TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about an earlier part of immigration history when, as my guest Daniel Okrent writes, a perverse form of science gave respectability to the drastic limits imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles and various other Eastern and Southern Europeans seeking to come to America.
The, quote, "science" was eugenics which theorized that traits like intelligence and morality were inherited and therefore, through selective breeding, you could improve the quality of the human race. Of course, the converse was also believed to be true; certain individuals or groups of people would pollute the bloodline. Those undesirables were the people the restrictive immigration law of 1924 was designed to keep out. Okrent is the author of the new book "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." He hears the rhetoric of that era echoing today.
Daniel Okrent, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
DANIEL OKRENT: I'm very happy to be here.
GROSS: Did you write about anti-immigration movements of the past to put President Trump's hard-line immigration policies into historical context?
OKRENT: No, I can't say that I did; that just happened to be an unfortunate coincidence or maybe, commercially, a fortunate coincidence. I began to write this book because I stumbled across the story of eugenics in America in the early part of the 20th century.
And as I looked further into it, in addition to those things that many people have written about - particularly plant breeding and sterilization - I stumbled across this immigration story, where eugenics was used as a primary weapon in the effort to keep Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country, resulting in a law passed in 1924, in place for 41 years, that really gave the lie to the notion that we were a nation of immigrants.
GROSS: So your grandparents, like so many Americans' grandparents or great-grandparents, came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, before the restrictive 1924 act. Tell us a little bit what immigration from Europe or Eastern Europe was like then. What did it take to get entry into America?
OKRENT: To get entry into America before the - first, the 1921 act, you needed to get on a boat, come across the ocean, show up at Ellis Island and not have a contagious disease or any other very obvious disability or a criminal record or be suspected of certain criminal activities. But beyond that, the door was wide, wide open to the huddled masses that Emma Lazarus wrote about.
GROSS: And describe to us a little bit what Ellis Island was like in the early 1900s.
OKRENT: Ellis Island opens in 1892, and within a few years, it becomes one of the busiest port spots anywhere in the U.S. There are hundreds of thousands of people - in some years, millions of people - coming through Ellis Island - long, snaking lines; detention dormitories; hospitalization areas. It was a very, very busy place and a very alienating place for a lot of people because of the examination that people had to go through, particularly for tuberculosis, trachoma and other diseases. But once through the line and then onto the ferry boat that took people to Manhattan, it was really a wonderful place to have been.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting; you describe the detention dorms in Ellis Island as being really large rooms divided into cages.
OKRENT: They put people into cages really to kind of - as holding pens. Cages may be a little bit too scary a word. They were wire walls that kept people apart from other people. And it was for segregation by sex. It was for segregation by people who might have diseases. It wasn't detention remotely like the detention that people coming across the southern border are submitting to today.
GROSS: And just tell us a little bit about why there was such a large surge of immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
OKRENT: A couple of things that happened in the late 19th century that lead to the enormous immigration that begins really around 1880 and then goes into the retro-rockets fire around 1890 - one was the creation of a continent-wide railroad network in Europe that enabled people from the interior parts of many nations to get to ports. There was also the promise of something better, and that is each family or family member would come to the U.S. and write back to relatives at home, the streets may not be paved with gold, and they may be asking us to pave them, but there's real opportunity here.
Desperate poverty, particularly in southern Italy and other areas, was a driving force for many, many people. And if you could scrape together the dollars that could get you to a port and onto a boat, you would want to come.
GROSS: And of course, for Jews, there were the pogroms that were - Jews were living basically in ghettos, and they were being attacked. So they had a good reason to flee.
OKRENT: Yeah, the Jews of the Russian empire - now Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, various other modern nations - had - beginning in 1882, there was a severe restriction on their rights under Tsar Alexander. Not only were there pogroms in which people were subject to horrible physical crimes, but also limitation of where you could live, what occupation you could go into. Freedom of movement was radically curtailed, and people had a very, very strong reason to want to get out.
GROSS: So during this period of the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the restrictive immigration laws that we'll be talking about momentarily, immigrants that were considered good immigrants and immigrants that were considered dirty, filthy, stupid immigrants - what was the dividing line?
OKRENT: Well, it depends on who's doing the considering. But I think we're talking specifically about the Protestant elites of the Northeast - New York, Boston, Philadelphia - who had enormous political power at the time. And they saw immigrants coming from the countries that they had come from and people of similar ethnic background - which is to say the countries of Northwestern Europe, the U.K., the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, all Protestant countries - they were OK, and those who were coming from the Catholic and the Jewish countries were simply not. And that was almost universal, except, I suppose, for France. But the Eastern and Southern Europeans were looked upon by some of these people as really less than human.
