The founder of a leading immigration-restriction group says he's no racist. But his close ties to a key nativist raise questions.
Congressman Chris Cannon of Utah was bearing down. He'd questioned Roy Beck, head of the immigration-restriction group NumbersUSA, three years earlier, and he hadn't felt that he got straight answers then. Now, in the March 24, 2004, hearing before the immigration subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Cannon was trying once again to pin down Beck's relationship to John Tanton, the racist founder of many of the nation's key nativist groups.
"But you have had a long and intimate relationship with Dr. Tanton, [his organization] U.S. Inc., and the other allied groups…?" Cannon asked.
"Well, I think I would like the definition of intimacy," Beck replied, allowing only that he had known Tanton "as a reporter" in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cannon: "But … this is rather a close personal relationship where you guys share ideas and you perform functions that he thinks are important?"
Beck: "No, that would suggest that he would be my supervisor."
In the following minutes, a bizarre, parrying exchange between the two men unfolded, as Beck sought to convince Cannon that NumbersUSA had always been "programmatically autonomous," despite being an official program of Tanton's U.S. Inc. for five years. As Beck talked, Cannon grew obviously frustrated.
"You had lunch with John Tanton, I'm sure, did you not at some point?" Cannon asked Beck. (A few minutes later, the Republican explained that he was "talking about ideology and communicating ideological ideas" with Tanton.)
"No," Beck replied. "I think I've had dinner a couple of times."
Heidi Beirich discusses the ties many of the country's leading anti-immigration groups have to FAIR founder John Tanton.
Roy Beck was, to be kind, understating the relationship. The truth is that Beck was an employee, as Tanton has often written, of Tanton's U.S. Inc. for 10 years. He was one of the editors for Tanton's immigrant-bashing publication, The Social Contract, and helped edit a book by Tanton and another U.S. Inc. employee, white supremacist Wayne Lutton. He and his wife vacationed with Tanton, a man who calls the Becks "dear friends," and he once developed a program with Tanton that targeted Republicans for recruitment to the nativist cause. At one point, in fact, Tanton named Beck his "heir apparent," with Beck's consent. As recently as last year, Beck was an invited speaker at Tanton's Social Contract conference.
Clearly, the two men had "shared ideas," and often.
Why is Roy Beck downplaying his relationship to John Tanton, a man who was Beck's mentor and friend for decades? What, if anything, is he trying to hide?
Beck leads an organization that has reached the heights of mainstream legitimacy, a position that helped NumbersUSA achieve dramatic policy successes, most especially in June 2007, when his followers flooded the Senate with more than a million faxes. (The onslaught helped doom comprehensive immigration reform that had bipartisan support and had been expected by many observers to pass.) He has long insisted that NumbersUSA has no "vision of a homogenous white America," and his website decries all manner of "immigrant bashing" and racism.
But John Tanton has come to be an embarrassment. His longstanding connections to white nationalist ideologues, his flirtation with anti-Semitism, and his many racist statements about Latinos have become well known — and are a huge liability for Beck and his restrictionist program. Pressed, Beck claims he is not ashamed of his mentor. But Tanton's name is nowhere on his website. John Tanton, it seems, is undermining Roy Beck's respectability.
"It is amazing that Beck has attained the mainstream status he has, considering where he comes from," concludes Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "His extremely close and decades-long relationship with Tanton should give pause to anyone who deals with NumbersUSA."
In a long letter to the Intelligence Report and in other communications, Beck consistently emphasized his opposition to any kind of racism in the immigration debate. "We do not believe that immigration policy should be used to determine any particular racial makeup of this country," he wrote. As he does on his website, Beck cited concerns about the environment and poorer Americans as his main motivation for seeking lower immigration levels. He also wrote that he and his wife, Shirley, "have spent our entire adult lives" battling racial intolerance and ignorance.
Beck said that the couple had deliberately bought houses in integrated neighborhoods in Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia, even volunteering their sons for a court-ordered busing program in Dallas. He said his family had welcomed all kinds of minorities and immigrants, included undocumented ones, to their home, and he added that he had "led the forced integration of a segregated private club."
