Why? For the “betterment” of the “race.” It’s one of hundreds of examples described in Edwin Black’s 2003 book “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.”
When you read the words “master race” you immediately think “Nazis,” and probably think that using the words when speaking of the United States is hyperbole, and possibly agitprop.
Recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that “doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates,” circumventing federal and state laws designed to protect vulnerable inmates from the kind of abuses that those in power all-too-often perpetrate.
The unrepentant doctor who performed the tubal ligations justified his actions by saying that the amount spent on sterilization was small “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.” Note that the desires and dignity of the women didn’t figure into the equation.
Or take the heartwarming story of Heath White and his daughter, Paisley, which was featured on ESPN’s “E:60.” While White came to understand that children with Down Syndrome are “just like every other kid” in those areas that really matter, the fact remains that an estimated 90 percent of children whose Down Syndrome is diagnosed pre-birth never get a chance to teach their parents the same lesson, since they are killed in utero following genetic testing.
Less heartwarming is the episode involving Jason Richwine, formerly with the Heritage Foundation. In his 2009 dissertation at Harvard University, he made the case against Hispanic immigration by arguing that “no one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against. From the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.”*
Richwine isn’t some lunatic outlier—I come across similar kinds of arguments all the time and not just from conservatives. Mixed in with the arguments about the economic impact of mass immigration, you will read statements on the “inferiority” of certain groups, virtually always expressed in terms of IQ, and the likely impact of allowing them into the country.
With apologies to William Faulkner, eugenics isn’t dead, it’s not even in the past.
Some background may be helpful in understanding why this is the case. Eugenics, both the word and the idea, were the invention of Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, a gentleman-scientist who, among other things, discovered the uniqueness of fingerprints. By the end of the 19th century, improvements in nutrition, public health, and governance had produced a population explosion in Britain.
What troubled Galton and many of his peers was that the people doing the vast majority of the reproducing were the poor and lower classes. If this continued, Britain would become a nation composed of the “lesser classes” and their descendants.
Galton's solution was what he called eugenics, a word that combines the Greek words for “well” and "born." Galton proposed creating a “highly gifted race of men” through the use of “judicious marriages.” These marriages would match people who possessed “talent,” “grace,” and “quality.” Not surprisingly, in determining who possessed these characteristics, Galton fell back on late-Victorian prejudices: He used social standing as a proxy.
However woolly-headed Galton’s ideas may have been, he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He advocated what came to be known as “positive” eugenics: improving the population by encouraging marriage and childbirth between people possessing “desirable” traits. The problem with this approach, as Galton acknowledged, was that people don’t take kindly to interference in matters of love and marriage.
Eugenics had to wait until it crossed the Atlantic to become nasty. On this side of the pond, the emphasis switched almost entirely to “negative” eugenics: preventing, by any means necessary, marriage and childbirth among those deemed “undesirable.”
“Any means” meant just that: Where persuasion wouldn’t suffice—and of course it rarely did—then coercion would be employed. Coercive means could include anything from prohibiting marriage between the “fit” and the “unfit,” to sterilization of the “unfit,” to euthanasia of those believed to be carrying what eugenicists called defective “germ plasm.”
As the above-mentioned example from New York illustrates, the definition of “unfit” was expansive. And it wasn’t only your defects that could get you sterilized: Some proposed measures would have sterilized and/or quarantined people on account of their relatives’ “defects.”
The impact of eugenics-inspired thinking wasn’t limited to operating rooms. Concerns about the impact of mass immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, articulated in books like “The Rising Tide of Color Against White-World Supremacy” by Lothrop Stoddard, were given a scientific imprimatur by the combination of eugenics and misuse of IQ tests. (Sound familiar?)
The legislative response to these concerns, the Immigration Act of 1924, sharply curtailed immigration from southern and eastern Europe, especially of Jews. It was, to put it mildly, strongly influenced by eugenic thinking. In a savage bit of historical irony, American eugenics made it almost impossible for the United States to admit victims of the most notorious perpetrator of eugenics of them all, Nazi Germany.
Which brings me back to Black’s use of the expression “master race.” As he documents, the demonic ideas about “race hygiene” that the Third Reich put into practice were, at least initially, clearly marked “Made With (White) Pride in the USA.” The connection was made embarrassingly explicit at the Nuremberg trials when Nazi doctors and their advocates cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld Virginia’s sterilization program, and whose most (in)famous passage reads:
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
After World War II, eugenics, as a political and scientific movement, was thoroughly discredited. Genetic research became the mostly positive force we know today.
Mostly. Because the impulse never really went away. Eugenics was replaced by what Black calls “Newgenics,” eugenics with a smiley face. The “defective” are targeted, the weak are warred upon, and even talk about race, IQ and immigration is not completely beyond the pale. We’re just nicer about it.
It helps the cause that those doing the targeting and waging war are private actors and not the state, which only goes to show how useless the public/private distinction can be, at least when it matters. It also helps that when it comes to doing the deed, we pronounce ourselves all sorts of broken up over the agony of our choices, unlike Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, having been wounded at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, had no use for false professions of piety and sentimentality.
Most of all, it helps that when it comes to measuring a society’s respect for the sanctity of human life and human dignity, we have set the bar really low. We can erect a surveillance state as long as we don’t do it in German. We can repeatedly ignore the sovereignty of our neighbors, and even our allies, as long as we don’t do it in German. And we can target the disabled, and prey upon the vulnerable, just so long as we do it behind closed doors (or gates) and, of course, don’t do it in German.