurgence of xenophobia and a growing anxiety over the future of white America.

Americans went down a similar road well over a century ago, when a prominent group of thinkers dominated public discourse over immigration in the U.S. They articulated white anxiety in ways that would ultimately have profound and enduring effects on public policy: quotas that targeted immigrant groups deemed undesirable, even laws against miscegenation.

Then, as now, decades of heavy immigration had started to transform U.S. demography. To native-born whites, the growing influx of Jews, Slavs, Italians and other groups was going to remake the America they knew.

For some whites, this was an intolerable prospect. The sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross gave voice to those anxieties in an essay in 1901. He famously used the phrase “race suicide" to describe the likely fate of the people he called “Anglo-Saxons” -- by which he meant the would-be descendants of the group that dominated England from the fifth century until the Norman Conquest, though he also included Scandinavians and Germans.

Ross believed that those peoples constituted a separate “race” far superior to other Europeans, to say nothing of the peoples of other lands. Ross took aim at the immigrants from those lesser places in a book published in 1914: “The blood now being injected into the veins of our people is sub-common.”

He conjured a dire scenario.

The working classes gradually delay marriage and restrict the size of the family as the opportunities hitherto reserved for their children are eagerly snapped up by the numerous progeny of the foreigner. The prudent, self-respecting natives first cease to expand, and then, as the struggle for existence grows sterner and the outlook for their children darker, they fail even to recruit their own numbers.

For Ross and others, the solution was simple: Restrict immigration. He was not alone in offering this prescription. A few years earlier, the economist Francis Amasa Walker had portrayed the threat in existential terms. He described the European immigrants from “every foul and stagnant pool of population” as criminals, idiots and paupers.

Walker proposed that all immigrants be forced to post a $100 bond upon entering the country. This would effectively keep out the poor from Eastern and Southern Europe, Walker believed, but would not be a deterrent to the arrival of tens of thousands of “thrifty" Swedes, Norwegians and Germans who usually had some savings.

But it was Madison Grant, a wealthy New Yorker, dilettante, and “scientific” racist and author of the bestselling book, "The Passing of the Great Race," who did more than anyone to guide public opinion along these lines.

His book was a peculiar combination of faux erudition and historical fiction, warning readers that the nation’s “altruistic ideals” and “maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss.”

Grant’s titular “race” was the Anglo-Saxons, though he was fond of Norwegians and other Scandinavians, Germans, and, of course, the British. But everyone else -- Jews, Italians, and other “inferior races among our immigrants” -- he despised. Grant counseled sharp restrictions on immigration from anywhere except a small circle of “Nordic” countries.

He also provided the preface for "The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy," written by Lothrop Stoddard and published in 1920. A journalist and polemicist, Stoddard argued for limiting immigration as a way to preserve the purity of the “Nordic” race in America. Like Grant, he believed that unrestricted immigration of “inferior” races would “sterilize” the white population, suppressing the native birthrate. The two men would successfully lobby for anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S.

Like many scientific racists, Grant and Stoddard were enthusiastic eugenicists. Grant proposed a program of mass sterilization that would target criminals, “the diseased, and the insane,” as well as “weaklings” and “perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.”  The book was translated into multiple languages, including German. Adolf Hitler read it, and reportedly wrote Grant an admiring letter, describing the book as his personal “bible.”

Grant influenced the course of history closer to home as well.  He served as an adviser to the sponsors of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which shut down immigration from the countries he despised but set aside 6,400 slots a year for immigrants from the tiny country of Norway.

All these thinkers eventually fell out of favor in the 1930s.  But judging from the tone of the immigration debate today, 21st-century versions of these ideas may be on the horizon.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.