"I and NumbersUSA have suffered the slings and arrows of racist restrictionists who decry our special concerns for minority Americans and by racist immigrationists who believe foreign workers are needed because non-employed Black Americans are too inferior to hire," he said in his letter to the Report.
What Beck did not do is actually renounce Tanton. Instead, Beck said that he did not "choose to agree or disagree" with "snippets of quotes" from Tanton. In a later letter, he said, "To the extent that any of John's actions may have provided any support to white supremacists, I would say those were harmful actions."
Over the years, more and more information has emerged about the racial attitudes of John Tanton, who, like Beck, initially came to the immigration debate through concerns about overpopulation and the environment. As long ago as 1988, a set of his internal memoranda to the staffs of two groups he founded — the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and U.S. English — were leaked and showed Tanton warning of a coming "Latin onslaught," questioning whether Latinos were as "educable" as others, and worrying that Latinos were outbreeding whites. A decade later, he told a reporter that whites would soon develop a racial consciousness, and the result would be "the war of all against all." He hired and worked alongside Wayne Lutton, who has held leadership positions in four white supremacist hate groups. He published and endorsed a racist book on immigration, and he published numerous white supremacists. Tanton compared immigrants to bacteria that will continue growing until the population crashes, and sneered at immigrants' "defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs."
But that wasn't all. Late last year, the Report revealed that over the course of some 20 years Tanton had corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers, and leading white nationalist thinkers. He introduced leaders of FAIR, on whose board he still sits today, to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a racist outfit set up to encourage "race betterment," at a private club. He promoted the work of an infamous anti-Semitic professor, Kevin MacDonald, to both FAIR officials and a major donor. At one point, pursuing his interest in eugenics, the utterly discredited "science" of breeding a better human race, he tried to find out if Michigan had laws allowing forced sterilization. His concern, Tanton wrote in a letter of inquiry, was "a local pair of sisters who have nine illegitimate children between them."
These and other revelations came from an examination of Tanton's correspondence, which is housed at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in Tanton's home state. The same library contains Tanton's correspondence with Beck, letters that illuminate their close relationship.
The Star Employee
Roy Beck was a print journalist for three decades, most notably as chief Washington correspondent for Booth Newspapers, a chain of small papers in Michigan. He first met Tanton in the 1970s, when he was an environmental reporter for the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press and knew him, as he told Congressman Cannon in 2001, as "one of the premiere environmental activists in Michigan."
The two developed an affinity early on. In 1988, when Tanton's embarrassing memos to the staff at FAIR and U.S. English were leaked, Beck apparently wrote in a way that pleased his news source. "It was nice to have something evenhanded and understanding after all the contrasting treatment I've received," Tanton wrote Beck that year. Although Tanton resigned from U.S. English after prominent backers including Walter Cronkite and conservative GOP columnist Linda Chavez quit over his memos, Tanton told Beck "the damage is pretty well under control now."
In 1991, a year after Beck says he left journalism to concentrate on writing about immigration, Tanton approached Beck about a job with his foundation, U.S. Inc. In 1992, Beck signed on as Washington editor of Tanton's journal, The Social Contract, which in coming years would publish a roster of white nationalists and their fellow travelers. In his letter, Beck said Tanton offered him the job as "a way to earn some income." But that apparently contradicts what Beck told Cannon in 2001, when he testified that he had been "an unpaid, part-time correspondent."
Tanton liked his new editor. In a 1993 letter, he described Beck as one of three men who made up "the core of The Social Contract 'team'." The others were Robert Kyser and Wayne Lutton, who has belonged to and written for an array of white supremacist groups. By 1997, Tanton was describing Beck in a memo to his personnel file as "a very good and productive worker." In several quarterly reports for U.S. Inc., Tanton referred to Beck's work as "The Beck Projects," noting in 1997 that those projects had "grown to be a sizeable part of our operations."
But Beck makes it sound like he wasn't really a part of U.S. Inc., even though The Social Contract is legally one of its projects. (For instance, he told Cannon in 2004 that although the NumbersUSA project had been under U.S. Inc. until 2002, he personally controlled its bank account during that period. Later, he conceded he "did not have personal access to that bank account." Beck also told Cannon that "you're ascribing a management pattern that just didn't exist," although Tanton referred to Beck repeatedly as an "employee.") In his letter to the Report, Beck said that he was only active with the journal until 1994, when he began work on several books, even though his name stayed on the masthead until 2002. He said he spent most of 1996 on a book tour, that he then worked briefly on a U.S. Inc. project created for him by Tanton, and then, the same year, started on another project, NumbersUSA.