And you know, the sociologist Edward Ross, who was later the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, he described - this is, you know, a very liberal and progressive man - he described looking at the immigrants, the Eastern European immigrants, in Union Square in New York and seeing what he described as hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality, ox-like people who clearly belong in skins, in waddled huts at the close of the ice age. It's a pretty terrifying image and characteristic of those who wished to close the door.
GROSS: So the first exclusionary immigration law was passed in 1882, and that was the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep out both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers. Why were the Chinese people singled out by that law? I mean, Chinese people built the railroads.
OKRENT: That's why they were singled out, one of the reasons, because it was a labor issue. The railroad magnate Jim Hill, he said, why would I want to hire one American to do this kind of work when I can hire six Chinese for the same amount of money to do it? So the notion of the jobs that were disappearing to the Chinese, they created an enormous backlash in the nascent labor movement of the late 19th century. And then, of course, there was the racial issue. They were different. They were different, and therefore, by the code of the time and of too many errors, they were lesser as well.
GROSS: So let's talk about the science of - the junk science (laughter) of eugenics.
OKRENT: Thank you.
GROSS: So what was the, you know, like, pseudoscientific basis of this?
OKRENT: The origin of eugenics in England in the latter half of the 19th century - it really comes out of Darwin, in a way - out of some very good science. Darwin upsets the entire balance of the scientific world with his discovery and the propagation of the ideas of evolution. And then once you establish that we are not all derived from the same people - from Adam and Eve, which was the prevailing view of the time - then we learn that we are not all the same. We are not all brothers, if you wish to take that particular position. And the early eugenicists believed that and thought that we could control the nature of the population of a nation - the U.K. at first or the U.S. - by selective breeding. Let's have only the good breed with the good, and let's not let the less-than-good breed.
Francis Galton, who was actually a cousin of Darwin's, who was the man who named eugenics and was its first most vocal advocate - he suggested early on that the U.K. find the 5,000 best young men and the 5,000 best young women and pair them off in arranged marriages, which would take place in one huge ceremony in Westminster Abbey, presided over by Queen Victoria. And each of these families - these new couples - would be given a yearly stipend so instead of working, they could get down to the business of making better people, better babies for the U.K.
Now, this was a kind of a positive view, in a way, but it implied the opposite that became popular in the U.S. - that we have to stop the reproduction of those who don't improve our so-called race, who don't make the country a better place. And this negative form of eugenics is the one that begins to bubble into popularity in the U.S. around 1910, 1912.
GROSS: So it wasn't just, like, intelligence that was considered to be an inherited trait. It was, like, morality.
OKRENT: Yeah. That's a really stunning thing. You find some very well-established scientists - Fairfield Osborn, the head of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years - he outright declared that it is not just intelligence. It is also morality that is inherited, and criminality is inherited. And it's really stunning to think that people who are very, very well-credentialed in the natural sciences could believe these things. But if you begin your belief by thinking that certain peoples are inferior to other peoples, it's very easy to adapt your science to suit your own prejudice.
GROSS: And the eugenicists had ways of evaluating which ethnic groups were the smartest and which were the idiots. Let's talk a little bit about some of those tests. Go ahead.
OKRENT: Well, there were any number of tests in various places, almost all of them of equal unreliability, determining whether - to determine whether people were of sufficient intelligence. One of the most famous ones was the so-called alpha test that was given to nearly 2 million soldiers in World War I by Robert M. Yerkes, who is now memorialized in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, a federal facility.
Yerkes gave tests that included questions that were sort of almost "Jeopardy!" questions, although in reverse - you know, a question like, is Bud Fisher a - choose one - outfielder, cartoonist or novelist? Now, if you've just been in the country for five years and you don't speak English terribly well, how are you possibly going to answer a question like that? But it was taken seriously as a measure of intelligence to such a degree that Carl Brigham, who later became famous for inventing the SAT, a Princeton psychologist - he said, well, these are the kind of questions - if you know the answers, it shows that you've been in America and you're an American. And that's what we're trying to establish. We're trying to find people who deserve to be in America.
GROSS: I'm going to mention a couple of other questions here 'cause these are just - these are incredible.
OKRENT: They're pretty great.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. The Wyandotte is a kind of horse, fowl, cattle or granite.
OKRENT: All right. I'm thinking really hard. The beads of sweat are forming on my forehead. I'm going to go with cattle.
