Fri, Jan 19, 2018 - Page 9 News List

US racist policies historically enacted despite democratic checks

By James Whitman

See if you can guess the author of this quote: “The American Union feels itself to be a Nordic-German state and by no means an international porridge of peoples. This is revealed by its immigration quotas ... Scandinavians … then Englishmen and finally Germans have been accorded the largest contingent.”

Those words were written by Adolf Hitler in 1928, in praise of US immigration laws at the time. To be sure, references to Hitler should not be invoked lightly. For all the ugly things coming out of US President Donald Trump’s White House, not least his denigration of Haiti, El Salvador and African states as “shithole countries,” the US is still a long way from resembling Nazi Germany.

Trump is a knee-jerk authoritarian and a throwback to the old days of white supremacy in the US, but many more institutional checks would have to fail before he could bring about the end of US democracy.

Even with respect to immigration policy, there is a profound difference between the Trump administration’s mass deportations, however cruel and stupid, and mass murder.

Nonetheless, it has become increasingly clear that the 2016 US election installed an ignorant, racist president in the White House. Worse still, Trump’s statements in office hark back to a period in history when Hitler found inspiration in US immigration law.

Specifically, Hitler admired the US Immigration Act of 1924 — also known as the Johnson-Reed Act — which had erected openly racist barriers to immigration on the basis of a “national quota” system.

The law banned Arab and Asian immigration outright, and made immigration from Africa close to impossible. As Hitler noted, it also favored “Nordic-German” candidates for immigration and eventual US citizenship over Southern and Eastern Europeans, including Jews.

My own Jewish ancestors made it to Ellis Island in 1922, just under the wire.

It was this restrictive law that served as the legal basis for not accepting Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the years before the Holocaust.

The 1924 law is getting a lot of media attention in the wake of Trump’s suggestion that the US should take more immigrants from Norway (who are unlikely to immigrate), rather than places like Haiti.

However, it is hardly the only example of racist immigration policies in the US.

During the period of the so-called Yellow Peril in the late 19th century, the US enacted a raft of anti-Asian legislation, including an 1882 law banning immigration from China outright. All the way back in 1790, the US Congress revealed its racist outlook by offering naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person.”

Hitler, for his part, was not the first or only right-wing racist to find inspiration in these dark chapters of US history. By the time he came along, everyone on the European hard right was already well acquainted with the US model of race-based immigration barriers. After all, Theodor Fritsch, one of Europe’s most vile anti-Semites, had touted it decades earlier in his 1893 Handbook of the Jewish Question.

In Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf, he praised the US as “the one state” that was making progress toward becoming a racially healthy order, and when the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Nazi lawyers carefully studied the US’ long history of policies to close its doors to non-whites.

Looking back, it is important to remember that it was not until the 1965 US Immigration and Nationality Act that the US began to separate itself from the worst aspects of its racist past.

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