Was the 1924 Immigration Cut-off “Racist”?

[Also by Kevin MacDonald: Thinking About Neoconservatism]

When Dr. Stephen Steinlight first

a change in the traditional Jewish support
for open borders, his reflexive loathing of the 1920s
legislative cut-off that ended the First Great Wave of
immigration (see

) overwhelmed the logic of his argument.

He described the cut-off as “evil,
xenophobic, anti-Semitic,”
a “vast moral failure,” a
“monstrous policy.”
And he dismissed the vast
majority of pre-1965 Americans as a “thoughtless mob”
because they supported a near-complete moratorium on

Three years of arguing with Jewish groups
about immigration reform have apparently not changed
Steinlight`s mind on this point.  In his most recent

, his only reference to the 1924 Act is
that “tens of thousands” of Jews might have been
saved from the Holocaust “had the United States not
closed its doors…”

The 1924 immigration cut-off enjoys an
almost uniquely
bad press.

Other examples:


  • In a panel discussion on immigration on MSNBC`s

    Scarborough Country
    last winter, Randall

    an Arab-American activist, responded to Pat
    Buchanan, who had praised the effective 1924-1965
    immigration moratorium:  “He
    forgets that the earlier restrictions on immigration
    were racist-driven.”

But were the 1920s restrictions
? What, exactly does that mean? And
could it be that the opponents of those restrictions had
their own ethnic motivations?  Motivations still to be
found today?

Stephen Steinlight is a useful
because he is quite frank in his
belief that the only legitimate consideration for
immigration policy is his interpretation of

Jewish collective interests

In my

on Jewish involvement in shaping
immigration policy, I found that the organized Jewish
community has been the most important force favoring
unrestricted immigration to the U.S. In doing so, the
various entities involved have consistently acted to
further their own perceived collective
interests—interests that are arguably in conflict with
those of the majority of Americans.

We shouldn`t blanche at the thought of
bringing up the issue of

ethnic interests
. We all accept that African
American leaders like Jesse Jackson are pursuing their
perceived ethnic interests.  No one would deny that the

pro-immigration activists
advocating open borders
are pursuing their ethnic interests. But somehow it`s
inappropriate or “racist” to bring up the fact that Jews
and, yes, Europeans have ethnic interests too. And they
are all equally legitimate.

By the time Jewish organizations and
Jewish legislators sustained a (temporary) defeat over
the 1921 and 1924 legislation, they had been at the
forefront frustrating the immigration restrictionists
for over 30 years.

1905, a strong element of American opinion had

turned against immigration.
Even ethnic and
religious groups that stood to gain by immigration, such
as the Irish, were ambivalent, and anyway were poorly
organized and ineffective in influencing policy.

At the time, pro-immigration activism was
widely seen as a Jewish movement. University of
Wisconsin sociologist
Edward A. Ross stated in his 1914 book,
The Old World in the New

“The systematic campaign
in newspapers and magazines to break down all arguments
for restriction and to calm

fears is waged by and for one race. Hebrew
money is behind the National Liberal Immigration League
and its numerous publications. From the paper before the
commercial body or the scientific association to the
heavy treatise produced with the aid of the

Baron de Hirsch Fund
, the literature that proves the
blessings of immigration to all classes in America
emanates from subtle Hebrew brains.”

Throughout the entire
period from the late 19th century to their
eventual victory in 1965, Jewish pro-immigration efforts
were characterized by strong leadership, generous
funding, sophisticated lobbying techniques, well-chosen
non-Jewish allies, and good timing. The most visible
Jewish activists, such as

Louis Marshall
, were intellectually brilliant. They
were enormously energetic and resourceful in their
crusades on behalf of immigration as well as other
Jewish causes.

This full court press
exerted by Jewish organizations included intense and
chilling scrutiny of immigration opponents, such as

Henry Cabot Lodge
, and of organizations like the
Immigration Restriction League. Lobbyists in Washington
also kept a daily scorecard of voting tendencies as
immigration bills wended their way through Congress.
They engaged in intense and successful efforts to
convince Presidents Taft and Wilson to veto restrictive
immigration legislation.

Much of the effort was
done more or less surreptitiously so as not to fan the
flames of anti-Jewish sentiment. (Open anti-Jewish
feelings were fairly common during this period, stemming
from resentment at Jewish upward mobility, the great
numbers of leftist political radicals in the immigrant
Jewish community, and dislike of the newcomers`
perceived strong ethnic sense.)  Jewish organizations
supplied the funding for pro-immigration organizations
such as the National Liberal Immigration League and the
Citizens Committee for Displaced Persons. Non-Jews from
eastern and southern European countries were recruited
to protest the effects of restrictionist legislation on
immigration from those areas.

Why members of the Jewish
community, which over so many centuries demonstrated
such determination to preserve its distinctiveness,
should have been so demonstrably active in

preventing the preservation
of the nation in which
they find themselves, is an interesting question.

