Initiatives Urban Humanities and Their Publics

Interview with Prof. Jack Tchen, Historian and Director of NYU's A/P/A Institute

A room with a work desk and filing cabinets with books on top of them lining the walls

10-ero-office-archives-1An interview with Professor Tchen about his project, Haunted Files and early 20th century progressives’ role in the American eugenics movement…

Our blogger, Melissa Bean, sat down in the spring with Jack Tchen, Associate Professor at NYU Gallatin and the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, as well as Director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, to learn about his latest projects.  In the following interview, Prof. Tchen discusses the exhibit, Haunted Files, which explored the American eugenics movement, and the course he’ll be teaching at Gallatin in the fall.  The Urban Democracy Lab will be co-sponsoring America and Its Unfit: Eugenics Then and Now, a conference taking place September 25 and 26, 2015 at Hemmerdinger Hall, Silver Center, 100 Washington Square East (enter at 31 Washington Place).   Thanks to Zack Wilks for the transcription.

Urban Democracy Lab: How did you get into your research?
Jack Tchen: I guess I would say it was as an undergraduate, which was many decades ago. It was so long ago that it was actually at the end of the Vietnam War. I started out with a plan of going into genetics at Wisconsin, which had a really great genetics lab. And I got involved in some anti-war demonstrations and I was also being called “gook” at Wisconsin, which was a derogatory term American G.I.s and Americans would use to refer to the Vietnamese. It got me thinking…because I was so naïve at the time that I never thought about how racism also affected the Asians. It’s so obvious now in retrospect. Growing up it wasn’t. I was the kid of a refugee family. They were mainly happy to be in this country and didn’t really deal with the racism that was surrounding our lives until later. So for me, being around during the war, and getting exposed to the anti-war movement gave me this quick immersion into how racism was not just a domestic U.S. issue, but also a global issue, especially as the U.S. had fought various wars in Asia and set up military bases with nearby red light districts. So I began kind of understanding that dynamic. I think that’s what got me really interested in trying to understand American history.

UDL: So how did you choose to go about the “Haunted Files” exhibit?
JT: It started when I was brought on to be the chief historian for the New-York Historical Society exhibit called “Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion.” An exhibit of that scale had never been at a mainstream U.S. museum or organization before, which was great, but at the same time there were complications. Part of what [graduate assistant Noah Fuller and I] realized is that the 1882 Exclusion Act and the subsequent acts that began to refine and close the loopholes of that act had a direct connection to American eugenics. Even though I studied history and had been a historian for many decades, I never quite understood that connection until we began digging into it. The eugenics movement – especially the Eugenics Record Office, which was what we reproduced in that exhibit – started in 1910. One of the “highlights” of its work was the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act which applied eugenic principles to U.S. immigration policy. And really eugenics was this reaction to what was at the time thought to be the Gilded Age of laissez-faire economics – unbridled growth and free market economics running rampant across the city and the nation. It’s basically the same as now. So the Progressive movement and eugenics, in an interesting and weird way, were a response to that excess, an attempt to create some regulation and control from outside of that system. Eugenics was led by a lot of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were very upset about “their” city – “their” New York City, for example – being “overrun” with these unwashed immigrants, who they immediately saw as de facto inferior because they were poor and, some of them, refugees.

So the eugenics imagination began to run amok. Eugenicists were founders of places like the New York Zoological Society; they were the patrician founders of the city. They began to construct a belief system that said that they were of superior European stock – what they classified as the Nordic or Teutonic Europeans – and these other Europeans, like Italians and Eastern Europeans were of “inferior” races. So we’re no longer talking about white/non-white, that kind of divide. An imagined sort of scientific racism. Now we’re going to the finer levels of “whiteness,” with Jews being seen as inferior, Eastern Europeans being seen as inferior. And the Italians who were coming in large numbers to New York were considered even more inferior, Mediterranean Europeans. So the immigration laws got totally recalibrated to basically keep those groups of people out. So from 1924 onwards, it just about closes the faucet [of immigration.] What I began to understand was that the 1882 Exclusion Act, which was the first immigration law that excluded a whole group of people based on race, was part of this history of race in America. It’s separate of course from issues of enslavement and issues of Native Americans who were basically forced off the land. But race not only had to be understood in that larger context of enslavement and also disappropriation from the land, but also had to be understood in how some Europeans were increasingly restricted from coming into this country. So that insight really generally is not made. Most Italians and Jews really don’t know about that history; most Americans don’t know about that history. So just in the same way that the Chinese Exclusion Act has been largely forgotten, conveniently, so has the impact of eugenics on American culture, immigration laws, and other aspects. For me, the exhibit at N-YHS was really a chance to make those connections, to examine the larger processes of immigration exclusion, but also other types of exclusion, such as segregation, ghettoization, urban development policies, et cetera, et cetera.