GROSS: You're wrong. I looked it up.
GROSS: There's a Wyandotte chicken.
OKRENT: So kick me out of the country. I don't deserve to be that here, by those standards.
GROSS: That really - do not - you do not. OK. Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent. He's the author of the new book "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent. His new book is called "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." And the law that he's referring to in the title is the Immigration Act of 1924.
So who are some of the famous, powerful, respected people who supported eugenics and eugenics-based restrictions on immigration?
OKRENT: Well, there are any number of them, ranging from the political figures like Theodore Roosevelt early on and Henry Cabot Lodge. And then in the scientific community, I mentioned Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, Charles Davenport of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who was truthfully the leading geneticist in the U.S. at the time. And then people of surprising provenance, I'd say - Margaret Sanger, for one...
GROSS: She - I mean, she was the mother of the birth control movement.
OKRENT: Right. And if you really stop to think about it, there's a real connection between the idea of birth control - it's controlled breeding. And the entire eugenics movement was predicated on the idea of controlling breeding. Sanger, I believe, is a little bit of a complicated story because she would've made an alliance with anyone who supported the birth control movement. Eugenicists, by and large, did, so she made common cause with them.
Where it gets squirrelly is she does get very close to some of them. And at times, she makes statements about, look at the horrible things going on in the slums - the slums were overwhelmingly Eastern and southern European immigrants at the time - we have to stop their reproduction, or the slums are going to get worse. We have to keep them out of the country, or the slums are going to get worse.
GROSS: You quote Calvin Coolidge just before he was sworn in as vice president in 1921. In Good Housekeeping, he was quoted as saying, biological laws will tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The dead weight of alien accretion stifles national progress. Wow.
OKRENT: This is a critical moment when Coolidge, who's about to step into the vice presidency - he's been the governor Massachusetts - makes this absolutely declarative statement without any hint of a doubt hovering over it that biological laws have proven it. And from that moment on, it became sort of respectable to obey the biological laws to keep out the eastern and southern Europeans. One didn't have to use terms like Italians, Jews, Greeks, Romanians, Hungarians. It was simply those people, who are deficient scientifically. Of course, the science was bogus and easily and soon discredited. But it carried the day. I think that there would have been immigration restriction anyway in 1924, but this made it respectable.
GROSS: So World War I intervenes while this movement is growing in popularity. What impact did World War I have on the eugenics movement?
OKRENT: Among other things, it yields a new piece of terminology that plays right into the immigration debate. It was called by some of the leading propagandists for the eugenic idea the White Civil War. Here was white nations fighting against other white nations - and they were nations largely of northern and western Europe - killing each other. And not only killing each other, but, presumably, the soldiers who were dying were the best of those nations.
This was an alarm that went off loud and clear among the eugenicists. They saw that it was an opportunity to spread their doctrine further by pointing out the damage that had been wrought by that war. The other thing that happened is that the end of the war unleashed another huge wave of immigration into the country. There hadn't been a lot coming from Europe between 1914 and 1918. But when the war was over, that devastated continent was beginning to empty out of people coming to the U.S.
You know, one of the leading proponents of immigration restriction - the man who really financed the movement was a really pretty otherwise wonderful man named Joseph Lee of Boston. He was a great progressive. He supported all sorts of civil rights. He supported women's rights. He thought that the schools of Boston should be kept open at night so immigrants could be educated. And he became chairman of the Boston School Committee so he could arrange that. But at the same time, he was writing such things to Francis, saying, all Europe might soon be drained of Jews to its benefit, no doubt, but not to ours.
He feared that the U.S. would become, he said, a dago nation and explained he believed, as a result, an exclusion by race. And World War I popularized those ideas. It enabled them to spread. Here's this new unleashing of a stream of immigrants coming in. It must be stopped up.
GROSS: So in 1917, an immigration act is passed in the U.S. that has a literacy test component in it. The literacy tests had been a very controversial part of previous immigration laws that were vetoed. So what was the literacy test designed to do?
OKRENT: The literacy test was a - the literacy test was designed to create a filter that would really keep out the uneducated. And the uneducated were much more likely to come from these suspect nations. And they were to come from northwestern Europe, where levels of education were much higher. When Henry Cabot Lodge introduced that bill in Congress in 1895, he said that the countries it would affect directly are those in eastern and southern Europe, where we don't want so many people to be coming from. And it wouldn't stop the influx of people from northwestern Europe.
