(L) Better Babies Contest, Washington DC, 1931, (R) Popular Science Magazine

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Photo by (L) Better Babies Contest, Washington DC, 1931, (R) Popular Science Magazine

Our Nation’s Love Affair With Eugenics Is Far From Over


The GOP is making white supremacists’ dreams come true with their eugenicist-friendly legislation. But the century-old invention that inspired Hitler's Final Solution is as American as apple pie.




In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act barring “dysgenic” Italians and Eastern European Jews from America. Too many “others” were a danger to the WASP gene pool, its government apparatus, and the well-established patriarchy. Upon signing the bill, President Calvin Coolidge said, “America must remain America”—the “Make America Great Again” of the 1920s. Congressional testimony from leading American eugenicists added just the right amount of fear mongering and gave the veneer of “science” to make the act a roaring success.

It’s easy for Americans to forget that this nation has a disturbingly long history of eugenics that, through legislation and the “culture wars,” never really went away. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island was the birthplace of the American Eugenics movement. Today, the lab remains, providing education and conducting genetic research in such things as cancer, neuroscience, and plant biology. Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist of his day, founded The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at the lab in 1910 “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.” He brought onboard Harry Laughlin, son of an Iowa preacher, as ERO’s first director (Laughlin eventually became a regular “scientist” testifying before Congress to pass eugenic anti-immigration laws).  Davenport dispatched ERO field staff to collect data from families to determine fitness, literally, to breed, whether to be housed in a state home for the insane or sterilized. At the time, eugenics had a number of high-profile proponents, including President Teddy Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Planned Parenthood founder and birth control crusader Margaret Sanger.

Coerced or forced sterilization of inmates still happens (California didn’t ban the practice until 2014) and anti-abortion laws, so-called consciousness clauses, and contraception restrictions—which aim to control not only reproductive choices but also the health of certain groups of women and children—are eugenic in nature. Mass incarceration—leading to a generation of disappeared black men—reinforces the fear necessary to push for a new war on drugs, a “war” that specifically targets Black and Latinx people. 

Pro White Life

Ensuring childbirth is a cornerstone to modern American eugenics, because eugenics is as much about building up the desired race as it is about tearing the “other” down. In addition to concern over immigration and interracial breeding, eugenicists in the early 1900s were worried about the poor and working-class breeding inferior stock that would ultimately bring down the “superior” white race. It was of paramount importance that the “right” types of white people have as many babies as possible.

It’s this undercurrent that has driven anti-abortion activists to forever link Planned Parenthood with abortion, although the organization provides the only medical care some people will ever get.  Legislative efforts to defund PP serve two purposes: to deny access to safe, legal abortion and to ensure that countless men and women go without contraception, cancer screenings, and STD testing.

Anti-choice activists are not always just concerned with preserving the white race. Alveda King, the niece of Reverend Martin Luther King, has voiced concerns over the preservation of the black race, claiming that abortion is Black genocide. King gets away with lies claiming disproportionately high numbers of abortions among Black women, and that the majority of clinics are in Black neighborhoods [they aren’t], and by pointing to Sanger’s unfortunate relationship with early eugenicists.  But her uncle and his wife, Coretta Scott King, have been among many who have debunked these myths, including the oft-repeated claim that eugenics and racism were the drivers of Sanger’s lifelong crusade to help women deal with unwanted pregnancy. When Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded Planned Parenthood’s Sanger award in 1966, his wife made a point of saying, “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life… Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.”

Ginned-up fears over racial genocide and gendercide have, ironically, often been used to promote actual eugenicist and anti-woman goals. Witness the “Pre-Natal Non-Discrimination Act” (PRENDA), introduced in 2011, and reintroduced in 2017, which seeks to outlaw a problem that doesn’t exist in the United States: gendercide. The practice of gendercide is well documented in India and China, where boy babies are regarded as more valuable human beings than girls, who are deemed unwanted. In the U.S., PRENDA has one aim: to outlaw abortion. Believers in so-called “demographic winter” fear the true apocalypse won’t come from a nuclear blast but when so-called Western Civilization—white Christian people—stops reproducing. By using the mythical fear of gendercide to outlaw abortion, they hope to ensure the birth of more white babies while simultaneously ensuring that mothers and babies of color will suffer.

