Monday, March 08, 2010

The Tragic Eugenics Legacy in America

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below is a passage on the influence of eugenics on American thought in the years leading up to World War II.

Before the war, American college professors and bestselling authors embraced the idea of white supremacy. Madison Grant, who received a law degree from Columbia University, authored "The Passing of the Great Race: or The Racial Basis of European History" (1916), and Lothrop Stoddard, who received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, wrote "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-supremacy " (1920). Both became best sellers. These books claimed that African Americans possessed less intelligence and a greater tendency toward crime than Americans of European descent. Allowing African Americans any degree of political power, Grant and Stoddard argued, would destroy the American political system. Blacks, however, did not represent the only demographic category threatening the future of the country.

Grant, Stoddard and other scholars in the fields of anthropology, biology and history argued that Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe represented racially inferior groups that, because of their supposed lower intelligence and lack of moral character, could never become productive citizens. Grant became the leading voice of the eugenics movement, which held that genetic heredity, rather than environment, determined not only a person's physical characteristics, but also intelligence and moral outlook. American and British eugenicists also divided Europeans into several “races,” of which so-called Nordics from Northern and Western Europe were rated the best and most valuable. Only Europeans could be defined as fully human. Southern and Eastern Europeans ranked lower than Nordics, and eugenicists ranked Jews even lower. Eugenicists theorized that breeding between superior and inferior races produced offspring inferior to either parent.

Eugenicists misused Stanford-Binet IQ tests to prove America was amidst a racial crisis, a genetic meltdown that would destroy the country. To investigate the alleged impact of mass immigration to the United States from the 1880s through the first two decades of the twentieth century, eugenicists persuaded the military to submit Army recruits, many of them recent immigrants with limited command of English, to IQ tests during 1917-1918 when America became involved in the First World War. The tests required soldiers to do addition and other math problems, answer questions about American history and identify characters associated with advertising or answer other culturally based questions. Recruits filled out their answers in crowded, uncomfortable, noisy rooms under intense pressure from drill sergeants to finish. The Army submitted 1.75 million recruits to IQ testing during the war, and the results were published in 1921. The Army reported that the average American had a mental age of 13. According to the Army tests, Russian immigrants possessed an average mental age of 11.34; the Italians, 11.01; and the Poles, 10.74. Blacks supposedly held a mental age of 10.41, the lowest of all groups.


Groups like the American Eugenics Society (AES) sounded the alarm against American “race suicide.” The AES held exhibitions across the country, telling audiences that while a new child was born in the United States every 16 seconds, the country produced a feeble-minded child every 48 seconds, and a future criminal every 50 seconds. Truly intelligent and creative children, the society warned, were born in the United States only every seven and a half minutes. Hoping to reverse what was perceived as a national decline in intelligence, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws aimed at improving the country's racial stock. Between 1895 and 1913, many states had enacted laws restricting marriages involving people regarded as insane, epileptic, or mentally deficient. These laws were not strictly enforced, however, and subsequent laws became harsher.

Between 1905 and 1922, 15 states passed bills allowing institutionalized people to be sterilized without prior consent. Doctors eventually carried out 3,233 such procedures. By 1931, 28 states had such laws and the rate of operations surged dramatically. Doctors not only performed involuntary tubal ligations and vasectomies on mental patients, but on many African American men and women simply unfortunate enough to go to eugenically minded physicians. So many blacks received these operations in one state that the procedures came to be known as “Mississippi appendectomies.” By 1941, 38,087 people had been legally sterilized involuntarily across the country because of sterilization laws. Such U.S laws strongly influenced Nazi Germany's 1933 law under which 3.5 million people deemed insane, epileptic, or mentally deficient were forcibly sterilized, a program publicly praised by American eugenicists throughout the 1930s.

The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 and centered in New England, lobbied for the exclusion of non-Nordic Europeans from the United States. After the 1919-1920 Red Scare, Congress enacted harsh immigration restrictions. The 1924 Immigration Act set strict immigration quotas for countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. Under the law, the number of new Italian and Polish immigrants entering in the United States each year could equal no more than 2 percent of the number of Italians and Poles living in the U.S. in 1890. After implementation of this law, the Italian quota fell from 42,000 to about 4,000 and the Polish from 31,000 to 6,000.

