John Tanton’s Private Papers Expose More Than 20 Years of Hate
Correspondence reveals how racism and eugenics motivate the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform
Ann Arbor, Mich. — The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan is an unassuming place, more like a small-town library than a research institute. But hidden away in 17 cardboard boxes deep inside the simple facility are the papers of John Tanton, the retired Michigan opthamologist who has been the most important figure in the modern American anti-immigration movement for three decades. The papers, which include more than 20 years of letters from the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and a batch of other nativist groups, contain explosive material about Tanton's beliefs. They also show that FAIR, on whose board of directors Tanton still sits, has been well aware of Tanton's views and activities for years.
Tanton has long claimed that he is no racist — that, in fact, he came to his immigration restrictionism through progressive concerns for population control and the environment, not disdain for the foreign born. He characterizes himself as a "fair person," and on his website he condemns the "unsavory characters whose views can easily be characterized as anti-American, anti-Semitic and outright racist."
Fair enough. But what do Tanton's letters have to say?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Although Tanton has been linked to racist ideas in the past — fretting about the "educability" of Latinos, warning of whites being out-bred by others, and publishing a number of white nationalist authors — the papers in the Bentley Library show that Tanton has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era. He introduced key FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist group set up to encourage "race betterment," at a 1997 meeting at a private club. He wrote a major funder to encourage her to read the work of a radical anti-Semitic professor — to "give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life" — and suggested that the entire FAIR board discuss the professor's theories on the Jews. He practically worshipped a principal architect of the Immigration Act of 1924 (instituting a national origin quota system and barring Asian immigration), a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi American Coalition of Patriotic Societies was indicted for sedition in 1942.
As early as 1969, Tanton showed a sharp interest in eugenics, the "science" of breeding a better human race that was utterly discredited by the Nazis, trying to find out if Michigan had laws allowing forced sterilization. His interest stemmed, he wrote in a letter of inquiry that year, from "a local pair of sisters who have nine illegitimate children between them." Some 30 years later, he was still worrying about "less intelligent" people being allowed children, saying that "modern medicine and social programs are eroding the human gene pool."
Throughout, FAIR — which, along with Tanton, refused repeated requests for comment for this story — has stood by its man. Its 2004 annual report praised him for "visionary qualities that have not waned one bit." Around the same time, Dan Stein, who has led FAIR since 1988 as executive director or president and who was copied on scores of Tanton's letters, insisted FAIR's founder had "never asserted the inferiority or superiority of any racial, ethnic, or religious group. Never."
Blood and Soil
In the world view of John Tanton, successful societies are not based on a mere sharing of territory, values and political systems. Nations and their cultures, he has suggested on numerous occasions, are largely determined by biology — race.
In a Nov. 13, 1994, letter to white nationalist columnist Lawrence Auster, a regular correspondent, Tanton suggested that the Declaration of Independence was actually a document based on the "bond of blood and ethnicity — nationhood." Almost a year earlier, in a Dec. 10, 1993, letter to Garrett Hardin, a controversial ecology professor, he said: "I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." On Jan. 26, 1996, he wrote Roy Beck, head of the immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA (and then an employee of Tanton's foundation U.S. Inc.), questioning whether Latinos were capable of governing California.
"I have no doubt that individual minority persons can assimilate to the culture necessary to run an advanced society," Tanton said in his letter to Beck, "but if through mass migration, the culture of the homeland is transplanted from Latin America to California, then my guess is we will see the same degree of success with governmental and social institutions that we have seen in Latin America." Referring to the changing California public schools, Tanton wondered "whether the minorities who are going to inherit California (85% of the lower-grade school children are now 'minorities' — demography is destiny) can run an advanced society?"
For Tanton, the question was entirely rhetorical.
"The situation then is that the people who have been the carriers of Western Civilization are well on the way toward resigning their commission to carry the culture into the future," he wrote in an Aug. 8, 1997, letter to Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, a fellow immigration critic. "When this decline in numbers is coupled with an aging of the core population … it begins to look as if the chances of Western Civilization passing into the history books are very good indeed."
