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America & Its Unfit: Eugenics Then & Now

Co-convened by Mindy Fullilove and John Kuo Wei Tchen

Disoriented by the “unwashed” immigrants arriving every day, New Yorker Madison Grant’s screed The Passing of the Great Race (1916) sounded the alarm for elite Anglo American Protestants. The Eugenics Record Office emerged in the breach of this Gilded Age moment of great extremes—immense wealth and immense urban and rural poverty. “Slum clearance” was framed in a social Darwinist language of progress. Forced sterilization was justified in the name of “social efficiency.” Closing the gates was their survival defense. Creating institutions segregating those deemed “feebleminded,” “degenerate,” and “unfit” was part of a new meritocratic system of social ranking.

Today, how have we pushed back these top-down exclusionary policies? How does this era continue to shape our political and cultural institutions? Join us for two days of problem-posing and strategy-building. Poets, musicians, scholars, performers, writers, and organizers come together to explore what we need to do now to create change.

Co-sponsored by the NYU Department of History, NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, Native Studies Forum, Tisch School of the Arts Art and Public Policy Department, NYU Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and Urban Democracy Lab.


Register here. The event venue is accessible. If you require any particular accommodations, please email us at apa.rsvp@nyu.edu.

Day 1 Schedule
Day 2 Schedule

Historical tour PDF

Suggested readings



Images courtesy of University of Minnesota, Social Welfare History Archives.





Day One: Back to the Future?
Friday, September 25, 2015, 10AM-5:30PM

10-10:10AM: Opening Statement & Welcome

      Hadrien Coumans, cofounder and codirector, Lenape Center

10:10-10:25AM: Performance

Sonny Singh & Jonathan Goldberger

10:30-10:45AM: Introduction

Jack Tchen (New York University) and Mindy Fullilove (Columbia University)

10:50AM-12:20PM: “America for Americans”

How can we understand hierarchy, sorting, and spatial segregation during the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era of US history? How did binaries of normal/abnormal, fit/unfit, good citizen/other become the political culture of “America for Americans”?

From enslavement’s early biometrics, policing tactics, and bodily control to the use of blood quantum to delineate Native American ancestry and claims to political sovereignty, this panel examines the long, violent arc of sorting in American political culture and economics.


Simone Browne, University of Texas at Austin

Kim TallBear, University of Alberta

Robert W. Snyder, Rutgers University-Newark


Christopher Davis, Florida International University

Dean Saranillio, New York University

Jack Tchen, New York University

12:30-1:30PM: Lunch or or Historical Tour of Washington Square

In 1924, the same year that national eugenicists passed the country’s first widespread race-based immigration quota, wealthy New York drew a line in the sand at the Washington Square Arch, declaring war on the “invading” garment industry and its immigrant workers. The Fifth Avenue Association, made up of the city’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites, published a utopian history of the storied Avenue of commerce and used a new Progressive Era regulation, the zoning law, to try and banish factories like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist from the shores of their kingdom.

Join Haunted Files co-curator Noah Fuller for a multisensory tour of this Progressive Era “battleground” and explore the layered history of Gilded Age money, radical immigrant labor, and the birth of modern American regulation.

The tour is accessible for wheelchair users and will last about 30 minutes. Space is limited to 25 participants. Please sign up at the conference registration table.

1:30-1:45PM: Performance

Aimee Suzara, from Souvenir

1:55-3:25PM: Folded, Spindled, Mutilated

Words like “blight,” “slums,” “tenements,” “congestion,” “the unfit,” “morons,” and “degeneration” came to drive the reorganization of America into a bureaucratic system of sorting and isolating “undesirables.” How have ideas of a “progressive” Progressive Era failed to capture the contradictions of the era’s dehumanizing sorting tendencies? How did a growing state bureaucracy and an unflinching belief in “scientific” and statistical management enable that era’s white, male, Protestant elite to bring racialized state control into the modern era?