UDL: Do you feel that we continue to do these things? Of course it goes out of “fashion” as it becomes more visible. We decentralize our modern problems onto other groups. But do you think we still do it in a similar way with current immigration problems or prison policies?
JT: I think so with eugenics in the ‘30s and the fascists in Germany and the Italians picking it up, referring to, for example, The Passing of the Great Race. Hitler referred to that book, which was written by an American – a patrician American named Madison Grant – as his bible. So what the Germans did was they took American policies that were more about institutionalization, segregation, et cetera, to an even greater extreme with extermination. Sterilization is a form of extermination, but still not quite the same as putting people outright in gas chambers. I think once those disclosures began seeping into this country, that [those policies were explicitly] anti-Jewish, other kinds of policies began to crumble. There was a very strong right wing, reactionary movement among Northeastern elites of that time. They didn’t want Jews coming in, you know? But once this [the extermination of people in Europe] was understood to be linked to eugenics, then it became really embarrassing. And I think it was the embarrassment that submerged the excesses of this tradition, the most explicit dimensions of this tradition.
As I said earlier, eugenics was part of the Progressive movement. Progressivism was a much more complicated movement than we generally tend to think. It was in many ways a top-down movement, as much as anything else. The government’s role in helping to bring regulation and to try to tame the economic system had run amok. Some of that top-down control was introducing meritocracy, introducing certain kinds of regimes of testing. They were premised on certain ideas of inferior intelligence and superior intelligence and it was based on certain notions of what literacy was about.

In other words, yes. We think of it like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg was the embarrassing part of eugenics. Underneath the waterline were a lot of systems that were highly hierarchical and differential in terms of establishing who was inferior and who was on top; [those arguments] were essentially the same as the eugenics argument. But the excesses of that argument, the kind of flamboyant parts of the argument were too embarrassing to continue. For me, it’s an example of what Toni Morrison calls the “master narrative.” It’s really the master narrative – the most blatant, embarrassing parts of it, especially on the global stage – being submerged, becoming invisibilized. But so many of the patterns, so many of the power and knowledge relationships continue today. I think a lot of that stuff is contested. It was contested then by a lot of people. And it’s still contested today. So it’s a constant process of contesting these kinds of very elite ways of thinking and practices that have infused a creation of places, of vacation places, even.

Vermont is a really interesting example. It was seen as a really idyllic retreat for besieged white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants to go to because it was a very white place, and it actually fashioned itself through eugenics policies to continue to be a really white place. To establish new national parks, people were relocated, and put – some of them, in the case of Shenandoah National Park – into institutions and sterilized by eugenics policies. These are kind of white “mountain folk” who were considered the lapsed or “unsuccessful” white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but didn’t make money. They lived a local life. So those people were actually removed from the land. Those lands were assembled and turned into National Parks that became, again, a refuge for besieged urbanites who had some money and could retreat into this idyllic, pastoral countryside. Eugenics sort of re-territorialized [the country], as did immigration laws, as did other kinds of sterilization policies, as did other things like that. [This all] culminated in a re-spatializing or re-territorializing of urban and rural spaces, so that gentrification policies now are very much linked to policies of declaring sections of the city “unlivable” so that the so-called “invisible hand” of [gentrification] can happen without much resistance. But in fact that “invisible hand” is very much structured by a series of hierarchical principles in which value and profit-making of a certain kind are placed well above human rights and needs. So that system is very much in place and that’s what we’re still fighting today. That’s very much why we felt both the Exclusion exhibit and the eugenics exhibit were actually important to put up there.

UDL: How long did it take you to compile all the materials?
JT: We just had the insight that we wanted to recreate the Eugenics Record Office, and then populate the office with what ended up being 4000 documents. Both Noah [co-curator] and Mark [associate curator] and other support staff at A/P/A Institute literally were taking PDF documents that we’d gotten from archives, redacting them so no names would be incriminated, and then printing them on paper that would be of that time period, that would give you that feel, and then putting them in the file drawers and desk drawers of the place. So that’s really what took time. Getting the furniture, getting all that stuff, was really quick. One day at the Brimfield flea market in Western Massachusetts. And then the hours and hours and hours it took – hundreds of hours – it took to reproduce those documents. But once we had that all, all those elements, putting it together was easy.

UDL: I’m surprised that these sorts of incriminating things exist after the act. But I guess this always happens and then there’s evidence of it afterwards.
JT: Actually, after the office closed down in 1939, it was so embarrassing that it became a barn. They closed it down – I mean this was an office funded by some of the major foundations and elites in the country. Alexander Graham Bell was an early president of the board. The Harriman Family, a railroad magnate family, was involved. [This included] William Averell Harriman, who was later a governor of New York. It was his mom, Mary Williamson Averell, who provided the land for the office and a majority of the funding. The Carnegie Foundation, Teddy Roosevelt [both contributed]. I mean, we’re talking about the core elites of the nation. They were fervent believers of eugenics and those notions of manifest destiny and superiority. But it became too embarrassing.

