Ethnocentrism and the Roaring Twenties

The movies and literature tell us the 1920’s was a time of gaiety, prosperity and freedom. A time for speakeasies, jazz and flappers. A respite in the history of America between the Great War and the Great Depression.

What is not so celebrated in the chronicles of the era is the growing emergence of nativism and xenophobia and how that led to major changes in how America would deal with refugees and immigrants.

While the European immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century primarily came from northern and western Europe, with the turn of the century more immigrants were arriving from eastern and southern Europe. As always, there were objections from labor, fear that the new immigrants would take jobs from Americans and would reduce wages in a rapidly industrializing country because of their willingness to work for less.

But the case against these new immigrants, the Italians, Jews and Slavs, was not merely economic. It was also racist and anti-Semitic, based on a desire to keep America white and Protestant. This was also a time when the phony science of eugenics was taking hold in some quarters. A bastardization of Darwinism, eugenics talked about superior and inferior “stock” in pseudo-scientific terms. It was exactly the type of thinking that led to Hitler and the Nazi movement.


Already by the 1890’s, groups like the Immigration Restriction League were urging restriction of what they called “undesirable” immigrants. The group was founded by three Harvard graduates from prominent Boston families who derided the new immigrants as racially inferior and their proliferation as a threat to the American way of life.

In response to the lobbying of groups like this Congress appointed the Dillingham Commission in 1907, chaired by a Republican Senator from Vermont, William P. Dillingham. They were charged with studying the impact of recent immigration. Four years later their conclusion was that immigration from southern and eastern Europe should be restricted, as should all Asian immigrants. The rationale was that these immigrants were a threat to American culture and society. “The former (immigrants) were from the most progressive sections of Europe and assimilated quickly… On the other hand, the new immigrants have come from the less progressive countries of Europe and congregated separately from native Americans and the older immigrants to such an extent that assimilation has been slow.”

The first attempt to slow immigration occurred in 1917 during the war years. Congress required a literacy test to be administered to all incoming immigrants and raised the tax which these folks would have to pay to gain admittance. Also, expanding on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1917 Act blocked immigrants from what was called the “Asiatic barred zone,”

It was in 1921 that legislation was passed that was to define U.S. policy on immigration for the next 40 years. In an attempt to preserve the existing ethnic makeup of the U.S., Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. It established quotas for each European nationality at 3% of the number of people of that nationality in the U.S. as of the census of 1910. 

immigrants luggage

This editorial, from the Oklahoma City Times of May 7, 1921, offers a glimpse of the thinking behind these restrictions:

“How faulty is our system of distribution is made plain by the fact that of the heavy immigration of the past year, but 2.8 percent have gone or intend to go on the farms. That means that a vast majority of them are gathered in overcrowded tenements and segregated in colonies of their kind, usually amid unwholesome surroundings. Such congestion is not beneficial to America, and Americans will not be made of those permitted to dwell in that fashion. Also, education of the foreign born will not succeed until greater facilities are provided to include the adults as well as the children and attendance is made compulsory if citizenship is desired.

“Of all factors bearing on the question, selection probably is the most vital. Scientists warn us to give greater attention to that, unless we want the race that made America great to dwindle and deteriorate, and lose control of the land they wrested from the wilderness.  One of these scientists, Madison Grant, warns America that the nation is headed for a racial abyss, unless we cease to shut our eyes to racial differences; unless, in brief, immigration is restricted to our kind of people. Such selection would not be easy. It would meet the opposition of undesirable nationalities already here. It must be handled with consummate tact, unless it is to create animosities abroad. But it is a matter deserving study. It is time to realize that America is no longer a sparsely populated vastness with room for all. It is time for America to think of the future of Americans, and less of the oppressed of other lands.”

In 1924, the quotas were lowered to 2% and in an effort to dial back the clock to a time that preceded much of the influx of southern and eastern Europeans, the Immigration Act of 1924 quotas were based on the census of 1890. In addition, it banned immigration of anyone who was not eligible for naturalization, which meant the door was closed on all Asians. The national origins quota system established by this legislation would not be abolished until 1965.

Here’s how the 1924 act impacted quotas from some countries:

Italy — based on the 1910 census Italians made up 11.75% of the U.S. population. The quota set in 1921 was 3% of that population, 42,057. That was the number of Italians who would be admitted to the U.S. annually. But in 1925 the quota were based on the census of 1890 when Italians were only 2.34% of the U.S. population. That change, in addition to reducing the quotas to 2% meant that only 3,854 Italians would be admitted to the U.S. annually, barely more than 10% of the earlier quota.

Germany — In the 1921 census, persons of German descent made up 18.90% of the U.S. population and the 1921 quota for Germans was 67,607. While the quota in 1925 went from 3% to 2%, this was partially offset by basing it on the 1890 census when Germans made up 31.11% of the U.S. population. So in the 1925 act, 51,227 Germans would be admitted annually.  

Overall immigration from Europe had totaled 800,000 in 1921 when the first quotas were enacted. By 1924, that number was reduced to 700,000. But by 1930, six years after the more restrictive quotas were enacted, European immigration was down to 100,000 per year.

The ethnic quotas also had some unintended consequences. This report appeared in the Oklahoma City Times on May 9, 1922:

“Laurel Galle, Red Cross nurse from Belgium, promised to marry Camile E. Asp, a soldier wounded in France. They planned to wed when he recovered. Since then, circumstances, the red tape of law, and fate have prevented every attempt of Camile to make Laurel his wife.

“Circumstance–in the way of the Belgian immigrantion quota–thwarted them again yesterday.

“When their ship docked, Camille was informed that the immigrantion quota for Belgium was exhausted and that his sweetheart would not be admitted.”

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8 Responses to Ethnocentrism and the Roaring Twenties

  1. sportsdiva64 says:

    With each post, we realize our history gets more and more sadder. But some folks don’t want this history taught to high school students though. Smfh

    Liked by 2 people

  2. imogenglad says:

    This is a really interesting post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: FDR’s Black Eye | off the leash

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  6. Trikalsun says:

    Genetic diversity begets genetic” pool richer


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