Immigration's Dark History: From February 18, 1995
A specter is haunting the West: immigration. From the passage of Proposition 187 in California to the growing anti-immigrant movements in Europe, there is a widespread attempt by economically advanced societies to seal themselves off from the less fortunate. The imagery used to describe these immigrants is almost always the same: Immigrants are to hordes what sheep are to flocks, or lions to prides. They swarm rather than arrive, their faceless uniformity evoking the insect world and its ceaseless, relentless capacity to reproduce.
There is no better description of the passions and fears that immigration engenders than the hysterical vision of approaching apocalypse contained in Jean Raspail’s novel, The Camp of the Saints. First published in 1973, The Camp of the Saints tells what happens when a million diseased, crippled, impoverished inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent board a ragtag armada of decrepit ships and descend on the south of France. In Raspail’s story, a weak and effete France, awash in liberal guilt and gushing Christian sentimentalism, finds it doesn’t have the power to resist.
Neglected for decades, Raspail’s book has recently received much attention in Europe and was the subject of a cover article ("Must It Be the Rest Against the West") in the December 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Co-authors Matthew Connelly, a graduate student of history at Yale, and Paul Kennedy, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), offer a qualified endorsement of the Malthusian and Spenglerian fatalism that is at the heart of Raspail’s novel: "Readers may well find Raspail’s vision uncomfortable and his language vicious and repulsive, but the central message is clear: we are heading into the twenty-first century in a world consisting for the most part of a relatively small number of rich, satiated, demographically stagnant societies and a large number of poverty-stricken, resource-depleted nations whose populations are doubling every twenty-five years or less."
On the face of it, Raspail’s notion of a conscience-stricken West being overwhelmed by an army of disheveled immigrants is less discomforting than laughable. The West has shown itself perfectly capable of using sufficient force whenever its vital interests are at stake—or perceived as being so—as it did most recently in the Gulf War. Indeed, for all the handwringing over immigration and the future of the West, there seems little appreciation that for the last 500 years at least it has been the West that has been threatening and battering the rest of the world, colonizing entire continents and waging war to secure the resources it needs. The current virulent reaction against immigrants in France, Austria and Germany—or, for that matter, the U.S.’s recent treatment of Haitian refugees—is hardly a sign of societies suffering from terminal humanitarianism.
The pessimism evinced by Connelly and Kennedy is mitigated somewhat by their call for international cooperation to deal with the underlying causes of the present population crisis. But as with so many descriptions of the threat posed by the third world, the authors’ underlying sense of the West’s vulnerability before the procreative puissance of the world’s nameless poor is far more vivid and forceful than any formulaic list of possible solutions. The threat is from below, from Raspail’s "kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned, long-despised phantoms," from the teeming races that Rudyard Kipling once described as "lesser breeds without the law."
In the United States, the question of intelligence as a distinguishing characteristic between greater and lesser breeds has come to center stage with The Bell Curve (1994), the best-selling treatise by Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Hermstein. Unlike The Camp of the Saints, this sedate and statistics-laden book is not directly concerned with immigration, and its central thesis—that I.Q. is a function of race—is more subtle and complex than the horrific vision evoked by Raspail.
Despite their differences, however, there are similarities. At the heart of The Bell Curve and The Camp of the Saints, as well as of Connelly’s and Kennedy’s article, is a world in which the central divisions are racial and in which, when all is said and done, the white race is endangered. In fairness to Murray and Hermstein, they credit Asians with higher I.Q.’s than white Americans. Yet here again is found the implicit threat of a Caucasian community being challenged by another race, one that has been traditionally credited with being shrewder and craftier—in its own "inscrutable" way, smarter—than Westerners.
The fear that white civilization is growing steadily weaker and is at risk of being overwhelmed by barbarians from within and without marks a new life for an old and ugly tradition. The most infamous manifestation of that tradition is the Ku Klux Klan and the host of so-called Aryan resistance groups that continue to spring up on the periphery of American political life. But its most powerful and enduring effect was not limited to cross burnings or rabble-rousing assaults against blacks and immigrants. There was a far more respectable, educated version of this tradition that clothed itself in the language of science and not only won a place in the academy, but helped shape our laws on immigration, interracial marriage and compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and retarded.
The movement derived its authority from the work of an Englishman, Francis Galton—Darwin’s cousin—who in 1883 published his masterwork, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. In it Galton advocated the modification and improvement of human species through selective breeding and coined a name for it as well: eugenics. In Galton’s view, which was shared by many of his Victorian contemporaries and buttressed by a wealth of pseudo-scientific skull measuring and brain weighing, the races were totally distinct. Eugenics, he believed, would give "the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable."
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was ripe for the gospel of eugenics. The country’s original immigrants—Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish Protestants—were feeling battered and besieged by the waves of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe (i.e., Italians, Slovaks and Ashkenazi Jews) who were judged so immiscible in appearance and conduct that they would undermine the country’s character and identity. According to the eugenicists, the racial "germ plasm" of these groups was riddled with hereditary proclivities to feeblemindedness, criminality and pauperism. These suspicions were given scientific justification by studies that purported to trace family behavior across several generations and discern a clear pattern of inherited behavior.
By the eve of World War I, eugenics was taught in many colleges. Its research arm was generously funded by some of America’s wealthiest families, including the Harrimans, Rockefellers and Carnegies. Alfred Ploetz, the German apostle of "racial hygiene," hailed the United States as a "bold leader in the realm of eugenics," a leadership that consisted of the widespread ban on interracial marriage and the growing emphasis on compulsory sterilization.
