Written by By Christopher F. Petrella (@cfpetrella)

In November 2015 Donald Trump was asked on the campaign trail if he would require Muslim U.S. citizens to register with the Department of Homeland Security. “Absolutely,” Trump said, “they have to be.” Trump and his team had been mum on the issue until last week when a number of prominent surrogates and advisers—including incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump’s immigration adviser Kris Kobach—mused, seemingly as a test balloon, that the administration is “not going to rule out anything” and that a registry of Muslims entering the country would pass constitutional muster. One member of Trump’s team went as far as citing the 1942–45 internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II as a “precedent.” (Both statements were hedged with qualifications that made them no less worrisome.)

Since then, many commentators have roundly condemned the idea of a Muslim registry—not to mention citing the internment of Japanese-Americans as a precedent for anything except that which we must avoid repeating. Few have offered deeper historical examinations , though, that would suggest that the registration of Japanese-Americans and their subsequent movement to concentration camps were not really aberrations in American history. On the contrary, racial and ethnic registries and immigration quota systems have long been integral to America’s approach to regulating the freedom, movement, and rights of non-whites. Two pieces of legislation passed in the same year nearly a century ago—one federal, one in the state of Virginia—reflect the recurrent appeal in the United States of laws aimed at protecting the racial purity of whatever is indexed in a given moment as best representing American nationalism.

In 1920 Harry Laughlin—eminent eugenicist with a doctorate in cytology from Princeton—testified to the U.S. House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization that “the character of a nation is determined primarily by its racial qualities.” Laughlin’s sentiment captured the spirit of the time. During the 1920s, a number of immigration and legal reforms were based on scientific notions of intractable difference between races and an attending social notion that the purity of whiteness must be protected at all costs. The Immigration Act of 1924 was established for the express purpose of limiting the influx of “dangerous” and “dysgenic” Italians, Arabs, Eastern European Jews, Asians, and other not-fully-white “social inadequates.”

The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act, dramatically limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origin quota system. Signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on May 26, 1924, the bill capped total annual immigration at about 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre–World War I average—by establishing ceilings on the maximum number of immigrants allowed from any given country: specifically, 2 percent per year of the number of immigrants from a given country as recorded in the 1890 census. The choice to peg immigration to that census was far from arbitrary. Since the 1890 census reflected a higher population percentage of “desirable” northern Europeans than any of the subsequent three censuses, people from those countries enjoyed artificially inflated immigration and naturalization opportunities under the new quotas. To be sure, this provision was no doubt meant to establish an advantage to Anglo-Saxon Protestants who represented the majority of the U.S. population in 1890. 

In his 1916 bestseller entitled The Passing of the Great Race, famed eugenicist Madison Grant argued that whereas Northern European immigrants of the nineteenth century were “skilled, thrifty, and hardworking” just like native-born Americans, more recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were “unskilled, ignorant, predominantly Catholic or Jewish” and virtually unassimilable. Grant, among other eugenicists, was tapped as an expert to speak on the threat of “inferior stock” from Eastern and Southern Europe and played a critical role as Congress debated provisions of the Immigration Act of 1924. 

At the urging of Grant and others, the act did not include any provision whatsoever for immigrants from Asian countries. The bill stipulated “the absolute exclusion of the aliens ineligible to citizenship,” a code for Asians. This continued a longstanding policy in existing immigration laws dating from 1790, 1870, and 1917, which had already excluded most Asians from naturalizing. Exceptions to these blanket prohibitions included Japanese and Filipinos. However, the Immigration Act of 1924—in conjunction with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ozawa v. United States (1922), which found the Japanese “not white” and therefore ineligible for U.S. citizenship—closed even these loopholes. These quotas and prohibitions would stand until the midcentury: in 1952 Congress eliminated race as a basis for naturalization; and in 1965 Congress finally jettisoned the national origin quota system.

In the same year as the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed its Racial Integrity Act, originally drafted as “A Bill for the Preservation of the White Race.” The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 explicitly forbade miscegenation—that is, “race mixing through marriage and fornication”—on the basis that such practices would “pollute [the nation] with mixed-blood offspring.”

Groundwork for the legislation had been laid nearly a decade earlier by two prominent white Virginians, Walter Plecker and John Powell. In 1912 Walter Plecker, a physician by training, was named the Assistant Registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, a newly created agency tasked with maintaining a register of all births and deaths in the state. Two years later he was promoted to Registrar, a post he held until 1946, a year before his death. The bureau seemed innocuous at its inception. In 1915, however, Plecker began to suggest a new justification for it. He claimed it generated the first accurate data “for any American State in which there is so large a Negro element.” He noted that the black population in Virginia was “so serious a factor in public health” that it should receive particular attention in the future. Later, Plecker would claim that this data was necessary to track what he felt was an alarmingly high rate of illegitimacy among black and Native American Virginians and an oddly low birth rate among “native virile Virginia” whites.