The same law barred immigration by all aliens "ineligible for citizenship," which included all Asians except Filipinos (who as colonial subjects could become citizens -- until that privilege was revoked in 1934). Many supporters of this law believed they were protecting the country from races that were born political radicals. Jews, in particular, faced accusations of communism. The AFL, the American Legion and the KKK had all lobbied hard for the strict 1924 immigration bill. Big business had previously supported immigration, but by the early 1920s blacks migrating from the South to the industrial belt filled the low-wage void. Agribusiness in the Southwest, however, was still able to block placing quotas on Mexican workers.

In the years before World War II, racism crossed boundaries between North and South and between the political left and right. Feminist and socialist birth control advocate Margaret Sanger battled enthusiastically to limit the birth rates of blacks, working class whites and the mentally disabled. "More children from the fit, less from the unfit -- that is the chief issue of birth control," Sanger said. Allying with Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, a philanthropist, she later helped develop the so-called "Negro Project" encouraging birth control among Southern African Americans.

During the Depression mainstream medical publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association publicized and supported eugenics research. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, American eugenicists along with anti-Semitic celebrities like aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and auto manufacturer Henry Ford received awards from the Nazi regime even as “race scientists” from America attended eugenicist conferences held in the Third Reich. Money from the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, established by the 19th-century business tycoons John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, funded eugenics research in the United States and supported the work of Nazi scientists searching for supposed racial characteristics of Jews and others.

In addition, the Carnegie Foundation funded the Eugenical News publication that in 1932 declared that “The Aryans [Hitler’s term for ‘pure Germans’] are the great founders of civilization . . . The mixing of blood, the pollution of race . . . has been the sole reason why old civilizations have died out.” International Business Systems, now known simply as IBM, provided data processing equipment that helped Nazi Germany analyze the racial backgrounds of German citizens and to track down Jews selected for detention and murder. IBM later claimed it did not know for what purpose the equipment would be used.


As Nazis forcibly sterilized epileptics, alcoholics and others deemed racially unfit and as persecution of Jews intensified and became more ruthless in the late 1930s, a backlash brewed against ideas associated with the Third Reich, such as eugenics. A sterilization bill proposed in the Alabama state legislature stalled because, as one opponent to the law put it, “In my judgment, the great rank and file of the country people of Alabama do not want this law; they do not want Alabama, as they term it, Hitlerized.” Politicians stopped openly advocating involuntary sterilizations, but the practice continued quietly for two decades. As part of the eugenics crusade, doctors sterilized an estimated 62,000 Americans in 30 states from the 1920s until the early 1960s, according to a study sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The war against Japan instigated intense anti-Asian bigotry, but for the most part open racism became less socially acceptable in much of the country during the 1941-1945 war years. Before World War II ended, popular singer Frank Sinatra made a short film for the United States government called The House I Live In, which asked Americans to not let themselves be divided by race, ethnicity and religion as they faced the common Nazi enemy. By 1945, it had been two decades since the restrictive 1924 immigration law took effect, and Anglo-Saxons no longer felt threatened by immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Films addressing the evils of anti-Semitism, such as Gentlemen’s Agreement, reached wide audiences.

By the 1940s the undeniable debt that the Nazi regime owed to American and European eugenicists became a public relations nightmare for that discipline after the liberation by American soldiers of German concentration camps. “The opposition to Nazism shaped in a dramatic fashion the refutation of racism as a legitimate intellectual stance,” as historian Elazar Barkan noted. Instead of attributing unchanging intellectual and personality characteristics to individuals based on their supposed racial identity, “environmentalism, culture and human changeability gained primacy,” as historian Matthew Frye Jacobson put it.

In 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization blamed World War II on the “doctrine of the inequality of men and races.” By 1950, UNESCO issued its “Statement on Race,” which announced that“[s]cientists have reached general agreement that mankind is one; that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.” Humanity could not be properly divided into types, but into populations where small differences occurred based on variation of one or more genes, but these differences were small in comparison to the vast genetic similarity. UNESCO proposed replacing the term “race,” which it described as hopelessly vague, with the phrase “ethnic group.” The changing social climate led Anglo Christian Americans to more readily accept Jews, Italians, and Greeks, as white people.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


Anonymous said...

The truth is not always a pleasant thing...

Anonymous said...

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