Thirty years ago, Spike Lee’s explosive film Do the Right Thing arrived in theaters, in the wake of racially charged incidents that forever etched certain names and places into New York history: Eleanor Bumpurs; Bernie Goetz; Michael Stewart; Tawana Brawley; Howard Beach; the Central Park Five. When the Library of Congress selected Lee’s film for the National Film Registry, scholar David Sterritt noted that the “context in which Lee wrote Do the Right Thing” was “the long tradition of American racism.”
Perhaps. On the other hand, even a casual viewer of Do the Right Thing will notice that there’s a lot more to this particular Brooklyn block than, well, black and white. There are Korean store-owners and Puerto Rican stoop boys, Caribbean immigrants and Italian-American pizza slingers, the children of The Great Migration, and even a white guy who—despite his Larry Bird jersey—was “born in Brooklyn.”
It is with such messy and complicated American realities in mind that we read Daniel Okrent’s important new book. Its title refers to a nasty anti-immigrant poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, published in the august Atlantic Monthly in 1892—the very same year Ellis Island officially opened. Aldrich’s verses (“Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, / And through them presses a wild motley throng /... In street and alley what strange tongues are loud, / Accents of menace alien to our air...”) reflect the profound nativist sentiment of an era when as many as a million immigrants were entering the U.S. annually. The newcomers—largely Catholic and Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe—terrified the Protestant American establishment, particularly what Okrent calls the “Brahmin intelligentsia.” These were men like one-time U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who wrote in 1891 that it was time to “guard our civilization against an infusion which seems to threaten deterioration,” or Boston school committee member Joe Lee, who declared “the Catholic Church a great evil,” and feared Europe was being “drained of Jews—to its benefit no doubt but not ours.”
The broader arc of The Guarded Gate traces the slow but steady merger of this long-standing American nativism with something new: scientific racism.
Okrent, best known as the first public editor of the New York Times, and the author of lively popular histories about Prohibition and Rockefeller Center, acknowledges his own personal connection to this material. His maternal grandfather, a physician, emigrated from Romania in 1922, managing “to slip in before the gates clanged shut two years later.” Consequently, Okrent confesses that he “can’t claim spotless objectivity as I tell the fateful story of how a perverse form of ‘science’ gave respectability to the drastic limits imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern and southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.” The Guarded Gate also explores the role Okrent’s own publisher played in spreading many of this era’s more heinous ideas: the 1916 publication of Madison Grant’s seminal book, The Passing of the Great Race, made Charles Scribner’s Sons “effectively the official publisher of the scientific racism movement,” he writes.