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See where the immigrants 
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FMC Program Segments 1900-1930

The New Immigrants, Head Shapes, and the Melting Pot:
Franz Boas vs. Scientific Racism


Anti-immigrant cartoon BEN WATTENBERG: Bella Bocce. So a new history based on data and social science was linked to politics from the very start. A social science controversy surfaced in a policy arena most Americans today would find anti-social and unscientific. For just as Turner was warning of the closing frontier, a new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was coming into neighborhoods like this one, Little Italy here in Baltimore. The immigrants brought their languages, their cultures and their talents. But at the turn of the century, a school of thought now called "scientific racism" used the tools of social science to label the newcomers as unfit for self-government, unable to become real Americans, and in fact biologically inferior. 

Here's how the field of play was set up at the time. In January of 1892, the government opened a special building on Ellis Island to handle the massive numbers of new arrivals to the United States. Throughout the early 1800s, immigration rose and fell with the famines and wars of Europe. But starting at about 1880, there began an extraordinary migration on a scale unheard of before or since. By 1930, more than 28 million immigrated to the United States. That's on a base population of only 15 million people in 1880. Each year between 1905 and 1907, more than one million people entered the country. At the peak of immigration, almost 15 percent of the national population was foreign born. In many cities, immigrants made up more than 50 percent of the population. The American economy was usually booming, and workers came from all across Europe, drawn by the promise of jobs -- and by something else. 

ALAN KRAUT (American University): The overwhelming number of immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were really in search of economic opportunity. But they were also concerned -- and this was especially true of minority groups in parts of Southern and Eastern Europe -- in political liberty -- the ability to participate in the political system, to function in the world without the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. The pull of the United States and its attitude of religious liberty was very, very great. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Through the early 1800s, immigration to America had looked like this: primarily English, Scottish, German and Scandinavian. But between 1880 and the 1920s the flow changed. Eastern and Southern Europeans made the move to America in record numbers. Unlike the Scandinavian and German immigrant farmers of the 19th century, the new immigrants clustered in the cities. That's where the jobs were. 

Between 1880 and 1920, the cities expanded at a previously unimaginable pace. New York grew by more than 300 percent, Chicago 400 percent, Detroit 700 percent. And the real blockbusters were out West: Los Angeles grew by over 1,000 percent from a mere 50,000 people in 1890 to over half a million in just 30 years. These newcomers were often described by what they were not: not Protestant, not English-speaking, not skilled, not educated, and not liked. 

The newly arrived immigrants found themselves in a hostile and alien environment, in its way similar to the frontier described earlier by Frederick Jackson Turner. 

JOHN MILTON COOPER (University of Wisconsin): For so many of these immigrants from Europe, they are coming from small cities or small towns, peasant villages, the shtetls of the pale. They are hopscotching two or three centuries of history. They are coming immediately into a strange new world. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Could the new immigrants adapt to a life in America? Many learned men thought not, including Turner. 

FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER (1901): "It is obvious that the replacement of the German and English immigration by southern Italians, Poles, Russian Jews and Slovaks is a loss to the social organism of the United States. The congestion of foreigners in localities in our great cities, the increase in crime and pauperism are attributable to the poorer elements. All these are presented by this transformation of our immigration" -- Frederick Jackson Turner, 1901. 

BEN WATTENBERG: And Turner, it turned out, was a softie. Another prominent social scientist, Francis Walker, a superintendent of the Census and later president of MIT, had this to say: 

FRANCIS WALKER (1896): "The entrance of such vast masses of peasantry degraded below our utmost conceptions, is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the gravest apprehension and alarm. They are beaten men from beaten races. They have none of the ideas and aptitudes such as belong to those who were descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chiefs." Francis Walker, 1896. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Good old democratic Germany. 

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON (Yale University): We have come to think of race in this country almost entirely in binary terms of black and white. But at the turn of the century there were upwards of 36 in some schemes, 75 in other schemes, races, and the largest difference being the divisions within what we now think of being one white race. 

BEN WATTENBERG: One scientist named William Ripley, believe it or not, identified a hierarchy of three fundamental white racial types in Europe by measuring head shape: the long-headed blond Teutonic type, the short-headed brunette Alpine, and the long-headed dark Mediterranean -- the Jews, Italians, Slavs and Greeks. Surprise, the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were ranked at the bottom of the scale. 

LEE D. BAKER (Duke University): This was the age of science, and science in this time, and social science as well as physical science, measuring everything from heads to leg length to nose size was used to bolster discrimination. 

ALAN KRAUT: Now, in the United States there was an increasing attention to eugenics, the idea that you could improve the human condition and improve human stock by careful breeding. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Improving the American breeding stock was the goal of a Chicago biologist named Charles Davenport. In 1910, with a grant from of all places the Carnegie Foundation, he established the Eugenics Records Office. 

CHARLES DAVENPORT (1911): "The population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from Southeastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex immorality. And the ratio of insanity in the population will rapidly increase." Charles Davenport, 1911. 

BEN WATTENBERG: For eugenicists like Davenport, race and character were fixed and immutable. Biology was destiny. 

