In the latest issue of Dissent Magazine, Michelle Chen explores how eugenics thought shaped American immigration policy in the 1920s and beyond.
“Eugenics did not invent whiteness. Well before they intersected with evolutionary theory, ideas of race and racism had been central to colonialism and slavery and had been used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples. But eugenics built on earlier philosophies of human nature by tying genetics and racial identity to notions of modernity and progress. Linking hereditary traits to intelligence or temperament helped reconcile the ideal of democracy—a principle theoretically based on inclusion and equality—with a culture that dehumanized the Other. This rationalization of privilege aimed to keep the economic hierarchy humming, enforce the illusion of meritocracy, and simultaneously curb the social mobility of supposedly inferior groups.”
On November 20, 2014, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted “Return of the Unfit: A Gathering to Locate, Challenge, & Exorcise Our Eugenic Ghosts” as part of the Haunted Files project.
Artists, activists, and academics joined forces to trace the lineages of American nativism, racism, and ableism through readings, performance, music, and analysis. The program featured scholar Awam Amkpa (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), poet and activist Sonia Guinansaca (New York State Youth Leadership Council and CultureStrike), historian and lawyer Paul A. Lombardo (Georgia State University), author and activist N. Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism), writer Tommy “Teebs” Pico (absentMINDR), social justice activist and expert Loretta Ross (co-founder, SisterSong), scholar Dean Saranillio (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), composer and producer Sxip Shirey, and musician and educator/activist Sonny Singh (Red Baraat).
On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island shut its doors. The immigration processing center has been both a symbol of America’s “land of opportunity” for “huddled masses” of hopeful immigrants, as well as a site where nativist American fears of racial and cultural difference targeted would-be immigrants. By the passage of the eugenics-motivated 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, the island had transformed into a multipurpose inspection, detention, and deportation center, where incoming migrants were screened for contagious disease and intellectual “unfitness” through a variety of standardized physical and mental tests.
60 years later, amidst the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement, we ask: how does America receive (and remove) immigrants today?
In his 1912 book The Nam Family, a study of a “highly inbred” family of “degenerates” in New York State, Eugenics Record Office Director Charles B. Davenport implored readers to understand that “a breeding pot of uncontrolled animalism is as much of a menace to our civilization” as “ten cases of bubonic plague at a point not 200 miles away.”
Over a century later, in the midst of a largely unwarranted Western Ebola hysteria, right-wing politician Scott Brown claimed that the US’ “unprotected border” would allow “people with Ebola and other infectious diseases [to] enter the country without being challenged.”
The two incidents are part of a long American history in which ethnic, cultural, and sexual difference have conjured images of disease, filth, poverty, and degeneracy. Longstanding public perceptions associated different immigrant groups with different diseases: the Irish with cholera; the Jews with tuberculosis; the Italians with polio; the Chinese with Bubonic plague. Public policy would draw from popular biases: the Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry of all immigrant “idiots,” insane,” and sufferers “from a loathsome or dangerous” contagious disease. Eugenic conceptions of mental difference expanded the excludable classes to include “all aliens afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeblemindedness,” and beyond.
Eugenics rhetoric of “tainted,” “impure,” and “degenerate” individuals grafted familiar fears of infectious disease onto fears of inheritable mental and behavioral difference, differences of course associated with all non-“Nordic” populations.
The Ebola scare and its media depictions continue the tradition of embedding ethnic and cultural biases into narratives of disease. Writes Stassa Edwards for Jezebel:
African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.
The threat of infectious disease requires a level-headed scientific and medical response. But history has shown that too often, science and medicine can be warped by popular biases to support ethnocentric, supremacist ideas of national belonging, “foreignness,” and the preservation of an exclusive sort of American identity.