On Gatsby‘s “Mysterious” non-Nordic Origins

You may have seen our references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby popping up throughout our Haunted Files written materials. So far, we’ve had a number of visitors ask us what Gatsby has to do with American eugenics history. Most apparent is Tom Buchanan’s eugenics-inspired tirade about civilization “going to pieces,” and his allusion to Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely popular eugenics text, The Rising Tide of Color (Fitzgerald, 17). But the entire subtext of Fitzgerald’s archetypal “great American novel” is a narrative of attempted, and ultimately failed, assimilation and passing in eugenics-era America. Constant allusions to Gatsby’s mysterious origins imply non-WASP, perhaps Jewish, heritage. Gatsby’s ambiguous claims to “whiteness” are called into question by the nativist Buchanan, who likens Gatsby’s affair with Daisy to miscegenation (137). Read this way, The Great Gatsby asks: can wealth, clothes, and social status grant Gatsby access to an increasingly exclusive Nordic American identity? Eugenics’ answer, offered via Buchanan, is a resounding “no”.

Buchanan embodies WASP nativist fears of the eugenics era.

Read more about the critical intersections of race, sexuality, and class in The Great Gatsby:

[via ProQuest] Goldsmith, Meredith. “White Skin, White Mask: Passing, Posing, and Performing in The Great Gatsby.” Modern Fiction Studies, Fall 2003. 

Forter, Greg. “Gender, melancholy, and the whiteness of impersonal form.” Gender, race, and mourning in American Modernism.


Public Program: A Eugenic (Un)Haunting, Thursday 11/20

Join us next Thursday, November 20th, 7-9pm, as artists, activists, and academics discuss the legacy of eugenics and the countermovement of community organizing through readings, performance, music, and analysis. Featuring poet and activist Sonia Guinansaca (New York State Youth Leadership Council and CultureStrike), historian and lawyer Paul A. Lombardo(Georgia State University), author and activist Dr. N. Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism), writer Tommy “Teebs” Pico (absentMINDR), social justice activist and expert Loretta J. Ross (co-founder, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective), musician, writer, and educator/activist Sonny Singh (Red Baraat), and composer and producer Sxip Shirey.

Please RSVP here by Tuesday, November 18.

11.20 flyer final


60 Years Ago Today: Ellis Island Shuts its Doors

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.

From the “Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens,” published by the US Public Health Service, for use by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island, 1912.


60 years later, amidst the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement, we ask: how does America receive (and remove) immigrants today?

An Honduran immigrant is loaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement onto a flight for his deportation. John Moore, 2013.




Modern Eugenics, Sterilization, and the Anti-Immigrant Movement

“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 Community traces 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”.

Quinacrine Report
Read the report in full.


Frustrations with N.C. Sterilization Compensation

Last year one of the most prolific forces in American compulsory sterilization passed a law paying out compensation to those still living with the tragic legacy of the practice. North Carolina sterilized some 7,000 people between 1929 and 1976, with an estimated 3,000 individuals still alive and able to claim $20,000 in reparations offered by the legislation.


Debra Blackmon (left) was sterilized by court order in 1972, at age 14. With help from her niece, Latoya Adams (right), she’s fighting to be included in the state’s compensation program. Eric Mennel/WUNC

This week NPR is reporting that hundreds of people who were forced to undergo the procedure in the state may not ever be compensated because of a technicality. According to the law the sterilization had to have been officially approved by the state’s Eugenics Board. However, many individuals were targeted at the local level by judges or social workers who cited state law but didn’t get official approval for their decisions.

A spokesman for the state when asked if NC is responsible for these individuals responded, “That’s kind of hard to say. Again, it’s just an unfortunate part of our history. It’s just something that was done. So it’s kind of hard to say that the state would be responsible when it was just kind of an accepted practice.”

To say that the state isn’t responsible for creating a legal framework in which individuals in power were able to sterilize those they saw as “unfit” is deeply misguided. This kind of obfuscation is doubly offensive because of the way in which eugenic sterilizations were often done without the knowledge of the victim, and thus eliminated the ability to appeal the decision to the Eugenics Board. If NC and its elected officials were truly committed to justice they would take full responsibility and make sure no victim of compulsory sterilization was manipulated out of their deserved compensation by the very bureaucracy that once so callously abused them.

