Steven Heller | Essays

Exclusion Illustrated

What do Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, cereal inventor and wellness empresario Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and American President Woodrow Wilson have in common? They are among the large number of Americans who, long before the Nazis adopted a euthanasia program to rid Germany of metal defectives, feeble minded, incurably ill and recidivist criminals, supported and propagated the “science” of eugenics. If you don’t know what eugenics is by now, that is disappointing but not surprising. This widespread pseudo-scientific movement sought to prove white supremacy over other skin pigment- and blood-based human “races” and that they were intellectually inferior too.

Many respected Americans accepted eugenics. Justice Holmes wrote an 8 - 1 court decision that made forced sterilization federal law. Sanger advocated a program of breeding for “the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks.” Kellogg believed that eugenic methods would help save the white race and supported racial segregation. As governor of New Jersey, Wilson signed a bill that forcibly removed reproductive rights from criminals or adults considered to be “feeble-minded” (in recent years his deep-seeded racism has also come to light).

If you ever wondered why Native peoples were forcibly displaced from their lands; Jim Crow segregation went unchallenged in the South for so long; and miscegenation statutes were enacted in many states to prevent the legal marriage of and procreation by people with mixed race, eugenics is the answer. As a movement it took hold in the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century and was quickly exported to nativist, nationalist, and exclusionist nations that claimed their blood was pure blood.

“Eugenics” derives from Greek to mean “good birth.” It is the application of genetic and heredity “science” as the basis for improving the human race and relegating those who do not fit the genetic schematic to second class (or lower) strata. The term eugenics was first coined by Francis Galton in the late 1800’s. Originally, he determined that traits such as superior intelligence were hereditary and advocated selective breeding programs (a form of genetic engineering). This idea of building a master race was adapted as the Nazi Lebensborn breeding program.

American eugenics was championed by Charles Davenport, a respected biologist, and Harry Laughlin, a former teacher. In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.” The ERO assembled data about family traits, particularly interested in the inheritance of “undesirable aspects,” such as mental disability, dwarfism, promiscuity and criminality. The list went on. The ERO remained active for three decades.

The first time, I ever heard even a whisper about this hushed piece of American history was in a scene in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgement At Nurnberg, when the actor Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe, defense lawyer for the four German judges on trial for their complicity and direct crimes during the Nazi era, including forced sterilization, quotes Justice Holmes who stated in one of the most infamous Supreme Court, decisions, Buck vs, Bell (1927):
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

This concept was directly attributable to the eugenicist thinking that prevaricated biological proof that a superior populace should procreate and to lay claim to a state of racial purity. Eugenics was also used to justify the lower-caste status and subjugation of native, minority and racial “inferiors.” The consequence of eugenics (which like some viruses is dormant but never really cured) is the fatally false notion of racial superiority that infected (and arguably still influences) everyday life, such as the authorship, illustration and design of such seemingly innocuous books for children such as Our America: Little Stories for Young Patriots (1941). This innocent volume attempts to teach the concept of inclusion and equality, as illustrated, as shown here, the unexplained exclusion of non-white people. Eugenics was employed to ensure that white remained dominant (yes, even today).

Jobs | June 19