The Immigration Act of 1924—with quotas based on the 1890 census—became law that May. Congress had been “hoodwinked” by the eugenicists, Representative Emanuel Celler complained, with the result that total immigration was cut in half, and immigration from targeted countries like Italy by as much as 90 percent. The law would later become a factor in preventing Jewish refugees from escaping Nazi persecution. In Germany, an imprisoned political extremist viewed these developments with satisfaction. Writing Mein Kampf in his cell, Adolf Hitler complained that naturalization in Germany was not all that different from “being admitted to membership of an automobile club,” and that “the child of any Jew, Pole, African, or Asian may automatically become a German citizen.” Now, though, “by excluding certain races” from the right to become American citizens, the United States had held up a shining example to the world. It was the sort of reform, Hitler wrote, “on which we wish to ground the People’s State.”
We know better now, of course. And yet eugenic ideas still linger just beneath the skin, in what seem to be more innocent forms. We tend to think, for instance, that if we went to Yale, or better yet, went to Yale and married another Yalie, our children will be smart enough to go to Yale, too. The concept of regression toward the mean—invented, ironically, by Francis Galton, the original eugenicist—says, basically: don’t count on it. But outsiders still sometimes share our eugenic delusions. Would-be parents routinely place ads in college newspapers and online offering to pay top dollar to gamete donors who are slender, attractive, of the desired ethnic group, with killer SAT scores—and an Ivy League education.
Irving Fisher and the other Yale eugenicists would no doubt rejoice that the university’s germ plasm is still so highly valued—at up to ten times the price for other colleges. But if they looked more carefully at the evidence, they would discover that these highly desirable donors are now often the grandsons and granddaughters of the very immigrants they once worked so hard to eliminate.