Genes, Brains, And Bunk

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The assignment of immigrants to their appropriate “stocks” was questionable at best. What were the dividing lines? Physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, or head shape? Or shared languages and cultures that could change quickly as people moved about and intermarried? The records were not helpful; inspectors at ports of entry had little time to take note of more than an immigrant’s last place of residence and principal language. This did not deter the dictionary and the commission from making sweeping generalizations about what could be expected from differing “ethnical factors” in the population.

The “Dictionary of Races or Peoples” taught, for example, that “in spirit the Corsican is independent and revengeful” and “almost as dwarfish as his neighbor, the Sardinian.” The “Serbo-Croatian” was “vigorous and well adapted to hard labor.” Greeks presented a problem; they were the descendants, after all, of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, yet “modern Greece [was] one of the weaker nations of Europe.” Was this “simply the decadence of an ancient race”? Or the result of “the debasement it has received … through the incursions of barbarian hordes”? In any case, contemporary Greeks did possess “nimble intelligence. They compete with the Hebrew race [ sic ] as the best traders of the Orient.”

Northern and southern Italians were counted as different peoples; those of the north were “cool, deliberate, patient, practical, and … capable of great progress in … modern civilization.” The southern Italian, however, was “excitable, impulsive, highly imaginative, impracticable … an individualist having little adaptability to organized society.”

Astonishingly, the commission published a finding that undercut all its underlying presumptions.

Such generalizations were strewn through the volumes of summary like booby traps for the new immigrants. The commission intended to “define and … measure the tendency of the newer immigrant races toward Americanization,” as shown by such virtues as a “tendency to acquire citizenship, to learn the English language, and to abandon native customs and standards of living.” It found that “many of the more recent immigrants are backward in this regard.”

If the writers had carefully consulted the tables compiled by the industrious statisticians on the staff, they might have found assimilation more widely spread among the newer “races” than they suspected. Instead they marched inexorably to a set of legislative recommendations that would exclude “those unable to read or write in some language” (which provoked the single dissenting vote on the commission) as well as “unskilled laborers unaccompanied by wives or families.” More important for the long run, they urged the “limitation of the number of each race arriving during a given period of years.” What this fuzzy terminology did was to open the door for immigration quotas that would pinch down to a trickle the inflow of “undesirable” eastern and southern Europeans. These were enacted in 1921 and 1924 and stayed in force until 1968.

Astonishingly, the commission gave a brief nod of recognition—but no more—to a finding that undercut its underlying presumptions of inherent racial tendencies that worked against assimilation. A study of the physical measurements of some New York Italian and Jewish immigrants and their children, undertaken by the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas, showed that within a generation even such supposedly immutable characteristics as the shape of the head began to change. The results indicated that “all the evidence is now in favor of a great plasticity of human types, and permanence of types … appears rather as the exception than as the rule.” This was not a finding that the commission was ready to adopt as a foundation stone.

But I find it reassuring to the millions and millions of us who are descended from that 1883 to 1924 migration. We do not really need to be concerned about possible hereditary group tendencies toward being high-strung or stolid, revengeful, impracticable, or, worst of all, backward, in spite of what expert and elaborate investigation showed eighty-five years ago. Somehow our grandparents and great-grandparents who made it here, instead of being denied opportunities on the basis of that so-called research, were given a fair chance. We are the living proof of how well that worked. Enough said.