It was vetoed by Grover Cleveland. Another such law 12 years later, 15 years later, was vetoed by William Howard Taft. Then Woodrow Wilson vetoed it twice. And finally, 1917 - on the brink of war - it passes. And what it had going for it at that time was the support, the beginning efflorescence of the eugenics movement. So it was no longer racism. It was science. Wilson, despite his own well-documented prejudice against black people, he knew it was politically inadvisable to be aggressively opposing the continued immigration from nations where newcomers had already won the vote. But when you apply the idea of science to it, it's no longer prejudicial.
And from 1917 forward, through the passage of the first restriction law in 1921 and then the permanent law in 1924, the argument no longer uses the names of any of those countries. It doesn't mention people by race or ethnicity. It is simply a question of numbers coming from certain places.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Daniel Okrent. His new book is called "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." After a break, we'll talk about how America's eugenics movement and the 1924 restrictive immigration law were cited approvingly by Hitler and the Nazis. And critic John Powers will give us his take on why the HBO satirical political series "Veep" is so funny. The seventh and final season concludes Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Daniel Okrent about his new book, "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." It's about how the pseudoscience of eugenics was used to help justify anti-immigration laws in the first part of the 20th century that kept out or restricted people from certain countries and Jews.
In 1924, a new immigration act is passed that is very exclusionary. And you say it marked the culmination of three decades of agitation and debate about immigration. What were the restrictions or quotas that were set up for different groups?
OKRENT: There are two parts to it. First, there is an overall quota. At various times, it was 300,000 people, then it got chopped down to I believe it was 162,000 people. But the question, the second part, is where did these people come from? And it was decided that, well, let's continue to reflect the population of America as it has become, so we will decide where people can come from based on how many people of their same nationality were already here. So to use really reductive, simple math, if 10% of the current American population came from Country A, then 10% of that year's immigrants could come from Country A.
Except - and this is probably the most maligned and dishonest thing that came out of this entire movement - they didn't do this on the basis of the 1920 census, which had been conducted just four years before, or the 1910 or even the 1900, but those numbers were based on the population in 1890, before the large immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe had begun. So to any question about whether there was any racist or anti-Semitic or anti-Italian intent, this established that there clearly was.
Let's find that moment in history that keeps out more of these people than any other. So if you take the Italians, and the year before the first of the quota laws went into effect, more than 220,000 Italians came into the U.S. And the year after, under the quota, it was fewer than 4,000. And similar numbers stretched across Eastern and Southern Europe. Suddenly, the door had slammed in the faces of those people who had been coming in the largest numbers, based not only on bogus science, but based on a manipulation of American history itself. It had to be based, they said, on the 1890 population, and the intent of that was clear.
One of the really interesting consequences of this - if you read the 38 articles, the - I think it's about 20 pages of small type in the 1924 Immigration Act, you do not see anywhere the words Italian or Jew or Greek or Turk or Pole. They don't have to mention the countries because they have this absolutely innocent-seeming numerical equation to rely upon.
GROSS: So did the eugenics movement directly figure into the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924?
OKRENT: Unquestionably. Unquestionably. It made it a palatable act because it was based on science or presumed science. It wasn't - this isn't prejudice. We love these people, but they are not as good as we are. I think there would have been a restriction law in any case, but this cleansed the restriction law and, I think, cemented it into place in a way that it otherwise might not have been.
GROSS: It's fascinating to read in your book how Hitler and the Nazis were drawing on the American eugenics movement to, like, strengthen their own movement. They were almost using some of the American eugenics, quote, "findings" as guidelines for themselves. You know, Hitler becomes chancellor in 1933, but he writes "Mein Kampf," or at least he publishes it, in 1925, which is one year after the Immigration Act of 1924 has passed. And you cite a passage from "Mein Kampf" in which Hitler directly refers to America.
OKRENT: He refers to it as - the United States as the one - this is a quote - "one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of citizenship are noticeable - among them, simply excluding certain races from naturalization." And from there, he goes on to quote in later speeches and writings - Madison Grant becomes a hero of his. And most importantly, the American eugenicists, even the most respectable of them, had for - by the time Hitler takes power in 1932, '33, for nearly three decades, the German eugenicists and the American eugenicists had been working together to develop their presumed science. They were collaborators in a more respectable sense of the word, but then the collaboration becomes deadly and awful once Hitler takes over.
