Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics Douglas Cameron Baynton's Defectives in the Land is a welcome addition to early twentieth-century immigration history, providing new insight into how popular and scientific understanding of defectives—the period's catchall term for those with disabilities—shaped both the discourse of immigration and the experiences of immigrants attempting to come to the United States. Histories of early twentieth-century immigration tend to focus on the racial, ethnic, and national origins of debates about restriction or about the use of medical inspection in restriction. This well-written and compelling book, however, filled with stories of the role disability played in the immigration debates of the time, places disability alongside race and ethnicity as central concerns in American immigration policy history. In telling the stories of immigrants labeled by authorities as defective, and in displaying an understanding of an evolving sense in early twentieth-century America of the meanings of defect and disability, Baynton's work is at its best. In particular, his insights into how the language of defect is at the root of many forms of and justifications for oppression in the United States are illuminating. Baynton's is an all-encompassing argument, but he does provide ample evidence for it, including how the language of defect was exploited to discriminate against persons with disabilities and used to amplify racial and gender-based anti-immigrant sentiment. Baynton also challenges a historiography that has depended significantly on the idea that U.S. immigration policy at the turn of the twentieth century shifted between selective (screening out) and restrictive (reducing numbers) phases. Baynton's robust examination of primary- and secondary-source materials argues that this distinction was lost on those “engaged in the immigration debate at the time,” and that the period's rhetoric and laws “were functioning as designed” by being both selective and restrictive (p. 22). This conclusion is an important revision to the historiography but makes sense only broadly, given that only a fraction of the millions of immigrants who came to the United States between the late nineteenth century and the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 were turned away. Baynton's challenge, as he acknowledges, is that the nature of record keeping at the time, which conflated rejection based on disability and dependency, makes quantification of the impact of antidisability rhetoric on immigration outcomes nearly impossible. This is unfortunate, and is compounded, as Baynton points out, because such rhetoric also likely discouraged individuals with disabilities from even trying to reach America's shores. This limitation should not, however, minimize Baynton's revelation of the impact of antidisability sentiment on the national mood toward immigrants at the time. As this book reminds us, for a long time historians “never thought of disabled people, but they are everywhere, and our histories are defective without them” (p. 138). Baynton's findings are sure to compel more research in this area, and I would recommend this book for use in undergraduate and graduate classes and for popular audiences. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax483
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Douglas Cameron Baynton's Defectives in the Land is a welcome addition to early twentieth-century immigration history, providing new insight into how popular and scientific understanding of defectives—the period's catchall term for those with disabilities—shaped both the discourse of immigration and the experiences of immigrants attempting to come to the United States. Histories of early twentieth-century immigration tend to focus on the racial, ethnic, and national origins of debates about restriction or about the use of medical inspection in restriction. This well-written and compelling book, however, filled with stories of the role disability played in the immigration debates of the time, places disability alongside race and ethnicity as central concerns in American immigration policy history. In telling the stories of immigrants labeled by authorities as defective, and in displaying an understanding of an evolving sense in early twentieth-century America of the meanings of defect and disability, Baynton's work is at its best. In particular, his insights into how the language of defect is at the root of many forms of and justifications for oppression in the United States are illuminating. Baynton's is an all-encompassing argument, but he does provide ample evidence for it, including how the language of defect was exploited to discriminate against persons with disabilities and used to amplify racial and gender-based anti-immigrant sentiment. Baynton also challenges a historiography that has depended significantly on the idea that U.S. immigration policy at the turn of the twentieth century shifted between selective (screening out) and restrictive (reducing numbers) phases. Baynton's robust examination of primary- and secondary-source materials argues that this distinction was lost on those “engaged in the immigration debate at the time,” and that the period's rhetoric and laws “were functioning as designed” by being both selective and restrictive (p. 22). This conclusion is an important revision to the historiography but makes sense only broadly, given that only a fraction of the millions of immigrants who came to the United States between the late nineteenth century and the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 were turned away. Baynton's challenge, as he acknowledges, is that the nature of record keeping at the time, which conflated rejection based on disability and dependency, makes quantification of the impact of antidisability rhetoric on immigration outcomes nearly impossible. This is unfortunate, and is compounded, as Baynton points out, because such rhetoric also likely discouraged individuals with disabilities from even trying to reach America's shores. This limitation should not, however, minimize Baynton's revelation of the impact of antidisability sentiment on the national mood toward immigrants at the time. As this book reminds us, for a long time historians “never thought of disabled people, but they are everywhere, and our histories are defective without them” (p. 138). Baynton's findings are sure to compel more research in this area, and I would recommend this book for use in undergraduate and graduate classes and for popular audiences. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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