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Race Cleansing In America
A nationwide gene-purity movement promoted methods that eventually were adopted by the Third Reich. And everyone from John D. Rockefeller to W. E. B. Du Bois supported it.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
Carrie Buck was in her third year at the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the state’s right to sterilize her. Seventeen at the time she had been institutionalized, the child of a feeble-minded mother and the mother to an illegitimate daughter of her own, Buck had refused to submit to sterilization, and the case had finally made its way to the nation’s highest court. Writing for a lopsided eight-to-one majority (which included Justices Louis Brandeis and Harlan Fiske Stone as well as Chief Justice William Howard Taft), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes left no doubt about either the overall legality of the procedure or its appropriateness for Miss Buck.
“It is better for all the world,” Justice Holmes asserted in Buck v. Bell, “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.” In the case of Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter, the requirement of sterilization was glaringly self-apparent. “Three generations of imbeciles,” Holmes concluded, “are enough.”
None of the justices who decided Buck’s fate ever saw or met her. They relied in part on the expert opinion of Dr. Harry Hamilton Laughlin to help them make up their minds. Though Laughlin had never met her either, a report had been sent to him at the Eugenics Record Office, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. After reviewing the documentation, including a score on the Stanford-Binet test that purportedly showed Buck had the intellectual capacities of a nine-year-old, Laughlin concluded that she was part of the “shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South” whose promiscuity offered “a typical picture of the low-grade moron.”
Laughlin passed over the possibility that Buck’s supposed imbecility might be the sullen withdrawal of an abused, frightened girl with little formal education, who had been given away by her mother at the age of four. He almost certainly had no knowledge that she had been raped and impregnated by a friend of her foster parents and sent away to have her baby in the confines of an institution so there would be no public scandal. For Laughlin, the notion that Buck’s “feeble-mindedness” could be anything but hereditary was “exceptionally remote.”
Buck had been made a test case of Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law, which was in good measure based on a “model” statute Laughlin himself had drafted, and he believed that if the Supreme Court upheld Buck’s sterilization, it would lead to the widespread passage of similar legislation in other states. Once this happened, the eugenics movement would have a potent weapon against those who, in his own words, “through inherent defects and weakness are an economic and moral burden ... and a constant source of danger to the national and racial life.”
Rendered in May 1927, Buck v. Bell’s judicial endorsement of compulsory sterilization proved the landmark victory many eugenicists had sought. Several states acted quickly to pass new or revised sterilization laws. By 1932, 28 states had such legislation in place. The annual average of forced sterilizations increased tenfold, from 230 to almost 2,300, and one year reached nearly 4,000. By the 1970s, when compulsory sterilization had largely ceased, more than 60,000 Americans had been subjected to the procedure and eugenics had had a long life in America as a pervasive public force.
Eugenics—the theory as well as the word (which means “wellborn”)—originated with Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Inspired by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Galton’s study of the family backgrounds of prominent members of British society led him to the conclusion that achievement and heredity were clearly linked. He declared in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences: “It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality.” A wise and enlightened state, in Galton’s view, would encourage “the more suitable races or strains of blood” to propagate and increase their numbers before they were overwhelmed by the prolific mating habits of the pauper classes.
Galton’s beliefs were mirrored in the work of Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician who warned of the “atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.” (Robert Louis Stevenson made Lombroso’s theory the basis of his novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Lombroso wrote: “There exists, it is true, a group of criminals, born for evil, against whom all social cures break as against a rock—a fact which compels us to eliminate them completely, even by death.”
In 1874 Richard Dugdale, a wealthy English expatriate social reformer, made a tour of upstate New York jails. Acquainted with Lombroso’s notion of hereditary criminality, he focused in particular on a jail in which six inmates were related and found that they shared a family tree perennially abloom with social deviates. He called them the “Jukes,” and gave the pseudonym to his book.