By Jonathon Carrington
Special to AFRO

Historically, in the United States and abroad, social policies originated out of the need to forcibly sterilize and rehabilitate the “feeble-minded,” “unfit,” and “insane.” These ideas led to development of public policy and programs that worked to advance and promote the segregation, displacement, and genocide of a multitude of Americans predominantly from racial and ethnic groups.  

In the antebellum period, many southerners and northerners alike in the United States sought out “scientific proof” to counter any human rights claims for racial equality. In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, an American physician practicing in Mississippi and Louisiana, investigated the “diseases and peculiarities of the negro race” published in a report in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, in England, coined the term “eugenics” to describe the concept of the modification of natural selection through selective breeding for the improvement of mankind.

Jonathon Carrington (Courtesy Photo)

Eugenics in the United States was applied as a means to eliminate social ills such as homelessness by preventing the “feeble-minded” from reproducing or building family systems. U.S. leaders during that time applied eugenics in the development of public policies aimed to “improve” society and the population. The eugenics movement was not created out of the mindset that specific groups of people were inferior or less human than others. Eugenicists, such as Swedish Economist Gunnar Myrdal disavowed racism. Due to “part of the scientifically oriented planning of the new welfare state,” they did not see sterilization of the “unfit” as a “biological error.” They held onto the naive faith that science would prove to cure all social ills, and that the state, guided by subject matter experts, would prove to be the best guarantor of human biological progress. 

In 1892, Congress allocated $20,000 to the Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate urban slums in cities with at least 200,000 residents. This act of Congress reinforced the eugenics movement in America, financed with corporate foundation dollars from the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune. In 1906, J.H Kellogg of the Kellogg Foundation funded the Race Betterment Foundation. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt formed a formal housing commission to continue these investigations. In 1910, renowned Harvard-trained biologist Charles B. Davenport used his funding to support his eugenics research. He founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), one of the leading organizations in the American Eugenics movement. This organization provided training and support for eugenics field workers who were sent out to analyze individuals at various institutions such as mental hospitals and orphanages across the United States. In Davenport’s 1910 published book, “Eugenics: The Science of Human Development by Better Breeding”, he insisted that “vastly more effective than ten million dollars to ‘charity’ would be ten millions to Eugenics”. He continued with stating that “he who, by such a gift, should redeem mankind from vice, imbecility and suffering would be the world’s wisest philanthropist”.

Margaret Sanger, a prominent feminist during the Eugenics movement, advocated that birth control as means of prevention of unwanted children born into a disadvantaged life. Sanger, a Rockefeller grantee and Founder of Planned Parenthood, incorporated the use of language about Eugenics in her work, advancing the movement. In her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization, included a chapter called “The Cruelty of Charity”. She argued that America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.”. 

In March 1924, the state of Virginia passed two laws that advanced the progression of eugenics in the United States. The Racial Integrity Act targeted the “feeble-minded” and banned Whites from marrying non-Whites, backed by pseudo-scientific arguments based on eugenics. The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 stated that individuals who are confined to state institutions could be sterilized, specifically naming those “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.” In the Buck vs. Bell decision of May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that provided for the eugenic sterilization for people considered “genetically unfit”.

Eugenics received support nationally and globally until well into the 1940s. Leading economist John Maynard Keynes served on the governing council of the British Eugenics Society as its Director from 1937 to 1944. In 1946, Keynes called eugenics “the most important and significant branch of sociology”. While there is belief that eugenics is a thing of the past, the value and principles underpinning the policies have not disappeared. 

Jonathon Carrington, MA, is a writer and counselor living in the Washington, DC metropolitan region. His writings focus on housing justice, mental health, and workplace violence.