I just finished Daniel Okrent’s book The Guarded Gate. Here’s what I’ve learned:
This was not an easy book to read, particularly to those of us who follow the news. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species that found that plants and animals change and develop to adapt to a changing world. In the decades that followed, many people asked the question as to whether humans do the same.
It’s a decent question and we’ve found that skin color has changed incrementally over millennia based on our distance from the equator and sunlight. We all began in Africa with dark skin because of the sun: we needed dark skin to block skin cancer. But as a species we migrated to areas where the sun was not as intense, areas that we now know as Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Those migrants needed lighter skin because they needed the Vitamin D that the sun provided. And over thousands of years they developed exactly that. The different skin colors between Africans and Scandinavians had everything to do with the sun and nothing to do with anything else.
But in the decades after Darwin this debate took a horrifying turn: a number of Americans took Darwin’s theory to argue that people from certain countries were “good” and some were “bad” based on skin color and where they were born.
From the late 16th Century much of what we now call America saw a huge influx Western Europeans. In 1776 we declared ourselves independent from Europe (England) and opened our shores to all who wanted to come, not thinking much about skin color (except for the slaves we brought here in chains but that’s grist for another post). This lasted until 1882 when we decided that we didn’t want to include people from China.
Shortly after this descendants of Western European immigrants feared they would lose their wealth and their identity because of current Eastern and Southern European immigrants. With calls of “Keep America for the Americans” they decided that some immigrants were good and should be welcomed and some were bad and should be banned. They claimed science on their side and named their belief “eugenics.”
Daniel’s book documents this belief that Europeans could be divided into three groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans.” With no evidence they claimed a hierarchy: Nordics were good, Alpines were suspicious, and Mediterraneans were inferior. In no small part they recognized that Nordics had fair skin and fair hair while Mediterraneans had olive skin and dark hair.
In 1924 Congress passed (and President Coolidge signed) a law that placed horrific quotas on immigration from different nations of Europe. I encourage you to read the book but basically they wrote this law that set up immigration quotas from each nation. Those from Northern Europe and Scandinavians enjoyed generous quotas (including, by the way, President Trump’s mother who came from Scotland in 1930) while those from Italy, Austria, and the Balkans were essentially shut out.
The horror of this law wasn’t realized until the 1930s when Jews from Europe frantically attempted to flee Nazi Germany and were turned away from our shores because of their misfortune to come after their quota had already been met. Thousands were turned back where they perished in concentration camps. If you don’t think this has real consequences, read about the St. Louis.
Today, day after day, we see that men, women and children come to our borders. They are desperate to flee because of the same fear that Jews faced in the 1930s. They don’t face antisemitism but instead face death threats. Their fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons face threats from local gangs who demand that these young men join their gang or face death.
They don’t want to join gangs and they began a long and dangerous journey in the hope of a place of safety: the United States. They want what our ancestors wanted. But when they arrive at our border they are seen as “invaders” who want to “take our stuff.”
In 2019 we cannot condemn xenophobia in the 1920s and defend xenophobia today.