My hypothesis, advanced
in several academic

: it is part of an evolutionary strategy aimed
at advancing Jewish interests. As Leonard Glickman of

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
has put it memorably:
“The more diverse American society is, the safer
[Jews] are.” (“Community
Questioning Open Door
,” by Nacha Cattan, Forward,
November 29, 2002).

Of course, this does not
involve all Jews, and some consciously reject it. But
positive attitudes and activism aimed at ending the
pre-1965 ethnic homogeneity of the United States have
been typical of the entire Jewish political spectrum and
all of the main Jewish activist organizations. These
efforts were the driving force in favor of liberalized
immigration up to the 1965 sea change in immigration
law. This pattern continues into the present.

In the 1924 debates, the anti-restrictionists invariably alleged that their opponents saw the
issue primarily in terms of

“Nordic superiority.”
They complained that
restrictionists viewed themselves as a superior ethnic
group and argued that this view was immoral, and
furthermore had no scientific basis.

Imputing motives of racial superiority had
some plausibility because such ideas were certainly in
the air. For example, in his popular book

The Passing of the Great Race

Madison Grant
argued that the American colonial
stock was derived from superior Nordic racial elements
and that immigration of other races would lower the
competence level of the society.

But in reality, the contentions the
political champions of restriction actually made were
quite different—and much more modest. Their basic
argument was that, while all ethnic groups in the
country had legitimate interests in immigration, the
interests of the founding groups made restriction

The restrictionists actually went out of
their way to deny that they believed they were racially
superior to other groups. The Congressional Record
reports Representative William N. Vaile of Colorado, one
of the most prominent restrictionists:

“Let me emphasize here
that the restrictionists of Congress do not claim that
the `Nordic` race, or even the Anglo-Saxon race, is the
best race in the world. Let us concede, in all fairness
that the Czech is a more sturdy laborer…that the Jew is
the best businessman in the world, and that the Italian
has…a spiritual exaltation and an artistic creative
sense which the Nordic rarely attains. Nordics need not
be vain about their own qualifications. It well behooves
them to be humble.

“What we do claim is
that the northern European and particularly

made this country. Oh, yes; the others
helped. But…
came to this country because it was already made as an
Anglo-Saxon commonwealth. They added to it, they often
enriched it, but they

did not make it
, and they have not yet greatly
changed it.

“We are determined
that they shall not…It is a good country. It suits us.
And what we assert is that we are not going to surrender
it to somebody else or allow other people, no matter
what their merits, to make it something different. If
there is any changing to be done, we will do it
, April 8, 1924, 5922]

One is struck in reading the 1924
Congressional debate that, while virtually all of the
anti-restrictionists raised the issue of Nordic racial
superiority, those in favor of the legislation rarely

After a particularly colorful comment in
opposition to the theory of Nordic racial superiority,
restrictionist leader Albert Johnson remarked that

“I would like very much
to say on behalf of the committee that through the
strenuous times of the hearings this committee undertook
not to discuss the Nordic proposition or racial

Several restrictionists explicitly
denounced the theory of Nordic superiority.

Clearly, the reformers did not see the
concept as helpful to their cause.

What can be found in the statements
of the reformers is actually fear of inferiority.
Several representatives from the far West seem to have
viewed the Japanese as racially equal or superior, not
inferior. One senator stated,

“we admit that
[the Japanese] are
as able as we are, that they are as progressive as we
are, that they are as honest as we are, that they are as
brainy as we are, and that they are equal in all that
goes to make a great people and nation.”

A congressman described the Japanese as

“a relentless and
unconquerable competitor of our people wherever he
places himself.”

Apparently, many restrictionists, far from
feeling they were members of a superior ethnic group,
worried that their people could not

with Japanese and Chinese.

Nor did the restrictionists view Jews as
intellectually inferior. During the 1920s quotas on
Jewish admissions to Ivy League universities had become
a controversial issue and a focus of Jewish defense
organizations. As noted above, Congressman Vaile noted
that Jews were “the best businessman in the world.”

A. Lawrence Lowell
, President of Harvard and the
national vice-president of the Immigration Restriction
League, advocated quotas on Jewish admission to Harvard.

If anything, restrictionists were worried
that the immigration of more Jews from Eastern Europe
would result in even more competition between Jews and

And of course
subsequent IQ

has shown their concerns to be sound—the
average IQ of American Jews is well above the average
for whites and is the highest of any known human group.

Restrictionists typically argued that
maintaining the ethnic status quo would be fair to all
ethnic groups currently in the country. This argument
implicitly recognizes that different ethnic groups have
different interests in immigration policy.

The restrictionists were concerned that
immigration of people of other ethnic groups and
cultures would ultimately deprive their own people of
political and cultural power. They argued that the
interests of other groups to pursue their ethnic
interests by expanding their percentage of the
population should be weighed against the ethnic
interests of the majority, who naturally wanted to
retain their ethnic representation in the population.