This kind of thinking led Tanton to defend racial quotas imposed on immigrants. In a Nov. 3, 1995, memo to FAIR boss Dan Stein and the entire FAIR board of advisers, Tanton defended the infamous "White Australia" policy that restricted non-white immigration into that country from 1901 to 1973, saying it was not racist, but intended to protect native-born labor (the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act outlawed racial quotas in Australia). Tanton also mocked the idea that the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese immigration to the U.S., was racist.
Similarly, Tanton has defended America's Immigration Act of 1924, which formalized a racial quota system that was only dismantled in 1965. In fact, as shown in his correspondence, Tanton has long lionized a principal architect of the act, John B. Trevor Sr. (In addition to founding the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, Trevor was an adviser to the extreme-right, anti-Catholic Christian Crusade of Billy James Hargis, who regularly referred to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as Communist documents.) Tanton arranged for the Bentley Library to house the papers of both Trevor and his son, long a Pioneer Fund board member and a close friend of Tanton's until his 2006 death.
Despite the elder Trevor's extremely unsavory past, Tanton has sent his unpublished autobiography to numerous friends, including, on Nov. 21, 2001, FAIR board member Donald Collins. In a cover letter, Tanton told Collins that the work of Trevor — who distributed pro-Nazi propaganda, drew up plans to crush uprisings of "Jewish subversives," and warned shrilly of "diabolical Jewish control" of America — should serve FAIR as "a guidepost to what we must follow again this time."
Communing with the Movement
John Tanton has not merely flirted with and adopted many of the core ideas of white nationalism over the past three decades. He has carried on correspondences with some of the key leaders of the white nationalist movement, meeting and even vacationing with some of them, and pushing many of their central ideas.
Over the years, his closest friend on the white nationalist scene seems to have been Jared Taylor, the man who began publishing American Renaissance, a racist, pseudo-scientific magazine focusing on race, intelligence and eugenics, in 1990. ("When blacks are left entirely to their own devices," Taylor wrote in its pages a few years ago, "Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.")
Tanton, who met Taylor shortly after American Renaissance began publication, seems to have been particularly taken with Taylor's angry opposition to affirmative action, spelled out in Taylor's 1992 book, Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America. On Nov. 12, 1993, Tanton wrote Taylor and three of his American Renaissance colleagues — Wayne Lutton, who would later work for Tanton; Sam Francis, a white nationalist ideologue then working as a Washington Times columnist; and Jerry Woodruff, who wrote for the nativist publication Middle American News — suggesting that their new journal take on literary critic Stanley Fish, who had defended affirmative action in an article for The Atlantic. Tanton enclosed "a little something" for Taylor's "start-up costs."
Tanton promoted Taylor's efforts repeatedly. On Dec. 15, 1994, he wrote a friend to suggest that he read Taylor's 1992 book. More remarkably, on Jan. 24, 1991, he wrote to the then-president of the Pioneer Fund, Harry Weyher, about Taylor's American Renaissance effort. And as recently as April 20, 1998, Tanton wrote to several FAIR employees, including Dan Stein, to ensure that they were receiving American Renaissance mailings: "I write to encourage keeping track of those on our same side of the issue, but who are nonetheless our competitors for dollars and members." (The underlining was in Tanton's original letter.)
Tanton also corresponded for years with the late Sam Francis, a one-time Washington Times columnist who was fired after details of a racist speech he gave at an American Renaissance conference became public. From 1999 until his death in 2005, Francis edited the crudely racist and nativist Citizens Informer, the tabloid published by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), an organization that says it "oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind."
What may have been most remarkable of all was Tanton's endorsement of a proposal from another friend — Peter Brimelow, who would later start a racist anti-immigration website — that FAIR hire Sam Francis to edit its newsletter. That proposal, which Tanton sent to FAIR's Dan Stein on Nov. 3, 1995, was made two months after The Washingon Times fired Francis for racism.