In 1933, addressing a convention of doctors who were engaged in eugenic research, he said, I cannot do without you for a single day, not a single hour. If not for you, if you fail me, then all is lost. And, the all, was his entirely eugenic view of mankind - the superiority of the Aryan race, the deficiency of various peoples who had disabilities that brought on the euthanasia of hundreds of thousands. It all kind of flows directly from the previous research. Ernst Rudin - who was a well-known, well-established psychiatrist and eugenic researcher and who have been very connected to Charles Davenport and to the other Americans who had been doing eugenic research - he said, only through Hitler's work has our 30-year-long dream of translating race hygiene into action finally become a reality. They celebrated it.
GROSS: I do want to quote one more thing from the Nazis. And this is the official Nazi handbook for law and legislation. And it cited the American immigration law, the 1924 law, as a model for Germany.
OKRENT: The notion that Germany was an aberration, that Hitlerism was something that just grew like a terribly offensive weed out of the ruins of World War I and the Weimar Republic, it's given the lie by seeing how connected it was to things that were going on on this side of the Atlantic.
GROSS: So the Nazis were in part inspired by the American eugenics movement and the 1924 exclusionary Immigration Act. Once the eugenicists in the U.S. became aware of what the Nazis were doing, they parted ways from the Nazis, from Germany.
OKRENT: Well, I would say that the eugenicists themselves didn't, but the institutions that had been sponsoring the eugenicists, that had provided them with money and office space and research staffs, they were the ones that ran away from it. The Museum of Natural History, certain science departments at Columbia, anthropologists at Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution of Washington - they suddenly realized, oh, my God, look what we have done. Many of the eugenicists did. Some of them wrote extremely apologetic retractions, even before the rise of Hitler. By the end of the 1920s, Brigham, whom I mentioned before - the man who created the SAT test and had studied the so-called deficiency of the eastern and southern Europeans - he retracted everything that he had said. But some of them stayed very much with the program.
And one key figure, a man named Harry Laughlin, who worked with Davenport at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he actually was awarded an honorary degree by Heidelberg University in 1936 for - the citation said, for being a leader in racial policy in the United States. And he was very proud to receive it.
GROSS: But World War II, basically, killed off the eugenics movement as a reputable movement.
OKRENT: Yes. I think that by the time we are fully aware of the depredations of Hitler and the Nazis, eugenics has suffered a fatal wound. There were remnants that continued. And there are remnants that continue today. But as a meaningful social presence, it was gone.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. My guest is Daniel Okrent. His new book is called "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent. His new book is called "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations Of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America."
So we've been talking about exclusionary immigration laws in the first part of the 20th century. And then the Nazis in World War II kind of - and the legitimacy - the - you know, the pseudolegitimacy of the eugenics movement. Let's skip ahead to how changing alliances in the 1950s led to changes in the restrictions on immigration.
OKRENT: A couple of things are in play. First, as early as 1943, because of our alliance with Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese, the restrictions on Chinese are greatly relieved after being in place for more than 60 years. When we get past 1950, there's been so little immigration from these so-called suspect countries that it isn't an issue, really, in the body politic in any meaningful way. And, in fact, the largest immigration in the 1950s from Europe is coming from the so-called captive nations - the Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain.
These people are suddenly made into heroes. They're not so horrible anymore. We can let them in. And this culminates in 1965. Lyndon Johnson, really, as part of the Great Society, puts through Congress and signs an act that puts an end to the quotas that ends the restrictions that were based on nationality, on ethnicity and on race. The 1965 act simply puts a number in place that we can have several hundred thousand people coming to this country, and it doesn't matter where they come from.
GROSS: So there was a - decades between the 1924 exclusionary Immigration Act and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that ended those exclusionary by country or race or ethnic group policies.
OKRENT: Right. So think about the consequences - 41 years of these laws being in place; 41 years in which the - you know, the Depression absolutely ravaged southern Italy in horrible, horrible ways, among other countries. Think also of the rise of the Nazi German programs and the Holocaust, the euthanasia. And the U.S. Congress during this period is refusing to modify the 1924 act at all. In 1939, a law's introduced in Congress to allow 20,000 German Jewish children into the country as an emergency measure. And Congress defeats that.
In fact, Franklin Roosevelt's cousin, a woman named Laura Houghteling, who happened to be married to the immigration commissioner - U.S. immigration commissioner - in fact, she said - at the time of this effort to bring in 20,000 German Jewish children, she said, 20,000 lovely children will grow up to be 20,000 ugly adults. And this was the prevailing attitude that had been in place for decades and was not even jarred by - in the slightest by what we knew was happening in Germany.