This panel examines the ongoing impacts of 20th century Progressive policy including race-based immigration quotas, “slum clearance”, and routinized policies of border control, state identification, merit, and achievement.


Mindy Fullilove, Columbia University

Vasuki Nesiah, New York University

N Ordover, author, American Eugenics


Rebecca Amato, New York University

Noah Fuller, New York University

Anika Paris, Queens College

Dylan Yeats, New York University

3:30-3:45PM: Coffee Break

4:00-4:05PM: Performance Video

Paul Tran, [Tell Me What Killed You]

4:10-5:30PM: Creative Detoxifying

How can communities address historical trauma, moral injury, and reclaim disappeared histories and just futures through creative engagement and artistic activism? What does activism that is creative, playful, and aesthetic look like and how is the artistry of daily life central to this practice?

This panel engages a diverse group of engaged artists and cultural organizers to discuss how the past and present intersect in their work.


Cara Pageartist and Audre Lorde Project

Loretta Rossorganizer and reproductive justice leader

Aimee Suzara, poet


Tomie Arai, artist

Caron Atlas, Arts and Democracy Project

Michael Oatman, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Ashley Rahimi Syed, artist

Judy Tate, American Slavery Project

Followed by breakout sessions facilitated by Loretta Ross, Cara Page, and Aimee Suzara.

Day 2: A New (& Better) Progressive Movement?

Align, Create, Connect

Saturday, September 26, 2015, 10AM-4PM


10-10:15AM: Performance

Tommy Pico, poet

10:25AM-12:00PM: Pushing Back the New World System

How do practices of social control, state management, and hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability manifest today? In the era of genomics, normalized surveillance, and thinly-veiled racialized immigration policy, how have the scale and mechanisms of state categorization and coercion changed? Locating the convening’s focus to the guts of our present crisis, this panel examines how new scientific and technological advances intersect with old political ends of control and exploitation. How can we push back?


Catherine Bliss, University of California San Francisco

Simone Browne, University of Texas Austin

Catherine Lee, Rutgers University

Jasbir Puar, Rutgers University (unfortunately, no longer able to attend)


Ayesha Omer, New York University

Cara Page, Audre Lorde Project

R Joshua Scannell, CUNY Graduate Center

12:00-1:00PM: Lunch

1:05-1:25PM: Performance

Unheard Voices: Haunted Files, performed by Antu Yacob & Stina Nielsen; written by Judy Tate & Michael Slade

1:30-3:30PM: Intervening & Changing

How can communities exercise critical agency and strategize amidst the seemingly overpowering top-down structures of social control? How can structural change be built through both small and large interventions, making space for so-called “pragmatism” as well as visions for radically alternative futures?

With a focus on policy this panel dives into the on-the-ground work of activists, city planners, curators, and housing advocates who negotiate with bureaucracies and make strategic interventions, problem solve, and live the work of creating a new progressive movement.

Part One: 1:30-2:45PM


Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

Ryan Gilliam, Downtown Art & FABnyc

Kelli Harding, Columbia University

N Ordover, author, American Eugenics

LaToya Strong, New York Collective of Radical Educators

Marta Moreno Vega,Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and New York University

Part Two: 2:55-3:30PM

Reflections: What Next? Breakout sessions facilitated by:

Mindy Fullilove, Columbia University

Kim TallBear, University of Alberta

Jack Tchen, New York University

Marta Moreno Vega,Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and New York University

3:30-3:35PM: Closing Remarks

3:40-3:45PM: Performance Video

Cara Page, “A Poet’s Psalm for the Mismeasured”



Organizer: A/P/A Institute at NYU
Venue: Hemmerdinger Hall, Silver Center
100 Washington Square East (enter at 31 Washington Place)
New York, NY United States
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Add to Calendar 09/25/2015 12:00 AM 09/26/2015 11:59 PM America/New_York America & Its Unfit: Eugenics Then & Now More detail: https://apa.nyu.edu/event/america-its-unfit-eugenics-then-now/ Hemmerdinger Hall, Silver Center, New York, NY