Beck portrayed NumbersUSA as his own group, started up with his own money but incorporated as a program under Tanton's U.S. Inc. as a convenience — a way to get financial and legal services from the parent body in return for a small fee. He said that he raised all the money for NumbersUSA and set all its policies. He said similar things to Cannon, calling his group "programmatically autonomous."
But that's not the way Tanton described the relationship. Until 2002, when Beck reorganized his group as a freestanding entity, Tanton repeatedly referred to him as an employee, subject to U.S. Inc.'s personnel policies. (In his testimony, Beck finally told Cannon that his paychecks came from U.S. Inc.) Tanton described Beck as guest-editing entire editions of The Social Contract, and, in 1993, helping to edit The Immigration Invasion, a book by Lutton and Tanton so raw in its immigrant bashing that Canadian border authorities have banned it as hate literature.
Tanton's trust in Beck reached new heights in 1997, when he focused on him as a potential heir at U.S. Inc., writing that "there is no other contender." He wrote Beck asking him to sign on as his "heir apparent" in the case of his death and, on Jan. 6, 1998, to thank him vociferously for agreeing to do so. Although Beck today says he was "honored" by Tanton's request, you'd never know that from reading his website, which makes no mention whatsoever of Tanton and describes Beck simply as "a journalist for three decades before founding NumbersUSA."
Palling Around With Racists?
In the 1980s, a notorious eugenicist outfit known as the Pioneer Fund — a foundation focused on race, intelligence and genetics and described by the London Sunday Telegraph as a "neo-Nazi organization closely integrated with the far right in American politics" — began to get some very bad publicity. When it was reported in 1988 that FAIR had received substantial Pioneer funding, Tanton claimed he had no idea what the fund's background was. But FAIR continued to take its cash.
That finally ended six years later, during the debate over California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187, when Pioneer grants were linked to ads bought by FAIR. By then, FAIR had received a total of $1.2 million from Pioneer (since 1985).
It was three years after that very public, 1994 debacle that Tanton and his wife vacationed with the Becks in Florida. The Tantons took the Becks to dine with John Trevor Jr., the son of a key architect of the 1924 Immigration Act that formalized a racial quota system that would only be dismantled in 1965. The younger Trevor was something else as well — a board member for several decades at the Pioneer Fund.
In his letter to the Report, Beck said he had "almost forgotten" about the 1997 Trevor dinner and wasn't sure if he knew then about Trevor's Pioneer post or even what the fund was. He described the Trevors as "a very warm, erudite and genteel older couple" and said he was "sure nothing of a racial nature" came up.
It's hard to believe that Beck knew nothing at the time of the Pioneer Fund, given that his mentor had been in such public hot water over it — and that FAIR's acceptance of Pioneer money became public in the same year that Beck wrote his story about Tanton's controversial FAIR memos. That, and the fact that Tanton had written Beck a year before the Florida visit to tell him that Trevor "serves on the board of the Pioneer Fund and his father was a key person" in 1924.
Another thing Beck said he only "vaguely remember[ed]" was Tanton's 1996 effort to create his own eugenics organization, the Society for Genetic Education (SAGE). In any event, Beck said, he has never had any interest in eugenics.
That same year, while on a tour promoting a book on immigration, Beck addressed a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group that has spread racist propaganda since 1985. His lecture came just six months after his fellow editor, Lutton, spoke to the same group. In his letter, Beck suggested that his talk had been set up by a publicist for his book, said he "had no idea who the group was," and added that he didn't recall "hearing anything racist being said by any of the speakers." He did see "overt racism" reflected in the exhibits in the halls of the meeting but decided to stay and was given "a respectful hearing."
John Tanton frequently wrote Beck or copied him on letters sent to others — and the letters sometimes expressed ugly ideas. In 1996, he wrote Beck wondering "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?" "I have no doubt that individual minority persons can assimilate to the culture necessary to run an advanced society," Tanton wrote his friend, "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." (He also said that "there is scarcely any group more chauvinistic than the Orientals.")
