In a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, in the imagined 1922 Long Island town of West Egg, old stock American Tom Buchanan bemoans the ills of modern society, decrying: “Civilization’s going to pieces!”
It’s a moment that typifies a traditional Anglo-American response to changing times: one of fear, paranoia, hysteria… But Buchanan’s tirade about the threat to the “white race” is located within a pivotal moment of American paranoid style—one in which fears congealed around scientific data collection, Progressive Era paternalism, and “Gospel of Wealth”-style philanthropy.
Meanwhile, in Cold Spring Harbor, just a stone’s throw down the Long Island sound—and a safe distance from New York City’s dangerous cocktail of sexual deviancy, racial mixing, and new immigrants—lay the answer to Buchanan’s fears: the Eugenics Record Office (ERO).
In the face of complex social changes—rapid urbanization, Black migration, non-Western European immigration, imperial expansion—eugenics offered a simple, decisive solution. As a science, eugenics was complex and convoluted, riddled with internal ambiguities and mixed messaging. But as a movement, it entered the American public imagination as a master narrative, both explanatory and proscriptive, carrying with it a lofty promise: to rid America of its racial, ethnic, sexual, and cultural degeneracy.
For hardline eugenicists like those running the ERO, it was all about the germ plasm—thought to be the foundational unit of human heredity. It followed that the fight to preserve the integrity of the American identity would be transformed into a biological project to protect “pure” American germ plasm—a struggle against human degeneracy to be waged at our borders and ports, in our prisons and mental institutions, and in the bodies of the “unfit” themselves.
Drawing from long traditions of scientific racism, eugenics refocused popular formations of the American normative self and its “unfit” other in matrices of racialized, sexualized, gendered, classed, and neural normative science and statistics. In eugenics-era America, as in the ERO space itself, “objective” data, statistical averages, and bureaucratic sterility sought order in an increasingly chaotic urbanized America. And, like the best of alarmist movements, eugenics identified a national threat ambiguous enough to be shaped and adapted according to individual political and professional volitions—from criminals to gays, Blacks to Jews, and that nebulous class, the “feebleminded,” defective threats could be claimed wherever “reformers” cared to look.
We’ve reproduced the space and files of the Eugenics Record Office, where pioneering eugenicists Charles B. Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin carried out their work—and transplanted it from the Long Island Sound to Downtown Manhattan (the very epicenter of “racial hybrids and ethnic horrors”). The premiere institution of American eugenics, the ERO’s files—from surveys and family histories to field reports, speech drafts, and policy recommendations—formed the central body of knowledge that lent the broader eugenics movement its scientific credence, while also legitimizing a broad legal framework for “negative” eugenic policies such as forced sterilization, institutional segregation, and immigration restriction.
Rather than discarding eugenics as a fringe “pseudoscience” to be cast off and erased from American memory, this exhibit reexamines the basic framings of “fit” and “unfit” persons as part of the long, continuing arc of scientific racism and American paranoia, recurrent social policy othering, and the enforcement of moral, political, and cultural conformity.
As we continue to search for ways to regulate, restrict, police, and isolate the movements, actions, and productions of marginalized persons, it becomes clear that eugenics’ legacy reverberates in our contemporary moment. And as educational and professional environments continue to espouse the benefits of “objective” meritocracy, eugenics history begs us to question how normative biases and motivations can taint supposedly objective classification.
We cannot wash our hands of our eugenic past. It’s through reconciling with this troubled history—and its impacts on our equally troubled present—that we can begin to interrogate the biases that continue to warp our collective values.
— John Kuo Wei Tchen, Noah Fuller & Mark Tseng Putterman
The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU aims to promote discourse on Asian/Pacific America defying traditional boundaries, spanning Asia, to the Americas, through the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds. It works to dispel socio-cultural and political misconceptions, provide cultural and scholarly connections, lead collections building, and encourage innovative research and interdisciplinary exploration. The Institute’s goal is to serve as an international nexus of interactive exchange and access for scholars, cultural producers, and communities from New York to beyond.
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