You can find NPR’s full report here.


Race and Intelligence: ‘The Bell Curve’ 20 Years Later

20 years after its initial publication, The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray is revisiting his book’s troubling arguments about race and IQ. But The Bell Curve is part of a much longer history of arguments about race and intelligence, critically rooted in early scientific racism and later, the eugenics movement. We revisit this history and its implications for Murray’s familiar brand of modern scientific racism.

Racial hierarchies have long relied on assumptions that (1) races are biologically distinct and differentiable categories, and (2) that these races differ in important physical, behavioral, and intellectual capacities. Early iterations of scientific racism, such as the influential 1854 book Types of Mankind  (authored by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon), argued for an evolutionary ladder of humankind that positioned Europeans at the top and blacks (caricatured as physically and behaviorally similar to the Great Apes) at the bottom.

Types of Mankind, 1854

50 years later, eugenicists offered a uniquely modern take on the question of race and intelligence through the use of “standardized” intelligence test, such as the Stanford-Binet test, the predecessor to the modern IQ test. The results of these seemingly “objective” tests allowed eugenicists to deploy hard data in support of their theories of racial superiority/inferiority. Similar tests were also used to “diagnose” intellectual disability, with test results leading to the exclusion of “mentally inferior” immigrants, and mass institutionalization and sterilization of “feebleminded” individuals.

1146-Europe-as-an-emigrant-exporting-continent-Harry-H-Laughlin-testimony-before-the-House-Committee-including-Immigration-Restriction-Act copy
Number of US Army officers showing “superior or very superior” intelligence by race and country of origin. From testimony given by ERO superintendent Harry Laughlin to the House of Representatives during hearings on immigration restriction, March 1924.
5 Imbecile Scale
Widely circulated “imbecile scale” from the 1920s and 30s. Each “step” was defined by a “mental age” determined by performance on the Stanford-Binet test.
Sample Binet test, c. 1921. From the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
01 Differ in Mental Capacity (dragged)
Lecture draft: “Do races differ in mental capacity?” By ERO Director Charles B. Davenport, n.d.

Today similar arguments about race and intelligence continue to be redeployed. Famously, 1994’s The Bell Curve and Nicholas Wade’s recent book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History argued that the supposed “fact” of racial differences in intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) necessitated societal reckoning, regardless of political correctness.


In a Q+A marking the 20 year anniversary of The Bell Curve, co-author Charles Murray stood stoically by the book’s pronouncements:

“There is a mean difference in black and white scores on mental tests, historically about one standard deviation in magnitude on IQ tests (IQ tests are normed so that the mean is 100 points and the standard deviation is 15). This difference is not the result of test bias, but reflects differences in cognitive functioning.”

Murray goes on to argue that academia has silenced conversations about racial differences in intelligence due to “political correctness,” which he likens to “corruption.”

But critics like author Stephen Murdoch (IQ: The Brilliant Idea That Failed) have long questioned the very existence of a measurable “general intelligence” that IQ tests purport to measure:

“The theory of general intelligence is the very foundation of mainstream intelligence testing over the past century, but even the most ardent proponents of g (general intelligence) will admit that it has not been unquestionably established… Until there is proof beyond statistical relationships of g‘s existence and measurability, society should not treat IQ tests as if they can meaningfully rank people along a continuum of innate intelligence. For the same reason, all inferences based on IQ test results about race differences are dangerously unfounded.” – IQ, pp. 229

How do we define intelligence – let alone measure it? From a historical perspective,  it seems proponents of standardized testing have been less interested in the objective answers than in testing’s usefulness in reconstructing tired hierarchies of humankind.




Why We Should Teach the History of Eugenics

University College of London is grappling with the legacy of UCL professor Francis Galton, best remembered as the founder of eugenics. Across the pond, Haunted Files at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute is confronting New York’s historical role as an epicenter of international eugenics in the 1910s-1930s. In light of these projects, the Center for Genetics and Society reflects on the importance of teaching eugenics history, especially within the context of higher education:

“Many educational institutions still avoid discussing the history of eugenics, and many are reluctant to confront their own complicity in the abuses it facilitated. But studying eugenics in the twentieth century is important not just as a matter of learning history, but as part of what we need to know in order to thoughtfully consider the responsible uses of genetic technologies today.”

Read it in full here.