Tanton's contacts with other white nationalists also are instructive:
Beginning in the late 1980s, Tanton corresponded regularly with Virginia Abernethy, now a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University. Abernethy is a member of the CCC and recently described herself as a "white separatist."
On June 26, 1996, Tanton wrote to Sam Dickson — a Georgia lawyer who has represented the Ku Klux Klan, written for and been on the editorial advisory board of Holocaust denial publications, and spoken at several of the biannual conferences put on by American Renaissance — to thank him for a good time during a visit by Tanton and his wife. "The next time I'm in Atlanta," Tanton wrote Dickson, "I hope to take one of your 'politically incorrect' tours."
In a Dec. 23, 1996, letter, Tanton complained that it was hard to write checks for Theodore O'Keefe, who was involved for years in the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review, because O'Keefe would only use a pen name. It was not clear from the letter what O'Keefe had written for Tanton.
On June 17, 1998, Tanton wrote to Stan Hess, who was then a member of the CCC, about Hess' proposal to open a FAIR office in California (the letter was copied to Stein). The letter recounted how Tanton had "presented" Hess' idea to the FAIR board. Hess was arrested later that year for burning a Mexican flag at an Alabama CCC rally that was attended by an unrobed Klansman. Hess would go on in 1999 to help form the neofascist American Friends of the British National Party and, later, to become California state leader of a group headed by neo-Nazi and former Klan leader David Duke.
Tanton on 'the Jews'
In some ways, given his ideas, it's not surprising that John Tanton would cozy up to white nationalists and their fellow travelers. What is unexpected, even among long-time observers of the FAIR founder, is his attitude toward "the Jews."
In the late 1990s, Kevin MacDonald, a California State University, Long Beach, professor, was finishing up a trilogy of books that purported to show that Jews collectively work to undermine the dominant majorities in the host countries in which they live, including the United States. MacDonald said that Jews pursue these tactics — including promoting non-white immigration into white-dominated nations — in order to weaken the majority culture in a bid to enhance their own standing. He would later go on to speak and write for white nationalist groups across America.
Tanton liked what he read. On Dec. 28, 1998 — the same year that the last two books of MacDonald's trilogy were published — he wrote MacDonald, saying, "I hope we can meet some day." On that same date, Tanton sent a memo to Dan Stein and the FAIR board of directors about a MacDonald paper "on the segment of the Jewish community that has an open borders mentality." The paper, Tanton said, "would be fertile for group discussion at the forthcoming board meeting."
Earlier that month, on Dec. 10, 1998, Tanton also sent MacDonald's work to Cordelia May Scaife, a now-deceased millionaire philanthropist who gave regularly to far-right causes and was a close Tanton friend. "I'm sure [MacDonald's article] will give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life, which explains a large part of the Jewish opposition to immigration reform," he wrote.
Tanton's criticism of religious groups wasn't limited to Jews, however. Over the years, he — like some principals of FAIR — lashed out at a variety of religious denominations, especially Catholics, for their welcoming attitude toward immigrants coming to America from the Third World. In his letter to the FAIR board suggesting a discussion of Kevin MacDonald's theories, for instance, he described "the Roman Catholic Church [and] several of the Protestant denominations, the Lutheran Church in particular," as being among "our opponents." In an earlier, May 24, 1994, letter to Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, he said that "one of the problems with churches is that they see themselves as universal, and as transcending national boundaries."
For years, FAIR President Dan Stein has hotly denied that his organization had anything to do with eugenics. "Eugenics," he wrote in a 2004 op-ed in the Kansas City Star, "is pure junk science, and it is utterly unrelated to FAIR's efforts to bring order to immigration in America." Two months later, in a press release attacking the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for suggesting otherwise, the group called SPLC's reporting "utterly specious" and "McCarthyist."
The press release went on to accuse the SPLC of unfairly linking FAIR to "a long discredited pseudo-science of eugenics" by noting the group had accepted $1.2 million from the eugenicist Pioneer Fund, ending in 1994. The release also claimed that the idea that FAIR had an interest in eugenics had been disproven. Apparently, John Tanton failed to get that message.