The law stays in place even after World War II, when Europe is almost an endless continuous metropolis of displaced persons camps. And it stays in place throughout the 1950s. It kind of beggars belief to think that it stayed in place that long. And it absolutely is destructive to one's feeling of the possibilities of America to think of the number of people - the hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who might have come in those years and were unable to. And we know what happened to them.
GROSS: So let's jump ahead to the present. I know you wrote this book not expecting it to coincide with Trump's hardline policies and rhetoric on immigration. But the book does coincide with that now. So does his rhetoric about Mexicans and South Americans coming to the U.S. and his insistence on building a wall on the southern border - does that echo themes of the earlier anti-immigration movements?
OKRENT: Very much so, particularly the singling out of people by nationality - I think that one could say that today's Central Americans and today's Muslims - let's please not forget that - are the equivalent of 1924's Jews and Italians, or reverse it. The Jews and Italians then were treated and regarded as these Latin American and Muslim nationalities are today. When you choose your immigrants, when you choose your next-door neighbor on the basis of their ethnicity or their race, rather than the nature of the individual him or herself, you're engaged in - in this case - official legal discrimination.
GROSS: Is there any specific rhetoric that you hear echoes of the past in today?
OKRENT: I think that the rhetoric of criminality, the attribution of criminality not to individual criminals, but to hundreds of thousands of people of various nationalities - that's very similar to the notion of moral deficiency that was hurled by the eugenicists at the southern and Eastern Europeans of the 1910s and '20s.
GROSS: You know, you write about how anti-Semitism was normalized. It was just part of popular rhetoric. Give us an example of that.
OKRENT: It's an important thing to remember that among the upper classes of the WASP aristocracy, the episcopacy of the northeast - that it was normative to be an anti-Semite - would almost be surprising to find somebody who wasn't. And I do quote a young woman - well-educated, a very, very fine family - at the age of 33 writing a letter to her mother-in-law, saying that she had been at a party where she met an interesting man, but he was, quote, "very Jew." That man was Felix Frankfurter, later a Supreme Court justice, of course.
She also said that she'd rather be hung than attend another Jew party where she was, she said, appalled by all the talk of money, jewels and sables - really repugnant, repellant comments. That 33-year-old woman was Eleanor Roosevelt before she broadened her horizon and changed her view and became the absolute epitome - the paragon of tolerance. So if you figure that even somebody like Eleanor Roosevelt could be thinking these things, you get a sense of how widespread and how deeply rooted they were.
GROSS: Do you fear that talk about Muslims and Mexicans is being normalized like that now?
OKRENT: Yes, I do. I think that there are many of us who attend the lessons of history and have a different view on the nature of the human species who are resisting that's being normalized. But I think that one sees across the country this feeling that there's a reason why we are looking particularly at the Muslims and the Latin Americans.
To my knowledge, all the research shows that the antipathy toward immigrants from those countries is greatest in those parts of the nation where there are the fewest of them. And those of us who live in large cities or in cities that have been previously - have become havens for Muslim or Latin American immigrants - the anti-immigrant feeling is much, much lower. So we know something. We live with these people, and we realize that they are people the way that we are people. Those who aren't familiar with these people can be manipulated and told to fear and told to hate and to have those feelings of fear and hate normalized.
GROSS: So do you think that there's been a constant strain in American history - and sometimes it's hidden, and sometimes it's visible. And sometimes it's small, and sometimes it's larger - but nevertheless, a constant strain of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and, of course, racism?
OKRENT: It goes back to the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin wrote with horror about the Germans who were moving into Pennsylvania in the 1750s and how both they and their language were corrupting influences on the colony of Pennsylvania. It never goes away. It moves in cycles. And xenophobia - the first expression is, we are the land of the free. Our doors are open. Come sit beside the golden door, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And then the next expression is, keep out. And then that goes away and back comes the more open view of it.
In 1965, when Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, which ended the quota act of 1924 - as I write in the book - I said, the future of open immigration for those who really believed in non-discriminatory open immigration - it looked as bright as the brilliant sun overhead as he signed it on Liberty Island in the - sitting next to the Statue of Liberty. That's 50 years ago, and it looked great. And now it doesn't look so great. And let's hope that that version will come back soon enough.
GROSS: Daniel Okrent, thank you so much for talking with us.
OKRENT: It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Daniel Okrent is the author of "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics And The Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians And Other European Immigrants Out Of America." After a break, critic John Powers will look back on the HBO satirical political series "Veep," which concludes Sunday after seven seasons. This is FRESH AIR.
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