From private biases to public policies, how far have we come from eugenics-era America? “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics re-presents images from the US eugenics movement to ask this question and place contemporary discourse around racism, immigration, reproductive rights, and disability in historical context. Once exhibited at museums and state fairs nationwide, the propaganda on display in this installation helped to drive popular support for eugenics-motivated legislation such as immigration restriction, mass institutionalization, and the forced eugenic sterilization of the “unfit.”
This opening begins with a tour at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery (a street-level gallery, visible only from the sidewalk) at 6PM. Co-curators Jack (John Kuo Wei) Tchen and Noah Fuller and Associate Curator Mark Tseng Putterman will walk you through the installation and then lead you to a reception at the A/P/A Institute at NYU, where a complementary installation, Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, is on display.
6-6:30PM: Tour of “The Normal” at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery. Please meet at the corner of LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street.
6:30-7:30PM: Reception at the A/P/A Institute at NYU (8 Washington Mews).
*All images are reproduced with permission from the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene.
“Society of Social Hygiene Organized – Aim is to limit spread of social disease.” -Headline, The Hartford Courant, May 14, 1910
“Conn. Hygiene Assn. Finishes its Work – Members to vote on discontinuance at tonight’s meeting.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, November 10, 1921
These headlines bracket the eleven year existence of a group of industrious and socially-minded citizens in Hartford, CT. Initially, the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene rose in prominence as it worked to ‘limit the spread of social disease.’ This was accomplished specifically through sexual education and promotion of the sanctity of the home, and through public health education on the spread of venereal disease. These efforts were supported by private donations.
This was the benign face of the Society. The other face was more troubling. The minutes of the executive committee meeting of January 18, 1913 read as follows:
“Meeting was called to order by the Chairman, Dr. Carmalt, and the bills concerning rape and the sterilization of degenerates prepared by the Legislative Committee were presented by Dean Rogers. The first bill was the one concerning the sterilization of defectives. . . A Board of Examiners of feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives is hereby created . . . It shall be the duty of the said Board to examine into the mental and physical condition and the record and family history so far as available, of the feeble-minded, epileptic, criminal and other defective inmates confined in the several State hospitals for the insane, the State Prison, and the reformatory, and in any charitable or penal institution maintained by the State, and if in the judgment of the majority of said Board, procreation by any such person would produce children with an inherited tendency to crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy or imbecility, and there is no probability that the condition of any such person so examined will improve . . . then said Board shall report in writing their finding to any judge of the Superior Court with their recommendation that an operation for the prevention of procreation be performed upon such person . . .”
For several years the Society published pamphlets, hosted topical plays and gave lectures throughout the state, but they lost traction during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918. In 1920 they reincorporated as the Connecticut Social Hygiene Association, Inc., a branch of the American Social Hygiene Association. The CT Association closed its doors in November of 1921 due to a lack of funds.
A crucial question is how a group of people, assembled to do good, can find themselves involved in what most of us would call evil. How was it that upright citizens who wanted to give women power over childbearing decisions and protect both men and women from venereal disease could also espouse involuntary sterilization of people deemed ‘unfit’ by a Board of Examiners? Partly it was the relatively new discovery of genetics and the dawning, but still relatively simplistic, awareness of how traits are inherited. Partly, it was a lingering 19th century sensibility that people deemed deficient or undesirable should be hidden away. The proposition that a given “race” be purified and raised to dominance while others were suppressed was a leap further still.
Eugenics was popular in many countries at the beginning of the 20th century. It was only when Nazi Germany practiced it in its most extreme form that eugenics fell out of favor. Laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained on the books in some states as late as 1974.
The values of health and reproductive choice segued very easily into control over those considered undesirable and their involuntary sterilization. Could such a perversion of values happen again? It seems unlikely, but this historical precedent would have us keep our eyes, and hearts, open.
In his 1912 book The Nam Family, a study of a “highly inbred” family of “degenerates” in New York State, Eugenics Record Office Director Charles B. Davenport implored readers to understand that “a breeding pot of uncontrolled animalism is as much of a menace to our civilization” as “ten cases of bubonic plague at a point not 200 miles away.”
Over a century later, in the midst of a largely unwarranted Western Ebola hysteria, right-wing politician Scott Brown claimed that the US’ “unprotected border” would allow “people with Ebola and other infectious diseases [to] enter the country without being challenged.”
