Letter: The troubling history of creating a 'demographic balance'

Posted 5/23/24

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Letter: The troubling history of creating a 'demographic balance'


To the editor:

May 26 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson – Reed Act. It was an important historical event, but no cause for celebration. It was the establishment of widespread quotas to prevent immigration of people considered less desirable at the time, mainly Jews, Italians, and Southern and Eastern Europeans. The only ethnic group previously barred were Chinese, starting in the 1870s.

The difference was the 1924 law established quotas, allowing for admittance of only 2% of ethnic and nationality populations that existed in the 1890 census. The intent was to maintain the “demographic balance” of the nation. It was the child of the marriage of decades of anti-immigrant restrictionists and the eugenics movement. The history of this is detailed in a well-researched and interesting book “The Guarded Gate” by Daniel Okrent, subtitled “Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America”.

The eugenics movement gained momentum in the late 1800s on the belief that society could be improved by selective breeding of human beings, based on who was judged to be superior and inferior. Those familiar with this history may be aware how “scientists” were measuring the skulls of different races to “prove” levels of intelligence, and it went far beyond that. It would seem to us today that these were a small group of crackpots who promoted this, but in fact it was a very large, powerful, and well-respected collection of crackpots across political, social, academic, and scientific fields. It is interesting that it crossed the spectrum of conservative and progressives at the time, and was a widely held belief among non-Semitic people of Northern and Western European heritage in the U.S.

The ideology of “scientific racism” lead to the Holocaust, as well as many other lesser-known genocides. The defeat of fascism in WWII discredited these beliefs and previously enthusiastic supporters distanced themselves. The emergence of civil and human rights movements in the U.S. caused a rewriting of our immigration laws in the 1960s, and the overt racism was eliminated. However, the quota system of different nationalities remains (although it is more complicated, a per country ceiling of 7% of the annual limit of 675,000). This has created the immigration problem we are experiencing today, because we don’t have a system that serves both the economic and labor needs of the U.S., as well as the needs of immigrants. The immigration system continues to serve the goal of maintaining a “demographic balance”.

All of this should just be fascinating history that we have put behind us now, except that we haven’t. The belief of racial and national superiority is still alive and well, and growing while politicians exploit ignorant hatred for their own self-promotion. The exact same things that were said about Italians, Jews, and others back then are now being leveled at different nationalities, often by the grandchildren of those who suffered these attacks 100 years ago.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Greg Hall
Truth in Immigration Project
Fox Hill Avenue

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.