Molina: When ‘sterilizing defectives’ was fashionable table-side conversation in American homes
In his chilling new book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, scholar Steve Ross chronicles how Hitler and American Nazis planned to take over the United States, using Los Angeles as their stronghold. Their plot included machine-gunning Jews on the streets and publicly hanging prominent entertainment-industry figures such as Al Jolson and Samuel Goldwyn.
Surprising? Not so much.
The notion that racist Nazi ideologies gained a foothold in the United States is more than plausible given the early-20th-century popularity here of eugenics, the science of improving the human population by controlled breeding. Such beliefs weren’t just cocktail-party chatter among a handful of extremists; they were codified into laws and practices that, in the Southwest especially, targeted people of Mexican origin.
In 1907, California began mandating forced sterilization of those men and women deemed “mentally inferior” or otherwise “unfit to propagate.” By 1909, a sterilization law was in effect. And by 1964, the state had sterilized 20,000 people—mostly poor women, African Americans and immigrants. Women and men of Mexican descent were sterilized at disproportionate rates.
Eugenics shaped immigration policy, too. As Mexicans continued crossing the border to provide the cheap labor for America’s rapidly expanding industrial agriculture, critics viewed them as an even greater threat to national “purity” than their European counterparts, who were subject to strict quotas under the Immigration Act of 1924. Restrictionist politicians invoked the language of racial superiority as they strove to extend quotas to immigrants from south of the border. Texas Representative John C. Box, for example, argued against Mexican immigration this way: “For the most part Mexicans are Indians, and very seldom become naturalized. They know little of sanitation, are very low mentally and are generally unhealthy.”
Opponents of open Mexican immigration, including self-described eugenicists, wrote numerous articles supporting restrictive immigration. In these publications, they described Mexicans as racially unfit, with titles such as “The Menace of Mexican Immigration.” While some of these articles were published in extremist journals, others made their way into mainstream publications like The Saturday Evening Post, which claimed a circulation of more than 2 million.
Employers who relied on the labor of Mexican workers fought to preserve immigration from Mexico—and won. Yet even in supposedly pro-immigrant circles, the logic of eugenics still held sway. In cities like Los Angeles and El Paso, where many Mexican immigrants settled, health officials targeted Mexican women and children with Americanization programs aiming to cure them of the “ills” that made them obstacles to national progress. Mothers who brought their children to neighborhood clinics received parenting lessons while doctors examined the children. These programs’ underlying message: Without expert guidance, Mexican women lacked the skills to be capable mothers.
The scientific racialization seen in the 1920s only intensified with the Great Depression, as everyday citizens and government officials alike began using Mexican immigrants as scapegoats for economic and social ills. Efforts to present Mexicans as Americanize-able, given the proper education by health experts, were abandoned. Instead, several states and counties embarked on a repatriation campaign that deported an estimated 1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
In the course of this purge, Mexican women and children came to symbolize the perils of a more open immigration policy—with the argument shaped along eugenicist lines. Until the mid-20s, the growth of the Mexican population in the United States had been attributed mainly to immigration of men looking for work. But with the increased arrival of Mexican women, restrictionists began to focus not only on the economic threat posed to American workers, but also on birth rates. They argued that Mexican immigrants, being “excessive breeders,” would have too many children who would proceed to drain U.S. resources.
This article continues at [History.com] When American Lawmakers Took a Page from the Nazi Playbook