In the first decades of the twentieth century, vast numbers of Eastern European immigrants came to the United States. By the 1920s, the country was gripped by nativist reaction. The revamped Ku Klux Klan added Catholics and immigrants to its list of enemies and gained millions of members nationwide. Leading public intellectuals fretted about “The Rising Tide of Color” and “The Passing of the Great [white] Race.” President Calvin Coolidge published an article called “Whose Country Is This?” in which he pontificated about the superiority of the “Nordics.” In 1923, the Supreme Court declared that Asians could not become naturalized citizens.
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most sweeping immigration restriction law in American history. The law drastically reduced overall immigration levels, barred all Asians, and imposed draconian cuts on immigration from Eastern Europe. The expressed purpose of the law was to favor immigrants from western European countries deemed racially fit.
Congressman Albert Johnson, the key driver of the law in the House, described his rationale this way:
Today, instead of a well-knit homogeneous citizenry, we have a body politic made up of all and every diverse element. Today, instead of a nation descended from generations of freemen bred to a knowledge of the principles and practice of self-government, of liberty under law, we have a heterogeneous population no small proportion of which is sprung from races that, throughout the centuries, have known no liberty at all…In other words, our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed…It is no wonder, therefore, that the myth of the melting pot has been discredited…the United States is our land…We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.¹
Notice that Johnson described American identity not only as a matter of ideals, but of blood. America’s leading statesmen believed that race was linked to capacity for self-government. Liberty and self-government were not abstracted ideals. They were instead the racial achievement of the superior Anglo-Saxon race. By welcoming other races into the country that did not understand these traditions and were not racially capable of embracing them, the United States was inevitably weakening itself.
It is precisely this Johnson-Reed Act that soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised:
In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.
Does Sessions think the Johnson-Reed Act was good policy because of its racism, or in spite of it? Does he support the law itself, but none of the ideas that caused Congress to enact it? These are not unfair questions.
While praising the Johnson-Reed Act, Sessions has criticized the Voting Rights Act. He called it “intrusive” and praised the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. He has since supported the proliferation of new vote suppression laws.
This man draws inspiration from the worst parts of our history, and seeks to roll back our greatest achievements. He is unfit for office.
¹Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd Edition (New York: Perennial, 2002), 283-284.