In the words of the House Majority Report,

“The use of the 1890
census is…an effort to preserve as nearly as possible,
the racial status quo of the United States. It is hoped
to guarantee as best we can at this late date, racial
homogeneity in the United States. The use of a later
census would discriminate against those who founded the
Nation and perpetuated its institutions.”

The 1924 law also prescribed that,
beginning in 1927, the national origins of the
immigrants would match their percentage of the
population. For example, if 10% of the country in 1920
came from Italy, then 10% of the annual quote of 150,000
immigrants would be reserved for Italian immigrants.

Clearly this was an attempt to achieve an
ethnic status quo.

In other words, in the 1920s, both
sides were pursuing their perceived ethnic
self-interest. Representative Scott Leavitt stated quite
bluntly that Jews should respect the desire of other
Americans to retain the ethnic status quo:

“The instinct for
national and race preservation is not one to be
condemned, as has been intimated here. No one should be
better able to understand the desire of Americans to
keep America American than the gentleman from Illinois

[Mr. Sabath], who is leading the attack on
this measure, or the gentlemen from New York, Mr.
Dickstein, Mr. Jacobstein, Mr. Celler, and Mr. Perlman.
They are of the one great historic people who have

maintained the identity
of their race throughout the
centuries because they believe sincerely that they are a
chosen people, with certain ideals to maintain, and
knowing that the loss of racial identity means a change
of ideals. That fact should make it easy for them and
the majority of the most active opponents of this
measure in the spoken debate to recognize and sympathize
with our viewpoint, which is not so extreme as that of
their own race, but only demands that the admixture of
other peoples shall be only of such kind and proportions
and in such quantities as will not alter racial
characteristics more rapidly than there can be
assimilation as to ideas of government as well as of
[Congressional Record, April 12 1924, 6265-6266]

The House Committee was clearly annoyed
that their motives were continually being cast in terms
of Nordic superiority and racial discrimination—an
interesting sensitivity to find, so many years ago. But
the 1924 law was clearly a victory for the northwestern
European peoples of the United States. It halted the
substantial transformation of the country which had
gotten underway over the previous 30 years.

Because of it, the groups dominant when it
passed were still (at least superficially) dominant when
the 1924 law was overthrown 41 years later.

Around the time the 1924
victory was won, however, a disaster was occurring
elsewhere—on the intellectual front. Beginning in the
1920s, the intellectual and moral high ground in the
debate was increasingly claimed by the anti-restrictionists.

This was made possible
largely by the influence of

Franz Boas
and his school of anthropology. The
Boasians argued that the only differences among human
groups are cultural differences, not biological.

Even in the early 1920s,
as I have noted, the restrictionists hesitated to use
arguments based on ethnic superiority and they were
forced continually to deny that this was their
rationale. In terms of my hypothesis, I have argued

that the Boasian School can be explained
in terms of evolutionary strategy, as merely another of
a series of intellectual movements dominated by Jews and
aimed at advancing Jewish interests. These movements
were designed to combat anti-Semitism and to
de-legitimize the ethnic interests of the European
majority of the United States.

What we are seeing now is
the long term consequence of these movements: The
displacement of the European majority—and an increase in
ethnic conflict.

Since the 1965 law
opening up immigration on a large scale to all the
peoples of the world, the U.S. has become a cauldron of

racial and ethnic interests. Much of the
conflict centers immigration and its consequences,
ranging from Muslim women having unveiled photos on
their drivers` licenses to the survival of Christian
symbols in public schools.

This shift to
has been facilitated by an
enormous growth of immigration from non-European-derived
peoples. Many of these immigrants come from non-Western
countries where

and ethnic segregation are the norm. In
contemporary America, they are now encouraged by public
policy to retain their own languages and religions, and
may well continue to marry within their group.

The long term result is,
inevitably, increased competition and friction between

The idea that there is no
biological reality to race inevitably implies that there
is no such thing as ethnic interests at all.  The
reality, of course, is that
race does exist and different races and ethnic
groups do have different and often competing

And, indeed, from an evolutionary point
of view, ethnic self-interest is not deluded: people
have a very large

genetic interest
in defending their ethnic group.

Other non-Western
countries seem to understand this. For example, despite
what the New York Times says,

feels no need to allow a deluge of
non-Japanese immigrants.

It`s time to

the 1924 law—a law that succeeded in its
aim of preserving the ethnic status quo for over 40

The law did indeed
represent the ethnic self-interest of its
proponents—albeit not “racism,” if racism is
properly understood as irrational prejudice.

But the anti-restrictionists
also had their own ethnic interests at heart.

And their subsequent
successful counter-attack has unleashed the far greater,
more savage, and more

ethnic competition that we see today.

Kevin MacDonald [email
him] is Professor of Psychology at California State
University-Long Beach.