Tea Party Nation, the fourth largest national Tea Party faction with 42,100 online members, continues to move towards an explicit expression of white nationalism. The group has already been widely criticized for its proposal to deny voting rights for those citizens who do not own property, and for promoting anti-gay bullying. It has asserted that “American culture” will soon perish since the “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) population is headed for extinction.” Now, taking it one step further, Tea Party Nation is defending the now defunct and indefensibly racist National Origins Act of 1924.
Eliana Benador, a conservative public relations flack who was canned from her Washington Times blogging position after she speculated that Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, may have married now disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner as part of an Islamic socialist plot to takeover America, is a new Tea Party Nation columnist. Starting with a bang, one of her first columns for TPN was a July 4 column entitled “AMERICA IN DANGER AS SHE CELEBRATES 235 YEARS INDEPENDENCE.” She began by lamenting that Americans have “forgotten the lessons taught by slavery,” then inexplicably pivots to bemoan the racial diversity of the nation.
Ominous but obtuse, Benador warned TPN readers, “As America celebrates her 235th Independence Day, she finds herself under siege from all kinds of enemies: The known and the unknown; the external and the internal enemy.” Nowhere in the article are these enemies defined.
Instead, in a mix of racism, nativism, Islamophobia, and even old-school anti-Irish bigotry, her columns argues: abolishing the “National Origins Formula” unleashed an “invasion of America” by immigrants that are causing a reduction in “original American voters” and “bringing in a whole new texture of culture, 100% foreign to what America’s origins were as its wonderful adventure began back in 1776.”
The “original American voters” that Benador raises concern for are white men–the only people allowed to vote at the time of the founding of the country. The “National Origins Formula” refers to the racially-exclusive immigration policies passed in the 1920s.
After an examination of the zeitgeist of the period and the legislation that Tea Party Nation has chosen to venerate, Tea Party activists might want to rethink support for the 1924 Immigration Act and the “National Origins Formula.”
The Racist Origins of the “National Origins Formula”
In the period between World War I and World War II, anti-immigrant sentiment surged in the United States, capped by the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act which officially codified white supremacy in American immigration policy for the next four decades.
Many feared that in the wake of the war, during which immigration had been curtailed, pent up demand would lead to a flood of immigrants to America in its wake. A resurgent fear of “foreign agitators” reached epidemic proportions and culminated in a Red Scare that swept the United States. The backlash against “foreign” labor agitation culminated in the Palmer Raids of 1920, in which the FBI deported “alien subversives” without trial.
Scientific racism also played a significant role in society during the period. The widely-popular eugenics movement embraced the theory that intelligence, self-control, and a capacity for self-governance were genetically determined. If genetically determined, it was argued, then such traits—the precise capacities crucial for citizenship in a democratic state—were heritable. If heritable, then the biological “stock” of the nation could be improved through selective breeding, in much the same way that dairy cows can be bred to produce more milk by artificial selection.
If it was not politically possible (regrettable, from the eugenicists’ point of view) for the government to prescribe optimal marriages, it could at least restrict the “least fit” from breeding at all, either through disincentives or sterilization—actively practiced in many states. The eugenicists also argued that real progress could most easily be made by prohibiting immigrants considered “defective” from entering the country.
The most effective way to police the borders for defectives, the eugenicists contended, was through a blanket exclusion of those known to be descended from “inferior” groups. That is, since intelligence and self-control were believed to be inherited traits, it was only a small step to the conclusion that some populations—“races” in the language of the eugenicists—had them in higher degree and more common circulation than others. America could in effect prevent its genetic degeneration by excluding the unwanted Italians, Poles, and Jews—not to mention, of course, the non-white peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America.
Eugenics were part of the mainstream in early twentieth century United States. Works like Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race were best-sellers. Grant extolled the superior qualities of the Nordic race, a people of “rulers, organizers, and aristocrats” whom he claimed were responsible for every great civilization that ever existed. These civilizations degenerated, Grant argued, because of the deterioration of the Nordic population through warfare and intermixture with other races of people. Grant warned that the Nordic stock in America was similarly threatened by racial intermixture with blacks and inferior immigrant groups which inevitably produced children of the “lower” types. Grant’s book was praised by Theodore Roosevelt and cited by legislators during congressional discussions on immigration.
Eugenicists advocated compulsory sterilization to prevent reproduction by people who they judged were likely to produce defective offspring. They advocated for restrictions on the immigration of “inferior races” as another means of protecting the nation from “genetic contamination.” They also opposed immigration on the grounds that the children of certain immigrants, “our home-grown foreigners,” remained “foreign stock” despite birth on U.S. soil. Assertions about immigrants’ high fertility levels were also popularized by eugenicists. Several studies purported to show that immigrants were reproducing faster than native Anglo-Saxon Americans, generating hysterical predictions of imminent “race suicide.”
