Nativism and the SAT
July 21, 2007, 04:53 PM
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George Borjas, who was kind enough to link to us recently on one of Ed Rubenstein's technical articles , has an interesting note on his blog about this practice test question from the SAT website, American History section:

Which of the following statements best represents a nativist attitude toward the influx of immigrants around 1900? (A) Slavs and Italians will be assimilated as easily into the American way of life as were earlier immigrant groups. (B) Ellis Island should be enlarged to accommodate the huge influx of immigrants. (C) Immigrants will work for low wages and break strikes, thereby hurting all American workers. (D) Native-born Americans should organize to help find jobs and homes for new immigrants so that they can become citizens as quickly as possible. (E) Political machines in the large cities should be responsible for providing immigrants with food, shelter, and jobs in return for their votes.

For the record, the expected answer is C.

Borjas asks this:

Admittedly, these are all pretty extreme, strawman-type claims. Nevertheless, it's interesting to work through the logic in (C):

It is conceptually possible that immigrants will work for lower wages than native-born workers—and there's probably nothing judgmental or "nativist" in saying that. It is, after all, a positive economic question. It is also possible for those low-wage immigrants to have been instrumental in helping to break strikes in the pre-New Deal days. Again, a positive economic question that is, in principle, answerable with data. Surely those events would then hurt some American workers—and "some" could be a pretty large number. In fact, Claudia Goldin's work suggests that workers in the cities most affected by immigration were paid lower wages. Would it then be correct to accuse someone of having a nativist attitude if all they were doing was pointing out some of the possible wage effects of immigration?

What's a poor college-bound nervous SAT test-taker to do? Why isn't there a better choice (F)?

Or, he might wonder, could it be that the SAT is looking for the right ideological answer?....Nah. Those enlightened liberal academics that (over)populate our universities' history departments and write up the SAT questions would never stoop to something like that.

I was able to find the "correct" answer on their website.

Correct Answer: C

Explanation: Nativism in the United States, consisting of anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of foreign influence, was a major presence in politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, a nativist attitude would be one that reflects a bias against new immigrants. This points most clearly to the anti-immigrant attitude in answer choice C, which describes immigrants as a threat to American workers—an accurate description of an attitude held by many nativists around 1900.

My own answer (F) would be that "Nativism" is a name for a perfectly rational response towards mass immigration. (See my 2001 Return Of The Nativist for a discussion of the nineteenth century movement.) So not only is C the correct answer, but the nativists were right at the time, although it took many years for the Federal Government to pass immigration restriction. I would add that in modern terms, nativism is simply another name for patriotism.