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  • Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics by Douglas C. Baynton
  • Lisa Joy Pruitt
Douglas C. Baynton. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 177 pp. Ill. $35.00 (978-0-226-36416-2).

In this slim volume, Douglas C. Baynton forcefully and convincingly argues that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, U.S. immigration law and policy had as its core purpose the exclusion of "defective" immigrants who failed to meet eugenic standards of physical, mental, and moral fitness. In doing so, he successfully challenges standard historical interpretations that separate immigration in that period into two distinct phases: pre-1917, when policies focused on "selection" to improve the quality of immigrants, and post-1917, when new policies aimed to restrict the total number of immigrants. Instead, Baynton maintains that policies throughout the era had as their objectives both "selection" and "restriction" and that "eugenic inspection" was the tool for achieving both.

Baynton organizes the book into four chapters, each of which focuses on a key concept governing eugenic inspection. He first explores the concept of [End Page 675] "defect," with its corollaries, "fitness" and "poor physique." "Fitness" meant an absence of defect; "poor physique" was a "nebulous description" reflecting the belief of inspectors that they could take in at a glance the surface indicators of underlying defects of body, mind, or character (p. 37). Baynton demonstrates that immigration restrictionists were concerned not only with immigrants' capacity for self-support, but also with their potential for "polluting" the present and future American population with their defects. Restrictionists, he argues, worried not so much about the quantity of immigrants as about their eugenic quality (pp. 38–39). Laws to reduce the number of immigrants were not ends in themselves; they were designed to facilitate more thorough eugenic inspection in order to improve the overall quality of immigrants (pp. 39–40).

In the first chapter, Baynton also delves into the complex interplay between race and disability. Noting that the book focuses on European immigration through northeastern ports of entry, he points out that at the turn of the twentieth century, "race" as a concept was akin to "ethnicity" or "nationality" as they are used in the twenty-first century. By asserting that some European "races" were especially prone to undesirable characteristics, eugenicists used "race" as a "shorthand way to describe relative risk of defect" (p. 43), thus aiding in the gargantuan task of inspecting staggering numbers of immigrants.

Baynton next explores the concept of "handicap." As the pace of industrial society intensified, "efficiency" rose in social and economic value. The perceived inability to keep up—"inefficiency"—added a new dimension to societal attitudes toward disability reflected in language such as "handicapped" and "retarded" (pp. 48–64). "Efficiency" propelled industrial productivity, and both were keys to national progress. Since the "abnormal" were by definition "inefficient," they represented "social and eugenic threats to progress" (p. 69). At a time when the concept of heredity (however poorly understood) was gaining power, anxieties about the heritability of defects gave rise to fears about racial "degeneracy"—defectiveness that seemed likely to intensify in succeeding generations (p. 70). Eugenicists argued for immigration restriction on the grounds that handicapped and potentially degenerate immigrants threatened the American gene pool and therefore threatened national progress, regardless of their immediate employment prospects.

Employment prospects were important, however. If restrictionists feared anything as much as genetic taint, it was potential "dependency," Baynton's third key concept. "Common sense" told eugenic inspectors that any apparent or suspected defect of body, mind, or morals would ultimately negatively affect a person's ability to support himself and contribute to national progress, even if that person came with a documented employment history and/or a written guarantee of employment. Women and children were thus already at a disadvantage when facing eugenic inspectors at ports of entry. Dependent by definition and bearers of the future, both were subjected to heightened scrutiny.

Baynton's fourth concept is "ugliness." Eugenic inspectors believed that faults of physical appearance signified disability even in otherwise apparently healthy people. Since inspectors had to process...


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