The two incidents are part of a long American history in which ethnic, cultural, and sexual difference have conjured images of disease, filth, poverty, and degeneracy. Longstanding public perceptions associated different immigrant groups with different diseases: the Irish with cholera; the Jews with tuberculosis; the Italians with polio; the Chinese with Bubonic plague. Public policy would draw from popular biases: the Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry of all immigrant “idiots,” insane,” and sufferers “from a loathsome or dangerous” contagious disease. Eugenic conceptions of mental difference expanded the excludable classes to include “all aliens afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeblemindedness,” and beyond.
Eugenics rhetoric of “tainted,” “impure,” and “degenerate” individuals grafted familiar fears of infectious disease onto fears of inheritable mental and behavioral difference, differences of course associated with all non-“Nordic” populations.
The Ebola scare and its media depictions continue the tradition of embedding ethnic and cultural biases into narratives of disease. Writes Stassa Edwards for Jezebel:
African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.
The threat of infectious disease requires a level-headed scientific and medical response. But history has shown that too often, science and medicine can be warped by popular biases to support ethnocentric, supremacist ideas of national belonging, “foreignness,” and the preservation of an exclusive sort of American identity.
Set hundreds of years in the future the 1951 C. M. Kornbluth short story “The Marching Morons” tells the story of an Earth overrun by the unintelligent. Just as eugenicist’s predicted, this future is the result of overbreeding by the “unfit” and the average IQ is just 45. The ever-shrinking elites are too small in number to overcome the enormity of the problem until John Barlow arrives from the past with a eugenics solution: the morons are convinced to migrate to Venus only to be euthanized in their spaceships!
The scientific eugenics movement may have declined in the 1930s and lost popular support following the revelations of Nazi atrocities during WWII, but eugenic ideas have continued to be reused in popular culture consistently. Check out the whole story here.
What do you do when your university is celebrating one of history’s most influential racists?
Students and faculty at University College London (UCL) are confronting the legacy of Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics and a UCL professor, that continues to pervade the campus. 110 years after Galton brought UCL an offer to fund a study of National Eugenics, UCL students and faculty came together to host a conversation on “race” and racial construction and the legacy of eugenics at UCL. Deliberately, the event took place at UCL’s Francis Galton lecture theatre!
The video below highlights perspectives from UCL community members and experts.
Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office was featured in today’s Science Times in an article that explores the troubled history of the infamous Long Island institution. Author Joshua A. Krisch writes:
“At the N.Y.U. exhibit, the ethical line between genetics and eugenics is blurred in every cabinet; legitimate science and blatant racism vie for space on every page. The reconstructed eugenics office can force viewers to think about the ethical implications of today’s genetic research.”
“Positive Exposure utilizes photography and video to transform public perceptions of people living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences – from albinism to autism. Our educational and advocacy programs reach around the globe to promote a more inclusive, compassionate world where differences are celebrated.
The statistics to support our work are staggering. With one out of five children in the United States being born with a disability, the need for society to understand and respect children and adults living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences is critical.”
Check out more of photographer Rick Guidotti’s work on Positive Exposure’s website and watch his TED Talk below.
There’s been a recent uproar since news broke that a white Ohio woman and her partner initiated a “wrongful birth” lawsuit against a Chicago sperm bank after discovering (post-birth) that her sperm donor was a black man.
The incident has shed light on the prevalence of racial bias in contemporary America. But it also raises the question: where is the public outcry when wrongful birth claims are made by parents of children with disabilities?
Ki’tay Davidson writes for Black Girl Dangerous on how ableism justifies the screening, and often times, abortion, of fetuses showing signs of disabilities:
“Too often, people feel wrongful birth lawsuits are justified due to the financial burden of raising a disabled child. How about reforming healthcare, education, housing, etc. to eradicate institutional ableism that creates these financial hardships? 90 percent of fetuses testing positive for Down Syndrome will be aborted in the U.S. Eugenics cannot be our answer to ableism; advancing disability rights and justice should be.”
One of the main arguments of those in favor of eugenic sterilization and segregation was the supposed financial drain “defectives” had on America’s financial resources. In this statement by Alexander Johnson of the National Conference of Charities & Corrections, Johnson suggests that isolating “feebleminded” from “normal” Americans and eliminating their ability to have children would save taxpayers from the expense of prisons, reform homes, and orphanages in which he claims these people will inevitably end up.
Today, politicians and talking heads make similar arguments about the financial burden of caring for people with disabilities, low-income families, and immigrants. What would America look like if we were concerned with all members of society rather than just those who are deemed “productive”?
Images Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society
For 46 years North Carolina force-sterilized roughly 7,600 individuals under legislation enacted in 1929 by eugenicists. Today some 3,000 individuals are still alive and in the process of receiving compensation for what the state did to them. In June 2011 several victims testified before the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. Click the link below and skip to 13:35 to hear their stories.