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, where Tanton still serves as a member of the board, 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.”
Read more here: Southern Poverty Law Center