Coloring Democracy

Democratic ideals among an homogeneous population of Nordic blood, as in England or America, is one thing, but it is quite another for the white man to share his blood with, or intrust his ideals to, brown, yellow, black, or red men. This is suicide pure and simple, and the first victim of this amazing folly will be the white man himself.
—Madison Grant, 1920.

Popular discussions of assimilation tend to foreground cultural issues: dress, language, food, behavior. To be an American one must act like an American. (I know better than to use American to refer to US citizens, but using US citizens is awkward.) Of course, as pro-immigration rallies and reactions to them showed us, becoming American also requires one to break all ties with an originating country and its politics. As the refrain went, “they weren’t flying American flags.”

During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, Madison Grant was one of the most articulate advocates of immigration restriction. His 1916 The Passing of the Great Race, a racial elegy based on World War I, drew on the emotional resources of war-induced nationalism to argue against diluting “Nordic” blood with less noble strains, those of non-Nordic immigrants (Jews, Italians, Japanese). As the war ended, the book became a bestseller, going through at least three revisions and being reprinted at least 10 times. In the fourth edition, Grant took credit for enabling the discussions that led to the passing of what is, perhaps, the most restrictive immigration law in US history, the Immigration Act of 1924.

I am especially interested in his idea that democratic ideals are color-coded, a claim that seems to go against the popular notion of democracy. That a popular, US-based notion of democracy might go against a Classical ideal is a debate I am vastly unqualified to enter. But a niggling feeling tells me that the Classic, and classist, trace persists in US ideals.

If we have moved away from Grant’s anti-immigrant stance, in law if not in spirit, we have yet to address his sense that black, yellow, brown, and red “men” will destroy, subvert, or otherwise corrupt “democratic ideals.” Moving away from a US context, so far as the tether of empire allows, it is striking to see how often “new” and “emerging” democracies are faulted for not having the “right” kind of democracy, how, that is, the US—Nordic-based?—remains the standard for what democracy should be. Underlying such critiques is Grant’s sense: that democracy is color-coded, race-coded, blood-encoded.

More striking, at least for me, is the sense that a differently “raced” or “colored” population will produce a strikingly different ideal of democracy, one that may be incomprehensible to Euro-American critics. Of course, given the financial fetters of empire (wave to IMF, World Bank, Euro-America “lenders”), this very illegibility is always cause for censure, a reason to say that “democracy” has failed.