In an effort to bolster his racial agenda, Plecker befriended outspoken “racial purist” John Powell in the early 1920s. In 1922 Powell founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America (ASCOA), characterized by eugenics scholar David Smith as “the Klan of the aristocracy—the real gentleman’s Klan.” The club announced its purpose as “the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization in America.” To achieve this aim and to mitigate the “rapid breakdown of the traditional American virtues and principles,” the club outlined three goals: “first, by the strengthening of Anglo-Saxon instincts, traditions and principles among representatives of our original American stock; second, [the] intelligent selection and exclusion of immigrants; and, third, [the] fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems in general, most especially of the negro problem.” The third goal, a final solution to “the negro problem,” prompted the club to advance its first legislative proposal: a bill “for the preservation of the white race.”

Plecker and Powell quickly got to work on a bill. They produced a piece of model legislation that included four essential elements: 1) a registration system that required birth certificates to show the racial background of every citizen; 2) a provision that forbade the issuance of marriage licenses to any person who did not possess a racially keyed birth certificate; 3) a definition of “white persons” as only those with “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian”; and 4) the strict prohibition of a “white person” from marrying anyone other than another “white person.” Powell and other members of the Anglo-Saxon Club of America corresponded with national figures in the eugenics movement and other men of prominence in racial politics to lobby for the Racial Integrity Act.

Powell wrote to Madison Grant, who also lobbied for the Immigration Act of 1924, as well as Lothrup Stoddard, a disciple of Grant whose book, The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy (1920), predicted that white civilization would soon collapse, overtaken by the faster population growth of inferior peoples. Powell’s letters to Grant and Stoddard requested statements of support for his and Plecker’s bill. 

When Virginia’s General Assembly convened in 1924, Powell’s writing campaign had produced letters of advocacy from his prominent contacts. Grant offered his “unqualified endorsement” for the anti-miscegenation racial registry and repeated his own conclusions about race and civilization: “It would, of course, be a frightful calamity, not only to the South but to the whole nation—in fact to civilization, itself—if the struggle for the supremacy of the white race were in any degree diminished. It is the insidious increase of mixed breeds in the lower strata of society which has heretofore undermined and ruined many white civilizations.” Stoddard was equally unrestrained in his support of the proposed legislation. It was of “the highest value and greatest necessity” to preserve the white race: “White race-purity is the corner-stone of our civilization. Its mongrelization with non-white blood, particularly with [N]egro blood, would spell the downfall of our civilization. This is a matter of both national and racial life and death, and no efforts should be spared to guard against the greatest of all perils—the peril of miscegenation.”

The bill passed the Virginia Senate by a vote of 23-to-4 but without the compulsory racial registration clause. The absence was lamented by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The paper opined that the Senate had “cut the heart out” of the bill as the registration provision would have clarified “once and for all who is a Caucasian and who is not.” The following week the House passed the bill by a vote of 72-to-9 and Governor Trinkle signed the Bill on March 20, 1924, as An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. Similar laws were passed in Alabama (No. 214) and Georgia (No. 317) in 1927.

Though Virginia’s bill provided an absolute prohibition of miscegenation and established merely two racial categories for Virginia—white and colored—Plecker believed it did not go far enough. In the absence of an obligatory racial registry he attempted to create one himself. Beginning in the early 1930s he began distributing a list of “Surnames, by counties and cities, of mixed Negroid Virginia families striving to pass as Indian or white” to all registrars of vital statistics across the state. His letters to state registrars warned against “mongrel” families who attempted to pass as white using fraudulent birth certificates “as an aid to intermarriage into the white race and to attend white schools.” In a 1943 letter to John Collier, the U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs, Plecker boasted that his records “trace[d] racial ties back to 1853” and that “Hitler’s genealogical study of the Jews is not more complete.” Plecker praised the Racial Integrity Act as “the most perfect expression of the white ideal, and the most important eugenical effort that has been made in 4000 years.” Though Walter Plecker died in 1947 his Racial Integrity Act remained valid state statute for another twenty years until the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia ruled it unconstitutional and lifted Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.

section separator

Though Virginia’s racial purity act was enforced for a total of forty-three years, few today know of the legislation, despite widespread familiarity with Loving v. Virginia. Likewise there is relatively little awareness of the racially motivated federal immigration reforms of the 1920s, the background against which Virginia’s law was accepted as eminently sensible. The omission of these laws from the public debate wrongly leaves us with the false impression that present debates about a Muslim registry—a registry that is imagined by many of its proponents as a de facto racial registry—have very few precedents in the United States, when in fact there are many in the not so distant past. 

To responsibly address our relationship to the past—and to avoid those same mistakes—contemporary discussions about the establishment of national registries for race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion must remind us that we have been down this road before, to disastrous ends. Trump has repeatedly claimed that a Muslim registry will “make America safe and strong again” and will help to secure and promote “exceptional virtues of our own way of life” so we can “take pride in our institutions and our values.” He has also characterized America’s recent legacy as one punctuated by social, cultural, and national anomie, marked by “destruction . . . and weakness.” Similarly, Walter Plecker and John Powell once claimed that without the passage of the Racial Integrity Act, “we have little hope for, but may expect in the future decline or complete destruction of our civilization.”

A racial or religious registry of any kind should be unequivocally rejected for what it is: an instrument of white nationalism deployed to manipulate the most current iteration of our fear of “outsiders.” Rejecting the idea of a Muslim registry must be one of many steps in denaturalizing the linkage between whiteness and Americanness, between the history of racial or religious exclusion and the establishment of U.S. democracy.