Anti-Immigrant Racism Then and Now
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 17, 2006
Liberals especially, their tumescent sensibilities offended, bridle at the suggestion that there could be anything racist about opposing amnesty and requiring illegals to get in line like everyone else. But of course it’s racist. The attitude hides behind what, instinctively, rings of truth: laws must be respected. You can’t just have open borders. The future must be safeguarded. Citizenship is not an entitlement. But every one of these claims is pile of chaff fit for straw men by the horde, though every claim has a long and ignoble tradition in America’s immigration debates, which are — the proudly American dependence on amnesia notwithstanding — as old as the colonies. Even Roger Williams, the Puritan pastor who had the good sense to be exiled from Plymouth in 1635, and who subsequently founded the city of Providence with the sort of tolerant open arms that liberals today euphemize as “diversity,” had his issues with the very Jews he accepted into Providence, but didn’t quite welcome. The emphases are his: “I am not without thoughts of many Objections, and cannot without horror think of the Jews killing of the Lord Jesus, of their cursing themselves and their posterity; of the wrath of God upon them,” and so on. But that’s looking back too far.
Here’s Calvin Coolidge, 30th president, writing about the necessary limits on immigration: “There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.” And if the present day wasn’t so dire, as 1921 wasn’t, immigration-wise, there was always the children: “We must remember that we have not only the present but the future to safeguard; our obligations extend even to generations yet unborn.” Aren’t we hearing the very same words these days? The title of Coolidge’s piece, incidentally, was a question mark in the shape of its own blinkered answer: “Whose Country Is This?” The piece was published, of all places, in Good Housekeeping, and it was still on the newsstands when Coolidge took his oath of office as Harding’s vice president.
Coolidge must have been inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose This Side of Paradise was giving Zane Grey a run for his pulp with passages like this, quite reflective of high-society attitude toward immigrants at the time: “When Armory went to Washington the next week-end, he caught some of the spirit of crisis which changed to repulsion in the Pullman car coming back, for the berths across from him were occupied by stinking aliens—Greeks, he guessed, or Russians. He thought how much easier patriotism had been to a homogenized race, how much easier it would have been to fight as the colonies fought, or as the Confederacy fought. And he did no sleeping that night, but listened to the aliens guffaw and snore while they filled the car with the heavy scent of latest America.” The same scent that infused the distaste of people toward Sinclair Lewis’s Dr. Gottlieb in Arrowsmith, the double-whammied “suspect German Jew”: “In shops and on the elevated train, little red-faced sweaty people when they heard his accent glared at him, and growled one to another, ‘There’s one of them damn’ barb’rous well-poisoning Huns!’ and however contemptuous he might be, however much he strove for ignoring pride, their nibbling reduced him from arrogant scientist to an insecure, raw-nerved, shrinking old man.” And those were the reactions toward European immigrants. Leave it to Jack London to give us, in “The Yellow Peril,” a twofer about non-Europeans: “The menace to the Western world lies, not in the little brown man, but in the four hundred millions of yellow men should the little brown man undertake their management.”
There is also the all-encompassing revulsion—all races from every continent—Henry James felt when he saw “the business” of Ellis Island in 1905, in The American Scene: “I think indeed that the simplest account of the action of Ellis Island on the spirit of any sensitive citizen who may have happened to ‘look in’ is that he comes back from his visit not at all the same person that he went. He has eaten of the tree of knowledge, and the taste will forever be in his mouth. He had thought he knew before, thought he had the sense of the degree in which it is his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien; but the truth had never come home to him with any such force. In the lurid light projected upon it by those courts of dismay it shakes him—or I like to imagine it shakes him—to the depths of his being; I like to think of him, I positively have to think of him, as going about ever afterwards with a new look, for those who can see it, in his face, the outward sign of the new chill in his heart. So it is stamped, for detection, the questionably privileged person who has had an apparition, seen a ghost in his supposedly safe old house. Let not the unwary, therefore visit Ellis Island.” I like to imagine it shakes him. Imagine how shaken James would have been had he “looked in” at the immigrant demonstrations of late. Then again, just imagine Lou Dobbs, and you have Henry James without (the style or the few thousand pages of redeeming qualities).
We don’t wonder much how Germans during the Third Reich managed so submissively to execute Hitler’s genocidal orders. They’d been primed for years to think of Jews as sub-human and of foreigners as scum. We assume that attitudes were more elevated in the United States. Perhaps they were more mitigated by the sheer demographics of immigration, which has sometimes tempered the worst excesses of the xenophobes. But it took attitudes reflected in the works of Fitzgerald, Lewis and Henry James, and in the presumptuous fears of the likes of Coolidge, to make the excesses of internment in World War II possible: Here’s the great Earl Warren himself, the future Chief Justice of the United States under whom the Supreme Court redefined liberalism, speaking, as California’s attorney general, to the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration in 1942, two days after FDR ordered Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps: “I am convinced that the fifth-column activities of our enemy call for the participation of people who are in fact American citizens, and that if we are to deal realistically with the problem we must realize that we will be obliged in time of stress to deal with subversive elements of our own citizenry.” And we’re surprised that the NSA has been spying on our phone histories? Warren’s xenophobia would have made him a natural as a member of President Bush’s post-9/11 junta, to whom nothing like the absence of domestic enemies proves the utmost certainty of domestic enemies: “Unfortunately, however,” Warren went on, “many of our people and some of our authorities and, I am afraid, many of our people in other parts of the country are of the opinion that because we have had no sabotage and no fifth column activities [in California] since the beginning of the war, that means that none have been planned for us. But I take the view that that is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage that we are to get, the fifth column activities that we are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor was timed…”
Today we don’t just have “illegal immigrants.” We have illegals, a war on terror, a schizophrenic economy, a liberal establishment that’s lost its compass so convincingly that the only way it can find its course is by setting it according to conservatives’ agenda. Hence the terms of the immigration debate being dictated almost entirely by Republicans, leaving liberals to sound more like echoes than alternatives. Let’s at least dispense with the notion that the liberal tradition, when it comes to immigrants, has any less of a shady past than the conservative tradition. Relatively open borders, give or take those decades when the door was expressly closed, have been a constant, as has the nation’s want of labor. But so has racism as an inherent corollary of the immigrant experience. What tolerance we can take pride in, and there’s been plenty, has been a consequence of immigration itself: a necessity, a concession, a belated acknowledgment. We’re a nation of immigrants. We’ve seldom been a nation welcoming of immigrants. The distinction is lost on those liberals who, these days, are adding fuel to conservatives’ bigoted fires against “the little brown man” from down south.
On immigration and race, see also: