15 November 2005

Eugenics, an American point of view

[Eugenics - The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.]

“The overwhelming number of immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were really in search of economic opportunity. They were in search of better jobs, higher wages, education for their young, a better livelihood and better lives down the road. But they were also concerned - and this was especially true of minority groups in parts of southern and eastern Europe - with political liberty, the ability to participate in the political system, the ability to function in the world without the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. And, of course, they were also interested in religious liberties.

The vast majority of immigrants who came to the United States spent at least some time in cities. Many ultimately would go out to the countryside and would be engaged in farming activities, but most spent some time in the cities. And many made their livelihoods and their futures in the cities as industrial workers. Naturally, with such high concentrations of immigrants, it changed the whole nature of American urban life. Foreign language newspapers appeared. Stores that catered to the specific food needs and consumer desires of the newcomers arose. The newcomers themselves used the high concentration of population in cities as ways of launching themselves as entrepreneurs - push carts, small stores; these were the ways that many of these newcomers entered the economy. The cities buzzed with the activity that came out of these various immigrant groups.

America was the glowing land of opportunity, but when they actually arrived, they discovered something else other than a glowing land of opportunity. They discovered at best a land that had jobs, but often a land that was not completely receptive to them and where they would in some cases suffer even greater hardship and poverty than they had in their home countries.

Not everyone who came to the United States liked it. Not everybody who came to the United States succeeded in the way that they thought they ought to. Many were also lonely for family and for friends. In some cases, men returned to find wives because they weren't happy with the women who they met in the United States. They wanted a woman from the old country who understood the ways of their group.

And so there was a constant flow, a circulation, if you will, of immigrants back and forth between their home countries and the United States. And some groups were actually labor migrants.

[There was a kind of] love-hate relationship that the United States and its people had with new arrivals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the one hand, the United States desperately needed the labor of these newcomers. On the other hand, they were strange to many Americans. They were of different religious persuasions. They were poorer. They looked different from most native-born Americans. And so, there was a fear of the stranger. On the one hand, we wanted immigration. On the other hand, we didn't want immigrants. And so there was an effort to repel those newcomers, sometimes by simply discouraging them, not giving them jobs, not being decent to them and fair to them in terms of housing, and so on.

There was also an effort to pass laws and restrictions that would repel newcomers. Many Americans felt that they needed protection from these immigrants, protection from their bodies and protection from their culture.

Opposition to immigration was really of two kinds. There were Americans who feared that the newcomers would take their jobs or drive down the wage scale and resisted immigration because it simply wasn't in their own economic best interest to support immigration. American labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor, opposed immigration very often because the immigrants worked for lower wages.

But there was another genre of immigration opponent that was concerned with who the immigrant was and what the immigrant was. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League was concerned about the racial composition of these newcomers. In the United States and in other countries of western Europe during this period, there was an increasing attention to eugenics, the belief that you could improve the human condition and improve human stock by careful breeding.

Overall, eugenicists looked at immigration as an enormous challenge. Not all immigrants were inferior, but many eugenicists believed that it would be to the advantage of the United States to limit immigration severely, particularly from parts of Asia and parts of southern and eastern Europe, precisely those areas that were the big donors of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so eugenicists became major advocates of limiting immigration.”

[Entire Citation: Alan Kraut, Professor of History, American University, in an interview with PBS.]

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