In the wake of the First World War, the eugenicists helped direct the campaign to halt the "degeneration" of the country’s racial stock by changing its immigration laws. As framed by Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the Museum of Natural History (at that time a center of eugenic fervor), America would either stop the influx from southern and eastern Europe or it would perish: "Apart from the spiritual, moral and political invasion of alienism the practical question of day by day competition between the original American and the alien element turns upon the struggle for existence between the Americans and aliens whose actions are controlled by entirely different standards of living and morals."
The eugenicists played an important role in achieving the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, a victory noted and approved by Adolf Hitler in his book of the same year, Mein Kampf. In fact, nine years later, when the Nazis took power in Germany, they would hail U.S. laws on immigration, intermarriage and sterilization as models for their own legislation.
As succesful as the eugenicist crusade was, it was not the first time that the United States had experienced a broad and widely supported campaign against the influx of intractable foreigners whose essential alienism—their alleged lack of moral or mental stamina—would, it was believed, eat away the foundations of American democracy and sink the country into a permanent state of pauperism.
The country’s first great immigrant trauma (that is, aside from the forced importation of African slaves) began 150 years ago, in 1845, with the failure of the potato crop in Ireland and the onset of a catastrophe that would result in the death of a million Irish from hunger and disease, and force millions to flee. "The volume of Famine emigration," writes historian Kirby Miller, "was astonishing: between 1845 and 1855 almost 1.5 million sailed to the United States.... In all, over 2.1 million Irish—about one-fourth of Ireland’s pre-Famine population—went overseas; more people left Ireland in just eleven years than during the preceding two and one-half centuries."
The flight of the Famine Irish produced an immigrant experience unlike any other in American history. There was no web of emigration societies or government agencies to encourage or cushion the process of resettlement abroad. In effect, traditional Irish society—the life of the townslands and the rudimentary agriculture that supported the mass of the Irish tenantry—came apart, dissolving into a chaotic rout. Faced with the simple choice of flee or starve, or in many cases left by eviction with no choice at all, the Irish abandoned the land.
From Liverpool to Boston, contemporary observers remarked on the utter destitution of the Irish who poured into their streets, many of them ill and emaciated and, in the words of one eyewitness, "steeped to all appearances in as hopeless barbarism as the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia."
The dislocation that resulted was enormous. Although the memory of what happened has been softened by the romantic haze that obscures much of our true immigrant history, the passage of the Famine Irish was stark and bitter. Their arrival was the major impetus to the growth of the largest third-party movement in American history, the American or Know-Nothing Party, which was predicated on a loathing for Catholics in general and Irish ones in particular. In the popular mind, the Irish became identified with poverty, disease and violence, a connection strengthened by events like the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, the worst urban uprising ever to occur in the United States. The scale of social turmoil that followed the Irish into America’s cities would not be seen again for another century, until the massive exodus of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north.
Today the sense of the Catholic Irish as wholly alien to white, Christian society seems, perhaps, difficult to credit. But in mid-19th-century America the inalterable otherness of the Irish was for many a given. Indeed, the experience of the Famine Irish seems the historical event closest to the visionary nightmare contained in Jean Raspail’s novel. Here in flesh rather than fiction was the descent of a swarming horde of the gaunt and desperate poor on the shores of a smug and prosperous West.
Although eugenics was still a generation away, the theory of Irish racial inferiority was already being discussed. In 1860, Charles Kingsley, English clergyman and professor of modem history at Cambridge University, described the peasants he saw during his travels in Ireland in Darwinian terms: "I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country...to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."
Three years later, in 1863, Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society and a prominent figure in the American social reform movement, published a book entitled Races of the Old World. Drawing on the claims of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority found in popular historical works such as Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxon and John Kemble’s The Saxon in England, Brace located the cause of Irish mental deficiency in brain size, a measurement that served for Victorian ethnologists as an iron indication of intelligence: "The Negro skull, though less than the European, is within one inch as large as the Persian and the Armenian.... The difference between the average English and Irish skull is nine cubic inches, and only four between the average African and Irish."
As with so many of his contemporaries, Brace was wrong in his theory of an Irish "race" stigmatized by shared physical and mental deficiencies. This is not to deny the prevalent poverty of the Irish of Brace’s era or the real and formidable problems their poverty presented.
The migration of the rural poor was, is and will always be problematic. But the challenges it presents can only be aggravated by doomsday fearmongering that casts the issue in terms of a vast and imminent Völkerwanderung in which the wretched of the earth will infest and overrun Western civilization.
Writing in 1866, Charles Wenworth Dilke recorded his journey across America, Africa and much of Asia. A recent university graduate with high political ambitions, Dilke saw the world caught up in the struggle of light and dark. He framed the future in terms of the competition for survival between the "dear races" (Europeans of Teutonic origin) and the "cheap races" (the hordes of Irish, Indians, Chinese, etc.). For Dilke, "the gradual extinction of the inferior races" was not only desirable but would be "a blessing for mankind."
Dilke was a lofty-minded imperialist. Though contemptuous of other cultures and a racial alarmist, he was no proponent of genocide. Yet we know the kind of final solutions these vicious and simplistic scenarios of racial struggle and survival can lend themselves to. Maybe the Victorians did not. We do.
We need to remind ourselves that immigrants are not a single genus. They come in all shapes and sizes. They have immense strengths and talents as well as liabilities. Their potential for enriching and enlivening the societies that receive them is every bit as real as the difficulties their presence can create.
Certainly, those of us who descend from the Famine Irish would seem to have a special responsibility to look past the current evocation of innumerable, anonymous hordes threatening our borders, or the latter-day recycling of theories of ethnic and racial inferiority, and to see in the faces of today’s immigrants the image of our ancestors: those hungry ghosts who, though dispossessed and despised, passed on to us their faith and their hope.