Opinion: Trump’s dangerous echoes of the eugenics movement

Editor’s note: Paul Moses is author of “The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia” and “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians,” both published by NYU Press. He is a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions at CNN.

Last month, former President Donald Trump said immigrants arriving in the United States were “poisoning the blood of our country” — prompting the Biden administration to draw a comparison to Adolf Hitler, who used the phrase “blood poisoning” in his manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” But Trump’s comments also bring to mind the eugenics movement — and the influence it had on American life in the early 1900s.

Paul Moses - Matt Moses
Paul Moses - Matt Moses

In researching two books on Italian immigrants — one, on the detectives of the New York Police Department’s Italian Squad, and the other on the once-contentious relations between New York’s Irish and Italian communities — I came to see how powerfully the junk science of eugenics influenced the way society viewed people such as my mother’s parents, who were immigrants from southern Italy.

In the process, I found news coverage, as well as the remarks of judges, academics, politicians and other public officials, echoing the racist notion that southern Italians were inherently inferior in the immigration debate in the early 20th century.

This nativist, pseudo-science rhetoric contributed to the failure of many people to see the dignity, decency and determination of impoverished newcomers and focus only on the negatives of mass migration.

Trump, in stoking support for his anti-immigration agenda, has brought that now thoroughly discredited racist thinking to play in the 21st century. In his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, the eugenicist slur that immigrants from some countries were innately inferior reverberated anew in his remarks. He went beyond his standard denunciation that the “invasion of millions and millions of people” at the southern border is filled with criminals, also claiming that “they’re coming from mental institutions and insane asylums. They’re being emptied out into our country.”

In writing the two books mentioned earlier, I found that Italian immigrants, such as the great detective Lt. Joseph Petrosino, who was a pioneer in fighting organized crime, so often tried to explain that the newcomers would in fact make great contributions to American life, if given the chance. “It does not take an Italian long to save money and contribute his mite to the Government,” Petrosino, head of the police department’s Italian Squad, told The New York Times in 1906. “He works hard, has simple pleasures, loves the things that are beautiful, and sends his children to the public schools.”

Italian immigrants disembark at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. Officials then echoed the racist notion that southern Italians were inherently inferior. - SeM/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Italian immigrants disembark at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. Officials then echoed the racist notion that southern Italians were inherently inferior. - SeM/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Times story, headlined “Petrosini (sic), Detective and Sociologist,” calls the famous detective “a natural student of sociology.” But in the emerging field of academic sociology, influential professors such as Edward Alsworth Ross advocated overt racism. Contrasting the views of the amateur sociologist and the professional illustrates what Italians and other immigrants were up against at the time.

Ross coined the enduring term “race suicide” in 1901 when he delivered the annual address — “The Causes of Race Superiority” — to the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which gathered in Philadelphia. With that term, Ross gave name to the idea that a “higher race … eliminates itself” because it has “failed to ward off” the infiltration of an “inferior race.”

In 1914, the same year Ross became president of the American Sociological Association, he expanded on “race suicide” in his book “The Old World in the New.” Immigrants, he warned, would act on Americans’ standards for cleanliness, morality and education “like a slow poison.” A nation that relies on immigration to maintain its population “deserves the extinction that surely awaits it,” he wrote.

Ross promoted the bogus theory that rated entire nationalities by the supposed shapes of their skulls. Observing Italian immigrants debarking, he wrote that they “show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads.” He warned about they could “mingle their heredity with ours” and perpetuated the idea that southern Italians were inherently unintelligent and violence-prone: “That the Mediterranean peoples are morally below the races of northern Europe is as certain as any social fact.”

The prejudice beneath Ross’ opinions was obvious, but his ideas were mainstream and respectable — he was considered a progressive reformer. Petrosino was the better sociologist. He insisted that it was well worth helping the immigrants become Americans. The Italian newcomers needed “a teacher, some one who will make them realize they are missing the greatest of all blessings this country affords, equal rights,” he told a Times reporter.

Petrosino, who was assassinated while on an investigative mission to Sicily in 1909, gave his life to thwarting the criminals whose crimes were so damaging to the reputation of his fellow Italian Americans. Immigrants from many nations have followed Petrosino — one of the great heroes of American law enforcement — into the ranks of the NYPD and make great contributions: for some, the ultimate sacrifice.

By portraying millions of migrants as intrinsically inferior, popular anti-immigration writers such as Ross — and Madison Grant, whose 1916 book, “The Passing of the Great Race,” was a favorite of Hitler’s — helped to set the stage for the Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas and put a chokehold on migration from southern and Eastern Europe.

But Ross came to regret the implications of his ideas about supposedly superior and inferior races, writing shortly after World War II that “we never imagined the theory being made a hinge for German aggression to turn on.” That’s what the phony claims of eugenics led to — Hitler’s “Final Solution,” which resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews. It’s certainly worth having vigorous debates about immigration laws, but those who’ve been indifferent to or even supportive of Trump’s increasingly clear turn toward racist, eugenic ideas should confront what they’ve enabled.

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