For all the anti-choice movement’s birth fetishizing, maternal mortality rates have skyrocketed as access to abortion has become increasingly limited. In a year-long investigation, ProPublica and NPR discovered that the United States has the worst maternal mortality rates of any developed country. Maternal mortality rates are rising in the United States as they decline everywhere else: It’s at 26.4 per 100,000 live births now; the next highest mortality rate in a developed country is in the U.K., at 9.2 per 100,000 live births.

While the maternal mortality rate cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women and rural women die at an alarming rate of 29.4 per 100,000 live births. With the South almost uniformly denying Medicaid expansion, the rates for black and rural women are likely to increase. 

Effectively outlawing abortion, killing Medicaid and positing “gendercide” and black genocide as non-existent bogeymen work in tandem to achieve eugenicist goals: “undesirable” women will die and pregnancies, especially among desirable (white) women, will increase.

The earliest targets of American eugenicists were the mentally and physically disabled—and mostly women.  The ERO targeted “feebleminded” a catch-all term for criminals, the “deformed” and disabled, loose women, and citizens who lived off the government instead of just getting a job.  For example, in 1927, the Supreme Court ruled it was okay to sterilize a young woman named Carrie Buck under the authority of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Buck was reportedly “feebleminded” and, worse, “promiscuous.” She was 17 and pregnant out of wedlock.

The judgment was predicated on false information, not only about Carrie’s mental health but, importantly, how Carrie became pregnant: She was raped.  The assailant was her foster family’s son, a family of good moral standing, therefore, the boy had to be protected. Laughlin of Cold Harbor Springs Lab provided key testimony to support sterilization laws. Adolf Hitler closely modeled his Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring on Laughlin’s “Model Law,” which Laughlin considered an honor. At the Nuremberg trials, Nazi doctors specifically cited Buck v. Bell as part of their defense. Laughlin became the best lobbyist a eugenics fan could buy—he testified before Congress, gave talks around the country, and supported legislation that restricted the rights of the genetically unfit.

The eugenicist underpinnings of the “War on Drugs”

In her stunning work, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander draws a direct line from the country’s so-called “founding” by Europeans, extermination of Native Americans, the elevation of poor whites from indentured servitude (originally considered the same as Black indentured servants) to “White” in order establish a skin-color based caste system enabling full on enslavement of black Africans. Alexander writes:

Extreme marginalization, as we have seen throughout world history, poses the risk of extermination.  Tragedies such as the Holocaust in Germany or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia are traceable to the extreme marginalization and stigmatization of racial and ethnic group.  As legal scholar john a. powell once commented, only half in jest, “It’s actually better to be exploited than marginalized, in some respects, because if you’re exploited presumably you’re still needed.”

In this context, writes Alexander, the “frantic accusations of genocide by poor blacks in the early years of the War on Drugs seems less paranoid.”  The creation of a drug war was necessary not only to continue locking up people of color—black men in particular—but to produce the sort of sustained societal fear required for the white-male-power construct to endure. If drugs didn’t kill Black people, mass incarceration would disappear them. And, of course, voter disenfranchisement as a result of incarceration is useful to elected officials as well. 

By design, prisoners can’t vote—in all but two states—during incarceration. Thirty-eight states allow, with certain caveats, former felons to vote after completion of their prison term and probation or parole, and nine states require a pardon from the governor to vote. Cash bail keeps the poor in jail, guilty or innocent, often for months before they’re even charged. This flawed system can prompt a defendant’s false confession in order to get out of jail, and African American men aged 19 to 29 are typically set a higher bail. Women—white, brown, and black—are more likely to live in poverty, making them more likely to either sit in jail unable to bond out, or fall victim to the vicious cycle of a bondsman’s loan. Families either can’t pay or give up everything to make bail for a loved one. Defendants yet to be tried let alone convicted sit in cells and lose jobs, miss school and can’t take care of dependents. 

The Trump administration is working to further disenfranchise people it doesn’t want voting. Earlier this year, in response to Trump’s patently false voter-fraud claims, The Trump White House posted a link to a slideshow titled “Presentation to Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.” The very first slide reads:

How to check if the right people are voting:

• Republicans worry about voting by ineligible people.

