Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America
Alexandra Minna Stern
University of California Press
William Bennett: Morning In America
On an AM radio station near you!
William Bennett’s comment last month that one could lower the crime rate by aborting every black baby in America is not merely the aberrant ravings of a fringe right-wing radio crackpot, but is part of a long American tradition of eugenic rhetoric and policy; a tradition that may once again be gaining currency. The notion that criminality is inherent in the genetic makeup of some ethnic groups has enjoyed cyclical favor among conservatives in this country over the course of the last century, and the technology made available by the genomic revolution opens the door to a far more precise genetics of behavior in the current one. Rather than dismissing Bennett’s racist, albeit hypothetical, remarks, we should examine them against a confluence of recent technological advances and discursive trajectories, and open up a public dialogue on whether we are to repeat unconscionable errors of the past.
Eugenics is often associated with the Nazis, but as University of Michigan Obstetrics and Gynecology Professor Alexandra Stern details in the book, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, the movement flourished here long before Hitler came to power. The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island was founded in 1910 and served as the nerve center for the American eugenics movement over the next 30 years. Eugenicists led a simultaneous public awareness campaign, which included exhibits on Mendelian inheritance at state fairs, so-called “fitter family” competitions, and prominent editorials in mainstream newspapers, and an extensive lobbying effort at all levels of government. By the mid-1920s there were sterilization laws in 24 states, intended and widely used to diminish the ranks of the “criminally insane” and “feeble-minded.”
By the time these laws were challenged in the Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Bell, over 3,000 people had been sterilized nationwide, the vast majority in California (the Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s “model” sterilization law in the case, and ironically, Buck v. Bell is cited in Roe v. Wade as part of a discussion of the limits of privacy rights citizens hold to their bodies). Three years prior, influenced by expert testimony from eugenicists, Congress enacted the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which closed immigration to certain ethnic groups that had been deemed intellectually and socially unfit. The Act’s quota system remained in place until 1965, likely contributing to the far reach of the Nazi genocide in Europe.
Following WWII, eugenics fell into deserved disrepute around the world, though eugenic policies remained in effect in the US in subtler forms, such as laws preventing the “unnatural” intermarriage of blacks and whites. The late 1960s saw a conservative backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and a revival of claims that social and economic disparities were largely determined by genetic differences. In 1969, Arthur Jensen, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, published an article in the Harvard Educational Review, entitled “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Performance?” The article was a response to recently established government programs like Head Start, which sought to level the educational playing field for historically underprivileged minority groups. Jensen’s answer to the title question was, not much, since intelligence was largely based on immutable genetics, and blacks were overall dumber than whites.
Jensen’s ideas, though scientifically unsound, gained popularity among anti-LBJ conservatives and later in the Nixon White House. Nixon’s policies of chipping away at the civil rights gains of the previous decade were carried on into the 1980s by two now-familiar members of the Reagan Administration: the first was Secretary of Education William Bennett; the second was an aide to White House counsel Fred Fielding, a young attorney named John G. Roberts.