LEE D. BAKER: No matter how much philanthropy, no matter how much education, no matter how much learning and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, they were confound to some sort of state of inferiority. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Leading the opposition to this nativist view was a German Jewish immigrant who got his start in one of the coldest places on earth. In 1883, a young scientist named Franz Boas traveled to Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle. While studying Eskimo customs, Boas began to develop one of the most important concepts in modern anthropology. At the time, tribal groups like the Eskimo were considered primitive and uncivilized. Northern European society was seen as the pinnacle of evolution -- culturally, racially and biologically. Boas wrote in his diary: 

FRANZ BOAS: "I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over the savages. The more I see their customs, the more I realize we have no right to look down on them. The idea of a cultured individual is merely relative." 

BEN WATTENBERG: In 1896, Franz Boas became one of the first professors of anthropology at Columbia University. 

LEE D. BAKER: Franz Boas is affectionately known as the father of American anthropology. He has made a number of contributions. The first is de-linking race from language and culture and making persuasive arguments that people and cultures do not go from savage barbarians to civilized. Cultures are not better nor worse than any others. They are just equally complex and equally important on their own merit. 

BEN WATTENBERG: In 1907, Boas began an intensive study of close to 18,000 children of European immigrants. The results were published as "Changes in Bodily Form," part of a 42-volume Congressional study on immigration. Boas measured height, weight, head shape and other physical traits, all cross-tabulated by whether his subjects were born in Europe or America, and how long they have lived in America. 

The results showed that in just one generation the head shapes of children of long-skulled Nordic immigrants and those of the round-headed Slavic and Jewish immigrants were quickly becoming more like each other. In effect, once in an American environment eating an American diet, the children were physically becoming more like American children. 

LEE D. BAKER: Boas was actually at a loss of words to really explain this. But he was demonstrating that the actual shape of people's bodies changed in the environment of the United States, which was actually quite profound. 

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON: And what that implies is that the hereditarians have it completely wrong. I mean, they're talking about immutable types. They are talking about unshakable characterology. They are talking about a kind of being, a racial being that is etched in stone that will never change. And he is saying, Well, look right before your eyes, right here among these throngs that you are so worried about here in the New World -- we can see changes, and quite rapid ones at that. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Throughout his life Boas continued to argue that environment played a key role in shaping individuals. But eugenicists turned to another way of sorting out the races. 

In the early 1900s the American scientist H.H. Goddard was in the vanguard of those promoting the newly invented "intelligence quotient," the IQ test. Goddard outlined a scale of feeble-minded intelligence. At the very bottom were the idiots -- barely able to function. Next came imbeciles -- mentally 4 to 10 years old, and capable of only simple tasks. And Goddard added another stage just on the edge of normal intelligence, the moron. 

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON: The thing that made morons in Goddard's estimation so important is that morons were thought to be functioning enough that they could actually enter society and take part in society -- as workers, as voters and, most importantly for Goddard, as procreators, as family members. They would be the mothers and fathers of the future generations of Americans. 

BEN WATTENBERG: In 1917, America entered the First World War. Millions of young men were mobilized to join the fight. Eugenicists saw an opportunity to gather a huge test sample. 

Lewis Terman of Stanford University convinced the Army that IQ tests could help sort the draftees according to their mental ability. Almost two million soldiers took the new tests. The written, or alpha test, included questions about American popular culture, the brand names of products, and even the location of a university. If the draftee failed the alpha test or was unable to read, he was given the verbal beta test. He had only a few minutes to look at pictures and draw in what was missing. 

ALAN KRAUT: In looking at the intelligence tests, especially the verbal intelligence tests, there was a tremendous cultural bias that was involved. Often an immigrant would be shown a picture of a tennis court and asked, What's missing from this picture? Well, if you are an Eastern European Jew from the shtetl, you would hardly be aware of the fact that there was a tennis net missing from the picture of the tennis court. 

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON: So scientific racism itself isn't new. But what is new in this period is the level of influence that science is having on policy debates and on policy itself. 

Army IQ test results

BEN WATTENBERG: Eugenicists seized on the army IQ tests to prove to Congress that the races of Southern and Eastern Europe were a threat to the biological make-up of the nation. Henry Laughlin from the Eugenics Record Office testified before Congress that more than 75 percent of the new immigrants were feeble-minded. Based on such testimony, in 1924 Congress passed sweeping restrictions on immigration. The new law set quotas for incoming immigrants equal to 3 percent of the number of a given nationality living in America in 1890 35 years earlier. 

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON: By going all the way back to 1890, it cut out from the calculations all of those millions who had arrived after 1890. What it does in fact is cut out exactly the people who eugenicists were the most afraid of. So while it's called a national origins act, it really is very much a racial origins act. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Following the 1924 act, immigration slowed way down until well after the Second World War. If many Americans didn't like immigrants, many immigrants did like America. Some in fact were ecstatic. 

In 1908, at the height of immigration, the most popular play on Broadway was called "The Melting Pot," written by Israel Zangwill, an immigrant playwright and political activist. It became a box office smash. 

ISRAEL ZANGWILL: "America is God's crucible, the great melting pot, where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming. Here you stand, good folks, and your 50 groups with your 50 languages and histories, and your 50 blood hatreds and rivalries, a thing for your feuds and vendettas. Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians, in the crucible with you all. God is making the American." 

BEN WATTENBERG: Zangwill knew what Franz Boas knew: in time most immigrants become Americans. It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with liberty.

     Photo Credits:
   Anti-Immigrant Cartoon "Where the Blame Lies." Courtesy of the Library of Congress
   Superior Intelligence chart from Army IQ tests. Courtesy of Truman State University.

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