• Democrats say that Republicans are just imagining things.

The proposal? Tie voting to background checks on gun purchases. One slide states that if the cost of voting goes up (purchase IDs, run background checks), voter participation rates may go down which “may not be bad.”  The organization that crafted this presentation is called Crime Prevention Research Center, a non-profit organization with Ted Nugent as its Director/Secretary and disgraced Sheriff David Clarke on the board of directors.   

Health-care policy as a eugenic tool

Health-care policies and research funding have also tended toward a eugenicist bent in this country. During the 1980s, for example, Ronald Reagan pulled funding from mental health care and ignored the AIDS epidemic–there was no funding allocated to research, no efforts on the part of the federal government to understand the disease and no word from the White House. Had AIDS befallen any other cohort than that of gay men perhaps countless lives would have been saved, the disease course may have been altered and we could be looking at a different epidemic. Meanwhile, pulling mental health care support once again put the “feebleminded” in the crosshairs of government officials with an interest in removing certain types of people from society.   

Much has been written about the beginning of the AIDS crisis and what went wrong. The answer is simple: AIDS was God’s punishment targeting the immoral sinner, the gay man. The Reagan Administration not deploying the Department of Health and Human Services (including the CDC, NIH, and DOD research laboratories) and letting countless die because of sexual orientation may be the best illustration of the word “eugenics” in our recent US History. 

Currently proposed healthcare policies, which pull funding for women’s healthcare, mental healthcare, and many of the health services low-income Americans rely on look a lot like eugenicist policy, too. 

Meanwhile, laws targeting the voting rights of minority communities are continuing to be introduced around the country.  Other laws – like so-called  “all lives splatter” laws protecting drivers who run into crowds of protesters will targeting protestors (especially BLM)—will make the rounds through statehouses (at least 20 states have already floated this idea), even in the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder. Laws further curtailing abortion rights are never-ending. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing everything he can to reignite the war on drugs and keep private prisons going.

Trump has introduced a new, broader travel ban and continues to show his (and his supporters’ in and outside the government) white-supremacist ethos as white, predominantly male politicians mostly stand idly by. On Saturday, October 7, the same group that incited Heather Heyer’s murder returned to Charlottesville bearing tiki torches. Trump, and every single GOP leader who didn’t speak out against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, is complicit in subsequent acts of terror carried out by these groups. Claiming there are good people in the white-supremacist movement while blaming anti-racism protesters earned Trump kudos from racist leaders like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

Last Thursday, Richard Spencer, the Neo-Nazi leader behind the so-called alt-right, gave a speech at the University of Florida, in Gainsville to continue his campaign for a white ethno-state—but most of the 2,500 attendees were peaceful anti-racist protesters, overwhelming him, so he ended his talk early. But that won’t stop him—Spencer and his group of entitled white male followers are suing Ohio State University because the institution refuses to let him and his eugenicist followers rally on campus. Spencer has threatened that they will be back again and again. 

Driven by white-male fear of being replaced by “the other,” Trump emerged a victor because our nation has never confronted our history. The stars and bars are to them symbolic of heritage rather than hatred and slavery. Good people apparently populate the Neo-Nazi movement, to his mind, and as a result have been not only given permission but are fully emboldened to come out into the light of day. Only bad people resist. Trump’s son, Don Jr., attempts to smear Rep. Frederica Wilson by making fun of her hats but mistakenly calls her Maxine Watters [sic]—to him, all Black women are one and the same. Gold Star families of color like the Khans and now, the Johnsons, are treated like enemies by the commander-in-chief, not thanked for their sacrifice and their son’s and husband’s service. U.S. territory Puerto Rico, which still has no clean water or electricity, is left to drown, the people there struggling to live another day—San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz put it best when she described what we’re witnessing as “something close to a genocide.”  

The notion that ethnic cleansing—think Bosnia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Hitler’s Final Solution—could never happen here has to be discarded. The constant flow of racist, misogynist, bigoted lies from the administration, its surrogates (e.g., Fox, Breitbart), and the party and its supporters—and any Democrat willing to make deals with Trump—must be fought with facts, not in the Twitterverse but on the streets and at the polls, or this vicious, deadly cycle will continue. Silence is compliance; it is on us.

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