In this climate, anti-immigrant social movements re-emerged. Groups like the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), of which Madison Grant was a vice president, attracted prominent politicians like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The Immigration Restriction League’s charter stated:
To advocate and work for the further judicious restriction, or stricter regulations, of immigration, to issue documents and circulars, social facts and information, on the subject, hold public meetings, and to arouse public opinion to the necessity of further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character.
Anti-immigrant forces including the IRL were able to overcome the veto of President Wilson to pass an Immigration Act mandating a literacy test for immigrants in 1917. Though the IRL largely disappeared by the end of World War I, the nativism they helped promote continued to rise.
In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation, screened for Supreme Court members in chambers and in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, helped mark a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The organization’s new agenda, which added anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism to the traditional hatred of blacks, helped attract as many as four million members during the period. The Ku Klux Klan garnered significant Congressional support, and “aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism” influential in the passage of immigration restriction legislation in the 1920s.
Anti-immigrant groups formed close bonds with eugenics organizations during this period. In 1911, leaders of the Immigration Reduction League and the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) formulated plans to influence Congressional debate on immigration. They developed a strategy that included a survey to determine the national origins of “hereditary defectives.” The research was to be managed by ERO colleague Harry Laughlin.
In 1920, Laughlin appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization on the “Biological Aspects of Immigration.” Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and a survey of foreign-born persons in jails, prisons and reformatories, he argued that the “American” gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants – primarily from eastern and southern Europe. After his testimony, the Chair of the Committee appointed Laughlin as a congressional “expert eugenics agent.” For the next decade, Laughlin’s research would carry a government imprimatur, with his reports published by the Government Printing Office.
While eugenics “experts” crafted racially exclusionary public policy in Washington D.C., Klan leaders back home pushed politicians to support immigration reduction with meetings and letter-writing campaigns. Warmly-received testimony to Congress by eugenicists like Laughlin, combined with the influence of Klan leaders and eugenicist lobbyists, lead to the passage of legislation that solidified the “national origins” laws of the nineteenth century. Congress responded by passing a series of laws, beginning in 1921 and culminating in the 1924 National Origins Act, which set blatantly discriminatory immigration quotas.
The National Origins Acts set yearly quotas according to the make-up of the population in 1890. White immigrants from northern and western Europe were thus favored, while southern and eastern European immigrants who began to arrive after the 1880s were excluded (as were those from other non-European countries). The 1924 Act virtually cut off immigration of Poles, Italians, Slavs, and eastern European Jews. Congress also explicitly prohibited Japanese immigration. Meanwhile the Supreme Court upheld a ban on citizenship to Asian immigrants, reasoning that the Naturalization Act of 1790 was intended “to confer the privilege of citizenship upon a class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified.”
Upon signing the National Origins Act, President Calvin Coolidge commented, “America must remain American.” His words would become a rallying cry for anti-immigrant activists until after World War II.
The Ku Klux Klan concurred with Coolidge. Their newspaper, the National Kourier, proclaimed “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence was white, and patriotism meant keeping things that way.” The Imperial Wizard hailed the passage of the new immigration-restriction law as one of the Klan’s most important triumphs. As their agenda was absorbed into the American body politic, fractious infighting took place within the Klan, leading to its rapid organizational decline. Membership plummeted to less than 30,000 by 1928.
Stirred by hate preachers like Gordon Winrod, Gerald L.K. Smith, and Father Coughlin, in this period anti-Semitism was also rampant in the United States. Anti-immigrant forces attempted to prevent any further immigration of European Jews. Seeing them as “slow to assimilate,” Harry Laughlin, for instance, specifically opposed any special immigration provisions for “Jews persecuted in Germany.”
As institutional interest in eugenics began to wane, Laughlin became the first president of a charitable foundation which came to be known as the Pioneer Fund (originally named the Eugenics Fund). Founded in 1937, based on the monetary endowment of Wickliffe P. Draper, the Fund was created to help purify the American gene pool by encouraging the descendants of white colonialists to procreate. Even before its official incorporation, the Pioneer Fund actively promoted “applied eugenics,” as in use in Nazi Germany. Towards this end, they distributed a propaganda film entitled “Eugenics in Germany” to high school students. According to professor William H. Tucker, “To Laughlin, the Nazi regime provided a beacon, lighting a path that he hoped the United States would follow.” Such open admiration of the Nazi eugenics program lead many in the mainstream to distance themselves from the eugenics movement after the onset of hostilities in Europe in 1939.
