In the latest issue of Dissent Magazine, Michelle Chen explores how eugenics thought shaped American immigration policy in the 1920s and beyond.
“Eugenics did not invent whiteness. Well before they intersected with evolutionary theory, ideas of race and racism had been central to colonialism and slavery and had been used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples. But eugenics built on earlier philosophies of human nature by tying genetics and racial identity to notions of modernity and progress. Linking hereditary traits to intelligence or temperament helped reconcile the ideal of democracy—a principle theoretically based on inclusion and equality—with a culture that dehumanized the Other. This rationalization of privilege aimed to keep the economic hierarchy humming, enforce the illusion of meritocracy, and simultaneously curb the social mobility of supposedly inferior groups.”
Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.
The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.
The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.
All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…
Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.
The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.
Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.
On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island shut its doors. The immigration processing center has been both a symbol of America’s “land of opportunity” for “huddled masses” of hopeful immigrants, as well as a site where nativist American fears of racial and cultural difference targeted would-be immigrants. By the passage of the eugenics-motivated 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, the island had transformed into a multipurpose inspection, detention, and deportation center, where incoming migrants were screened for contagious disease and intellectual “unfitness” through a variety of standardized physical and mental tests.
60 years later, amidst the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement, we ask: how does America receive (and remove) immigrants today?
“If America is to escape the doom of nations generally, it must breed good Americans.”
–Harry H. Laughlin (1914), Eugenics Record Office superintendent,”expert” advisor on the
1924 Immigration Restriction Act and architect of the widely adopted “model eugenic sterilization law.”
“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
–John Tanton (December, 1993), founder, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)
A 2013 report from the Center for New Communitytraces the disturbingly direct ties between hardline eugenicists of the pre-WWII era and contemporary anti-immigrant organizations and sterilization/”population control” campaigns.
As the report explains, in 1937 ERO superintendent Harry H. Laughlin helped Wickliffe Draper found the Pioneer Fund, dedicated to “fund the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” Today, the Fund is alive and well, having funded the bulk of the research cited in Murray and Herrnstein’s infamous book The Bell Curve(1994), and more recently pouring money into John Tanton’s Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the fierce anti-immigration group behind Arizona SB 1070, a bill authorizing police to demand papers proving immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country unlawfully. Meanwhile, Tanton has been behind the promotion and proliferation of Quinacrine, a “permanent birth control” method that advocates have pushed into the developing world, administering the drug to often under-informed or misled women in the name of “population control”.
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.