Trumpism is nothing new. Fevered racism has been simmering in the US for a long, long time. What’s embarrassing is how Daniel Okrent explains how much well educated scientists at famous institutions contributed to the toxic stew. It’s not southern rednecks who necessarily are full of ignorance and hate; genteel northern scholars with bad ideas had more power and influence.
Also note how the social sciences have been scorned all along.
Together, they [a gang of prestigious scientists] popularized “racial eugenics,” a junk science that made ethnically based racism respectable. “The day of the sociologist is passing,” said the Harvard professor Robert DeCourcy Ward, “and the day of the biologist has come.” The biologists and their publicists achieved what their political allies had failed to accomplish for 30 years: enactment of a law stemming the influx of Jews, Italians, Greeks and other eastern and southern Europeans. “The need of restriction is manifest,” The New York Times declared in an editorial, for “American institutions are menaced” by “swarms of aliens.”
People with no knowledge of sociology are always eager to shut down sociology departments because they keep on digging up hard data to show that racists are wrong. But wait — when a sociologist says bigoted things, then we can listen to them. Also, I guess people of Slavic descent weren’t considered white enough?
Writing about Slavic immigrants, the sociologist Edward A. Ross of the University of Wisconsin — later the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union — declared, they “are immune to certain kinds of dirt. They can stand what would kill a white man.” The president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology said newcomers from eastern and southern Europe were “vast masses of filth” who were “living like swine.”
Racial classifications were so confusing. Italians were Asiatic?
The Washington Post editorialized that 90 percent of Italians coming to the United States were “the degenerate spawn” of “Asiatic hordes.” A Boston philanthropist, Joseph Lee, his city’s leading supporter of progressive causes, explained to friends why he became the single largest financial backer of the anti-immigrant campaign: His concern, he wrote, was that without a restriction law, Europe would be “drained of Jews — to its benefit no doubt but not to ours.”
Cold Spring Harbor has a deep history of aiding and abetting racism — removing that stain was one of the reasons James Watson got the boot there, although that doesn’t explain why they hired him in the first place.
The “biological” justifications for this nativism were first developed in Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, in laboratories financed by the widow of the railroad baron E.H. Harriman. (One of her goals, Mary Harriman said, was preventing “the decay of the American race.”) The laboratory’s head, the zoologist Charles B. Davenport, took the ideas of the British gentleman scientist Francis Galton — who had coined the word “eugenics” in 1883 — welded them to a gross misunderstanding of the genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel, and concluded that the makeup of the nation’s population could be improved by the careful control of human breeding. One of the first steps, he believed, was to impose new controls on open immigration.
I read “The Passing of the Great Race” a few decades ago, and recall it as awful pseudoscience of the sort that might fit in at the Daily Stormer nowadays. I should re-read it, I suppose, but the memory is painful and infuriating.
At first, Davenport wished to bar the immigration only of people afflicted by specific disorders — epileptics, the “feebleminded” and others of similarly troublesome (to Davenport) disability. But soon he was caught up in a racialist whirlwind initiated by “The Passing of the Great Race,” a book by Madison Grant, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and the era’s most prominent conservationist. A bilious stew of dubious history, bogus anthropology and completely unfounded genetic theory, Grant’s work persuaded Davenport and others that the American bloodstream was threatened not by suspect individuals, but by entire ethnic groups.
Never forget how entrenched anti-semitism was and is.
Grant was not an actual scientist. But Henry Fairfield Osborn, a world-famous paleontologist and his closest friend, definitely was. Osborn, who once expressed his opposition to the extension of the Westchester Parkway near his country estate because it would bring thousands of “East Side Jews” to the area, presided over the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, and made that institution the beating heart of the combined eugenics and anti-immigration movement. “I am convinced,” said Osborn, that the “spiritual, physical, moral and intellectual structure” of individuals is “based on racial characteristics.” It wasn’t a matter of ethnic bias, he said — it was “cold-blooded” science.
Good news for me — I’m one of those Nordics. That means I get to sneer at everyone with ancestry from a more southern country. That’s what this is all about, right, ranking people in arbitrary hierarchies so you always have someone lesser to spit on?
“Whether we like to admit it or not,” Grant wrote, “the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting” to the “lower type.” Lower than Nordics were the questionable “Alpines.” Lower than the “Alpines” were the woeful “Mediterraneans.” And, he concluded, “the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”
We’ve still got people today babbling about IQ tests. Thanks, scientists!
Other scholars rallied to the cause. Robert M. Yerkes — his name immortalized today at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta — conducted a severely flawed series of tests of American servicemen purporting to establish the intellectual inferiority of eastern and southern Europeans. Charles W. Gould, a lawyer in New York, sponsored “A Study of American Intelligence,” by Carl C. Brigham, a young Princeton psychologist (and later the inventor of the SAT). Brigham’s conclusion: “There can be no doubt that recent history has shown a movement of inferior peoples or inferior representatives of peoples to this country.”
It’s good to be reminded now and then that all the pseudo-scientific respectability given racist science today was granted by bigoted assholes with science degrees yesterday.