[Back then] scholarship was actually quite sloppy by contemporary standards, so they could always use that excuse to say, “We’re shutting you down because the work you’re doing is no longer good enough.” So they closed it down, and they put everything in a barn and left it there for a long time. And the collections themselves were shifted from the barn to different archives across the country. So that’s the only reason they were kept. And in fact, in doing research for this project we were able to identify a whole collection that had been forgotten about up in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were in the garage of the former director of a eugenics lab. So this summer I went up to the garage and we got the files moved to the American Philosophical Society, which is where the main collections are, and we actually rescued some of the file cabinets to put in the exhibit. Archives are tricky. They get disappeared. And generally they’re hiding in plain sight. Most people wouldn’t bother going to look at those archives, but they’re all there.

UDL: Speaking of disappearing historical evidence, how do you, as somebody who has lived in New York City long enough to see it try to erase itself, uncover or interact with the marks that people leave here, especially critically?
JT: That’s a great question. New York City is constantly tearing down and rebuilding, reimagining itself, forgetting things that have happened. But we’re still in the same physical space. That’s sort of the amazing thing about it. And in some ways there’s this stratigraphy of layers of dust and soil that can get at what happened before. But more accurately there’s residue of those experiences in the archives and in the built environment and all around. But I think in the everyday “now,” we tend to not know about that stuff. So what I try to do in the new, Fall 2015 version of my research course, for example, is tell students it’s really a matter of walking around the city, digging around the archives, picking what we call “artifacts” that fascinate them and have them begin to try to trace those fragments, trace those artifacts and contextualize them. The students are asked to analyze artifacts in a way that can help them begin to understand what happened. It’s kind of a recuperative process in many ways. Not to say that we can bring back all that stuff because a lot of the experiences have been disappeared, but there’s a lot that actually can be brought back to life if people come up with the way to approach doing that. And that’s part of what I’m teaching: How do we make those artifacts speak to experiences that have been pretty much disappeared and forgotten about? And to kind of bring them back sufficiently to the point that they become real enough for us to understand today. To understand what was going on through that artifact in terms of social, political, and cultural relationships. Fortunately, there are a lot of books about New York City history, so there’s that. But even more so there are a lot of artifact collections and repositories and things like that, so it’s really a matter of gleaning through the bits and pieces that are out there to kind of reconstruct some of these stories. Nothing’s ever actually totally gone. That’s kind of the amazing thing.
So for example, the fight for the African Burial ground when Dinkins was the mayor. You know, you have an African American mayor trying to stop the bulldozers from continuing to dig up these bones and basically not deal with them. It took a concerted effort, including that of the mayor, to do that. The African Burial Ground is, again, one of those embarrassing things contemporary New York City – liberal, cosmopolitan New York City – wants to forget about. But those bones are still there. And in digging up the earth to construct this new federal building, it came back to life. And people began organizing to say: “No, wait a minute, you have to stop the building.” There’s just a zillion examples like that, and that’s what gives me hope. Because it’s never quite the same scale of power that we have, but we can organize people’s imaginations and people’s sense of right and wrong. It is kind of a crazy David and Goliath situation, but that’s the nature of the game right now.

UDL: What kind of things have you seen students focus on in past iterations of this course?
JT: Students have been great. The imagination and the possibilities are endless. One student who was doing public health focused on this one story – kind of an early story – of a needle that was discovered. How do our needle exchanges develop? How do our “better” health practices develop? How do diseases spread? So the artifact of a needle of a certain time and a certain place was reported on in a newspaper clipping that she found. It was a needle from the 70s or so. That needle was her artifact. But an artifact can also be a political cartoon. In some ways that’s a more obvious thing. Or an anecdote told from a father to a son, the son being a student in the class. And that story begs the question, “Well, where did that happen?” In the Lower East Side at a gay club.

Part of why I want people to pick an artifact that’s meaningful to them is that they may not know why, but ultimately that artifact has a reason. There’s a reason why that artifact catches their imagination. And it usually has something to do with their own subject position, where they come from themselves. So it’s a process of not just researching something that seems to be separate from oneself; it’s also coming to terms with the question: what is it? What is it about that artifact that is so fascinating? What does it say about our own interests? So there’s that kind of dialogic and and inter-performative coming-to-awareness process that can be reflexive. And learning how to understand one’s own subject position in a critical way, to be able to understand something else in a critical way is so important. And I think that comes out of a third wave feminist awareness that says that unless we actually take our own experiences seriously, it’s very hard for us to actually “objectively” understand something else.

UDL: I think that’s a really important takeaway. Thank you for your time, Prof. Tchen.