The Black Politics of Eugenics

Eugenics is still a dirty word. It makes us think about science gone horribly wrong. It reminds us of the ghosts of Nazis past. The specter of eugenics is invoked when discussing new genetic technologies, often serving as a warning that engineering humanity can go too far.

It wasn’t always like this. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics was a term associated with possibility and progress. Charles Davenport, head of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, defined eugenics as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding.”1 Eugenicists thought they could fix a whole host of problems with a clear understanding of heredity and its applications. Their strategies for human improvement often had negative consequences for marginalized people like African Americans, people with disabilities, and gender nonconforming folks.

We often think of these marginalized people as victims of eugenics, and they often were. But we don’t often ask what they thought of eugenics. What did human improvement mean to them? What did they think of the possibilities of eugenics?

During the early twentieth century, African Americans of different socioeconomic classes embraced the possibilities of eugenics for racial improvement. While their participation was not unanimous or monolithic, their investment in eugenics challenges the ways we think about how people understood and mobilized it. Scholars Shantella Sherman and Michell Chresfield have explored some of the ways in which African Americans used eugenics for racial improvement.2 My own work argues that African Americans crafted their own theory and practice of eugenics as part of broader struggles for racial justice.

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1919. (C. M. Battey/US Library of Congress | Public domain)

African American physicians, biologists, and social scientists used the language of eugenics and reproductive control to frame their scholarship on racial improvement. Famous scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois borrowed eugenic language in his 1903 essay on the Talented Tenth, in which he stated “The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by exceptional men.”3 Du Bois was also a strong proponent of birth control for African American women. In an article for the June 1932 issue of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review entitled “A Negro Number,” Du Bois argued that birth control for poor African Americans was necessary for the race and that people “must learn that among human races and groups, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity really counts.”4

African American scholars and activists also mobilized eugenics as a strategic response to scientific racism. Physician and physical anthropologist William Montague Cobb argued against assumptions of black inferiority in his work. In his 1939 article, “The Negro as a Biological Element in the American Population,” Cobb stated that though the race previously had some inferior elements, those had actually been destroyed by American life:

Not only the conditions surrounding his arrival but those under which the Negro has lived in America must have had a selective effect on improving his stock. Pre-emancipation exploitation must be credited with a mass elimination not alone of the weak and unfit, but also of those who were lacking in that individual shrewdness which is a vital essential in self preservation.5

Cobb actually argued that the collective stock of the race had improved as a result of racial oppression! In the same article, he put forward an argument about the social construction of race: “The most important roots of American race prejudice are clearly non-biological …. The popular stereotype of the Negro as a biological inferior has neither scientific origin nor usefulness.”6 Cobb’s work highlights the ways in which African Americans could be invested in eugenics while opposing particular components of it to rethink the role of heredity in race improvement.

Conversations about eugenics also made their way into popular discourse. African American newspapers were a particularly important site for discussions about eugenics and show the ways in which ideas about eugenics trickled into society. A lot of these conversations emphasized the significance of reproductive control to racial improvement, about which African American women were very vocal. Thelma Berlack Boozer, activist and columnist for the New York Amsterdam News, wrote a column called “The Feminist Viewpoint” under the initials T.E.B.

In a 1934 piece called “Birth Control Gains Sanction,” she argued that reproductive control could resolve many of the social problems facing the race and society at large: “More well-born babies, fewer ill-born babies, and sterilization of those unfit to become parents will aid society in solving some of its major problems.”7 Rebecca Stiles Taylor, activist and founder of the Savannah, GA chapter of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), penned similar sentiments in the Chicago Defender in 1937:

With such an education and such an elevation of their [African Americans] tastes there will be little need for sterilization for they will seek their mental, moral, social, and physical equal or superior and their children will of a consequence, all things being equal, not swell the ranks of defectives.8

Though many of us think of compulsory sterilization as cruel and inhumane, Taylor and T.E.B. understood it as part of a strategy for biologically uplifting the race. Taylor saw it as a temporary plan until African Americans could learn and embrace their eugenic possibilities.

Although African American engagement in eugenics complicates the ways in which we understand its legacy, we also cannot forget that eugenics legislation disproportionately targeted African Americans in violent ways. For example, North Carolina’s Eugenics Commission sterilized approximately 8,000 people during the 1930s and 1940s. 5,000 were African American.9

Protest against forced sterilizations, 1970. (Ava Helms)

Even though many sterilization laws were repealed in the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans continued to be targeted for sterilization. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of sterilizations rose from 200,000 to 700,000.10 Outrage about the disproportionate sterilization of African Americans led groups like the Black Panthers to argue that different forms of reproductive control were a form of genocide. These concerns mark an important shift in the ways that African Americans understood the possibilities of eugenics: it went from being a strategy of racial improvement to a tool of racial violence.

Eugenics created dual realities of racial improvement and racial violence for African Americans in the twentieth century. African Americans sought to mobilize eugenics for racial improvement, but were ultimately disproportionately targeted by eugenics legislation. These dual realities produced the complex landscape of the American eugenics movement, and show that African Americans were invested in the dynamic possibilities of eugenics. Their aspirations for a socially and biologically uplifted race were never fully realized, but represent an important historical moment in which they, like others in the beginning of the twentieth century, sought a scientific solution to social problems.

Notes

  1. Charles B. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), 1. Return to text.
  2. Shantella Y. Sherman, In Search of Purity Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift Among New Negroes (Xlibris Corp, 2016); Michell Chresfield, “To Improve the Race: Eugenics As a Strategy for Racial Uplift, 1900-1940” (master’s thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2013). Return to text.
  3. W.E.B Du Bois, “Talented Tenth” in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day (New York: James Potts and Company, 1903), 75. Return to text.
  4. W.E.B Du Bois, “Black Folks and Birth Control,” Birth Control Review (June 1932), 166. Return to text.
  5. W. Montague Cobb, “The Negro as a Biological Element in the American Population,” Journal of Negro Education (July 1939), 342, W. Montague Cobb Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 346. Return to text.
  7. T.E.B., “The Feminist Viewpoint: Birth Control Gains Sanction,” New York Amsterdam News, January 24, 1934. Return to text.
  8. Rebecca Stiles Taylor, “As a Woman Thinks: Let Us Breed Our Group” Chicago Defender, national edition, July 17, 1937. Return to text.
  9. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 89-91. Return to text.
  10. Philip Reilly, “Involuntary Sterilization in the United States: A Surgical Solution,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 62, no. 2 (June 1987): 165; Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 89-91. Return to text.

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