Also in 1996, Tanton wrote Beck's wife with a peculiar request having to do with religion (the Becks are devout Methodists). "It occurs to me that the 'Book of Joshua' is a different version of welcoming strangers — after the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, the invading Jews killed everybody, man, woman, and child," he wrote. He then asked, as a "bit of Biblical research," about the Book of Ezra and its "strong prohibitions against intermarriage." Tanton said that Jewish men were "called to task, after which they 'put away' their foreign wives and children they had borne." Tanton had a specific question: What did "putting away" mean?
Tanton had a history of consulting Roy Beck about religion. In 1995, he asked Beck to "monitor" the Protestant press on immigration issues. In 1993, he suggested that Beck write a "Challenge to Religious Leaders" on immigration. In 1992, he criticized the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to Beck, saying it "need[s] to have a supply of refugees to keep their jobs going." (He also asked if members of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a pro-migrant organization, were "Marxists.") And he decried the Catholic Church's ability to bring in priests from other countries, telling Beck that it was "a clear breach of the wall of separation of church and state."
In 1998, two years after putting NumbersUSA under the rubric of U.S. Inc., Beck was still listed as Washington editor of Tanton's Social Contract when the journal put out what may have been its most lurid edition ever, "Europhobia: The Hostility to European-Descended Americans." The lead article came from John Vinson, head of the hate group American Immigration Control Foundation, who argued that "successful Euro-American culture" was being replaced with what he called "dysfunctional Third World cultures." Tanton chimed in, decrying the "hatred and fear" of whites that he blamed on "multiculturalists" and immigrants.
Tanton's correspondence shows that he and Beck regularly came up with program ideas together, with Tanton usually being the one to pitch them to U.S. Inc. donors. One of the ideas that was most developed by the pair was what they called "Recruiting Republicans," a project Tanton described in 2001 as "an idea that can actually move the battle lines … in our favor." Tanton plugged the idea hard with major U.S. Inc. donors. "The goal is to educate these members about the political consequences of high-level immigration, to recruit at least some legislators to the immigration caucus in the House and to get them to act and vote accordingly," he wrote to the late Cordelia Scaife May's foundation. (Indeed, the hard-line House Immigration Reform Caucus, which had just 10 members before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has grown to 112 members today, almost all of them Republicans.)
Tanton wrote another 2001 letter to Fred Stanback, a major funder of Beck's U.S. Inc. work. "The goal is to change Republicans' perception of immigration so that when they encounter the word 'immigrant,' their reaction is 'Democrat.'"
The ties that bind the two men, even if considerably less public since Beck separated NumbersUSA from U.S. Inc, remain tight. In 2006, Tanton's U.S. Inc. gave NumbersUSA a $20,000 grant. Just last year, both Beck and his employee, Rosemary Jenks, spoke at a conference of Tanton's Social Contract Press. And Beck currently works out of offices that he shares with another Tanton organization, ProEnglish.
Repudiating John Tanton
Roy Beck says that he is no racist, that he opposes racist ideology with every fiber of his being — and his website and other writings do not contradict that. But when he is confronted with facts that seem to call that into question — in particular, his long and intimate relationship with John Tanton, and what looks a lot like his seeking to obscure that fact — Beck has declined to take an explicit position.
Barack Obama faced a similar problem when explosive comments by his pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, were publicized and then went viral on YouTube, where they drew 1.2 million views in the first 24 hours. The comments, as is now well known, bitterly attacked the United States as a racist nation. To many, they sounded like a racist condemnation of all whites and the entire government.
To stay in the presidential race and remain viable, Obama had to react publicly, and he did. He said he "vehemently disagree[d with] and strongly condemn[ed]" the "inflammatory and appalling" remarks made by Wright. He gave a major speech where he said that Wright's "incendiary language" had "rightly offend[ed] white and black alike." He said the remarks "expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country." After Wright continued to speak out, Obama said he was "outraged" and "saddened" and quit the Rev. Wright's church for good.
Perhaps it's time for Roy Beck to take a hint from our new president.