Though many of the nativist groups, including the Pioneer Fund, would go quiet during World War II, they did return. In fact, the Pioneer Fund would go on to become “the primary resource for scientific racism.” They would also become a primary source of funding for contemporary anti-immigrant groups.
The Real Meaning of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965
In Benador’s view, the Irish are to blame for ridding the country of the National Origins Act, with the Kennedy brothers acting as the agents of doom. According to Benador, “In a flagrant display of nepotism in America, when the three Kennedy brothers took the reins of American politics, immigration reform was a critical issue for the family community of origin: the Irish.”
Surprisingly, towards the end of her column Benador quotes from President Lyndon Johnson’s October 3, 1965 signing ceremony speech for the Immigration and Naturalization Act. President Johnson declared that the National Origins system “violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”
None of Johnson’s criticisms were refuted, instead Benador simply argued that replacing the National Origins Act “ended up altering the immigration pattern and opening doors to non-European nations, thus changing forever the intrinsic tissue of American society.”
During that same speech, given at the base of the Statue of Liberty, President Johnson condemned the National Origins Act as “a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice,” and “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation.” After announcing the abolition of the old system with his signature of the bill, he declared, “we can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”
Passed at the height of the civil rights era, alongside the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 terminated the race-based system of national origins. Immigration would henceforth be based on hemispheric quotas and a system of preferences for family members of U.S. citizens and residents, and those with occupational or refugee status. The system that arose with the Ku Klux Klan and Madison Grant in the 1920’s, reflecting the subversion of government policy to racial nationalist claims, came to an end. It opened the United States to non-Europeans and brought an expansion of demographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity.
In her conclusion, Benador declares “This is the day, this is the time, when Americans must remove their blinders and look straight in the eyes at the danger in front of them and decide what to do.” About this she is correct. Now is the time to look Tea Party racism in the eyes and together, in a united voice, make it resoundingly clear that such bigotry is un-American and unacceptable. Support for the National Origins Act is a declaration of white supremacy, plain and simple. Our immigration system is clearly in need of reform and adjustment, to meet our current conditions. But as a nation, we cannot afford to let the Tea Parties bully us into rebuilding those twin barriers of prejudice and privilege, like the Immigration Restriction League and the Ku Klux Klan forced upon our nation last century.
1For more, see Devin Burghart, “Tea Party Nation Warns of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Extinction,” Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights website, March 29, 2011, http://irehr.org/issue-areas/tea-parties/19-news/76-tea-party-nation-warns-of-white-anglo-saxon-protestant-extinction; and Devin Burghart, “Tea Party Leaders Attack Constitution,” Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights website, November 30, 2010, http://irehr.org/issue-areas/tea-parties/19-news/64-tea-party-leaders-attack-constitution.
2 Eliana Benador, “AMERICA IN DANGER AS SHE CELEBRATES 235 YEARS INDEPENDENCE,” Tea Party Nation website, July 4, 2011, http://www.teapartynation.com/profiles/blogs/america-in-danger-as-she.
3 William H. Tucker, The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund (Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 11.
4 Miriam King and Steven Ruggles, “American Immigration, Fertility, and Race Suicide at the Turn of the Century,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20 (Winter 1990), 348. King and Ruggles discovered that the combined fertility of immigrants and their children was actually lower than that of native-born women of native parentage: “the much-heralded ‘breeding power’ of ethnics at the turn of the century was an illusion.”
5 Constitution of the Immigration Restriction League, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Immigration Restriction League (U.S.) Records, Series VII: 1151.
6 John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, 2nd ed. (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 321.
7 Harry S. Laughlin, “Biological Aspects of Immigration,” Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, US House of Representatives, Sixty-Sixth Congress, second session, April 16-17, 1920.
8 Higham, Strangers in the Land, (1971), 321.
9 Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1952); John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, (Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955).
10 For example, the law (as eventually amended) permitted 65,721 immigrants from Great Britain annually, but only 5,802 from Italy and 2,712 from the entire Soviet Union.
11 Ozawa V. United States, 260 U.S. 178, 195 (1922).
12 David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: the History of the Ku Klux Klan (Chicago: Quadrangle Publishing, 1968), 283–284; Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); William Peirce Randel, The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965).
13 Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 45–47.
14 Stephan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 49.
15 Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 47.
16 Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 9.
17 President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks at the Signing of the Immigration Bill, Liberty Island, New York October 3, 1965.” www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/Johnson/archives.hom. See also Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).