The disturbing re-emergence of 19th-century pseudoscience
The second half of the 19th century left a lot of junk in America's mental attic: that place we let old notions, impressions and delusions pile up rather than taking them to slumber in a faraway landfill. Our dead and outmoded ideas have gathered dust, out of sight and out of mind. Lately, however, shifting demographic realities, rising ethnic anxiety and the mania of the final chapters of the Trump presidency (this one, at least), have brought them tumbling down the attic stairs to be dealt with once again.
This was brought into uncomfortably sharp focus as abortive plans for the new America First congressional caucus whipped around social media. It was 19th-century pseudoscience dressed in modern garb and moving at the speed of light. Merely outmoded and thoroughly discredited ideas about immigration, heritage, essential American traditions, even preferred styles of architecture were again shoved under the nation's nose, and, for once, it didn't go well. In just a few days, elected officials said to be the founding parents of this new caucus (Reps. Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert et al.) were running for cover, disowning their reputed brainchild.
A congressional caucus sticking up for "aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture," darkly reminding us how certain "economic and financial interest groups" benefit from immigration and asserting a "uniquely Anglo-Saxon" culture is not only wrong about what the US was, is and will be. It's also late. Too late to change the trajectory of American life and bend it toward a pre-Ellis Island fantasy.
The new census numbers (will) show us a preview of the coming America: our country is home to more than 60 million Latinos, more than 40 million Americans of African descent and more than 20 million people of Asian ancestry. Of the more than 200 million Americans of European ancestry, millions upon millions have an old sepia photograph of a forebear from southern Italy, Lithuania, Greece or Portugal.
Lurking between the lines of the America First caucus' white-centered nostalgia is a pernicious gesture of historical erasure, implying that Americans from more recent nonwhite immigrant generations put the essentials of a common culture at "unnecessary risk," while the people whose great grandparents were watched with horror and disgust by "Anglo-Saxon Americans" in the 19th century are now, safely, us.
The movement of tens of millions from Ireland, Germany, Italy and the Czarist Empire to this hemisphere in the roughly 75 years from the Revolutions of 1848 to Congress slamming the door in the 1920s was one of the greatest mass migrations in human history, changing the histories of the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. American elites scorned the new arrivals as illiterate, filthy, diseased, unintelligent, clinging to foreign religions and unfit for the responsibilities of citizenship.
At the same time, scientists from America's greatest universities, in concert and competition with European scholars, were frantically measuring the bridges of noses, cranium sizes and the prominence of jaws, creating new and utterly bogus categories of human origin to back up their coalescing ideas about the differences between an immigrant from the Balkans and one from Birmingham. It may not surprise you to read that northern and western Europeans were found to be superior stock.
As John Crawfurd, in "On the Classification of the Races of Man," published in London by the Royal Anthropological Society in 1861 sagely observes, "The offspring of a Scandinavian and a Negro is inferior to the Scandinavian and superior to the Negro … The Mestizo [white and indigenous American descent] is much inferior to the Spaniard, but superior to the Red Indian." Crawfurd does allow that geographically close "races," like Italians, Greeks and Germans might mate without a loss of quality. He even offers his readers the novel, perhaps radical, notion that the English themselves have not been degraded, alors!, by occasional mixing with the French.
This stuff gets dusted off and buffed into comfortable euphemism in the America First manifesto, invoking history as evidence that "social trust and political unity are threatened" by immigrants "imported en masse into a country," who will also need the support of an "expansive welfare state" to "bail them out should they fail."
Whoever wrote this drivel is hoping you don't know the same rhetoric was used against Europeans of decidedly un-Anglo-Saxon origin during the decades when waves and waves of immigrants from Calabria and Krakow, Budapest and Ballymurphy pulled within sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The editorial pages of the elite press were full of speculation about whether these arrivals and their offspring would be strong enough, smart enough, have fine enough social sentiments to contribute to the country's future. A century and a half later, "Anglo-Saxon" status is being dangled as an upgrade, an association perhaps yearned for by Yiddish-, Italian- and German-speaking greenhorns standing in the arrivals hall at Ellis Island.
The America First caucus figured descendants of the huddled masses, the restless refuse and the tempest tossed wouldn't see themselves, and their family's stories, in the new Americans finding their feet. It's been over 50 years since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the US to Africans, Asians and Latin Americans "yearning to breathe free." The manifestos writers were so sure misremembered American history could be turned into political gold and a new flag to rally around.
America's demographic cake is baked. At some point in the middle of the current century, the number of Americans who trace their ancestry to Africa, Asia and Latin America will surpass the number of those whose forebears came here from Europe. Americans of European ancestry will cease to be the majority, but will by far be the largest single racial group in the United States for decades after that.
In 2010, for the first time in centuries (but for every year since), a majority of the children born in the United States were not of European ancestry. Today, those kids are in middle school. In a few years, they'll head into military recruitment offices and to college fairs. Not long after that, they will constitute a majority of the workforce, supporting tens of millions of white Americans through their FICA deductions.
The messaging, in the America First declaration of principles, and night after night on Fox News, is loud and clear: these new people aren't like us. They're changing the country you thought you knew in ways you won't like. And, perhaps worst of all, they won't pull their weight. And when that happens, who'll have to support them? You.
The story they want to tell, refuted by decades of national experience, refuted by the people from everywhere who have climbed every ladder—from science to politics to religion to business to sports—is that we're full. We can't take any more striving, struggling, ambitious, hard-working people. Especially if they aren't like us already. And, psssst … if they aren't like us already, they're never going to get the hang of it.
It was wrong in 1871. It was wrong half a century later in 1921, when the nativists were re-writing immigration law. And it's wrong today. Sure, this latest attempt to merge European identity tightly to American nationality was laughed out of the room.
The next one may not be.
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