On Dec. 30, 1994 — at the end of the year that FAIR finally stopped soliciting Pioneer donations (after negative publicity) and issued its denunciation of eugenics — Tanton wrote to German academic Wolfgang Bosswick to defend the Pioneer Fund, saying its critics were the "hard (Marxist) left in the United States."
On Sept. 18, 1996, he wrote to now-deceased California multimillionaire Robert K. Graham, a eugenicist who started a sperm bank to collect the semen of Nobel Prize-winning scientists: "Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids? And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less? Who is going to break the bad news [to less intelligent individuals], and how will it be implemented?"
On May 21, 1997, Tanton wrote to Richard Lynn — a race "scientist" who claims that black people "are more psychopathic than whites" and suffer from a "personality disorder" characterized by a poverty of feeling and lack of shame — to congratulate Lynn on his book, Dysgenics, on how less intelligent individuals are outbreeding the intelligent. The next year, on Feb. 9, 1998, he wrote to Pioneer Fund President Harry Weyher to propose that Weyher hire Lynn to write "a study of Barry Mehler." Mehler, the Ferris State University professor who founded the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, is a harsh critic of race science and eugenics.
FAIR officials may not have known of these contacts, but they certainly knew of others. On Oct. 29, 1998, for instance, Tanton wrote a memo for his file on Harry Weyher discussing the Pioneer Fund's new website and a paper on "sub-replacement fertility" by Roger Pearson, a notorious race scientist who heads the Institute for the Study of Man. The memo was copied to FAIR's Dan Stein and K.C. McAlpin, the executive director of ProEnglish, a group on whose board Tanton now sits.
Most remarkable of all, however, was the Feb. 13, 1997, gathering organized by Tanton at the New York Racquet and Tennis Club. Three years after FAIR had stopped taking Pioneer Fund money, Tanton brought FAIR board members Henry Buhl, Sharon Barnes and Alan Weeden — along with Peter Brimelow, future founder of the VDARE.com hate site — to a meeting with Pioneer Fund President Harry Weyher. The meeting, held expressly to discuss fundraising efforts to benefit FAIR, was memorialized in a Feb. 17, 1997, memo that Tanton wrote for his "FAIR Fund-Raising File." A year later, on Jan. 5, 1998, Tanton wrote to John Trevor, a Pioneer Fund board member and the son of the notorious pro-Nazi eugenicist John Trevor Sr., to thank him for his personal "handsome contribution" to FAIR.
It's not that Tanton didn't understand, just as well as Stein and the other leaders of FAIR, exactly how controversial eugenics was. After starting his own eugenicist group, the Society for Genetic Education in 1996, he wrote to Graham, the California eugenicist, to discuss public relations strategies. In a Sept. 18, 1996, letter, Tanton explained how his new group's website "emphasized mankind's use of eugenic principles on plants and the lower animals as a way to condition the public to the idea of genetic manipulation, and raise the question of its application to the human race." Elaborating, he added: "We report ways [eugenics] is currently being done, but under the term genetics rather than eugenics."
Immigration and Race
Throughout its history, the United States has been subjected to periodic outbreaks of xenophobic nativism, angry reactions to waves of immigrants who are seen as somehow different than "real" Americans. These movements, directed at different times at Germans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, southern Europeans, blacks and others, have typically been undergirded by racist stereotyping. Again and again, the new immigrants are described as stupid, ugly, disloyal, diseased and more.
Today, no one disputes the vulgar racism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, which grew to nearly 4 million members on the strength of hating Catholics and Jews. And much the same can be said of nativist movements from the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, who saw German Catholics as dangerous subverters of American democracy, to the racist demonization of Mexican "w-------" during the 20th century.
But John Tanton and his Federation for American Immigration Reform have repeatedly claimed that they are different, that FAIR and its founder are not linked to the irrational fears and hatreds of the past. Their critics, they say angrily, are simply tarring them with the brush of racism to unfairly denigrate their arguments.
As the Bentley Library files show, that is far from true.