- Historic Sites
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
Laughlin found a highly effective ally in Henry H. Goddard. Among the first American social scientists to use intelligence testing, Goddard was looking for the causes of retardation and mental defectiveness, and his search led him to a family in the Piney Woods of New Jersey that would function, in Stephen Jay Gould’s words, “as a primal myth of the eugenics movement for several decades.”
The family consisted of two bloodlines living in close proximity, each descended from the same Quaker progenitor who left home to fight in the American Revolution. Before returning to the fold, marrying an upright woman, and settling down as a prosperous farmer, the wayward soldier sired an illegitimate son with a feeble-minded tavern wench in a nearby settlement. Two hereditary roads diverged in those Piney Woods, both of which Goddard gathered under the pseudonym of the Kallikaks ( kallos is the Greek for “beauty”; kakos , for “bad”). One led to generations of solid, hardworking citizens; the other, to a morass of felony, harlotry, and idiocy. Published in 1912, The Kallikak Family was widely quoted. It would be another 70 years before the photographs in the book, which displayed the imbecilic, almost demonic faces of the defective branch of the family, were exposed as having been heavily doctored to create the desired effect.
The spreading influence of eugenics not only drew on a conservative fear of lower-class behavior, and on the enthusiasm of middle-class progressives seeking scientific answers to the dislocations inflicted by industrialization and urbanization, but also attracted support from those even more radically opposed to the status quo. For the birth-control crusader Margaret Sanger, eugenics was “the great biological interpretation of the human race” that provided “the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.” The African-American writer and philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois even accepted the need for “the fit” of each race to increase their numbers, while vehemently rejecting the notions of white supremacy spouted by many eugenicists. African-Americans must learn, he wrote, “that among human beings, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity count.”
The aftermath of American participation in World War I provided an ideal environment for the movement. The postwar hysteria over alien radicals and the resurgence of the racist, antiforeign Ku Klux Klan signaled a wider willingness to curtail dramatically the influx of new immigrants. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race , published in 1916, had sounded a call to arms against “the maudlin sentimentalism” that left America’s borders open to the riffraff of Europe and that was “sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss.”
When, in 1921 the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization took up the issue of postwar controls on foreign entry into the United States, Chairman Albert Johnson called only one scientific expert, Harry Laughlin. Laughlin was charged with making a statistical survey of the impact of recent immigration. His findings, published by Congress, repeated what was by now a familiar refrain: “... the recent immigrants (largely from Southern and Eastern Europe) as a whole, present a higher percentage of inborn socially inadequate qualities than do older stocks.” In 1921 Congress took the historic step of imposing a quota system on immigration that was based on national origin and limited annual arrivals from Europe to 3 percent of those Americans who had claimed a specific country as their place of origin in 1910.
That same year, the Second International Congress on Eugenics was held in New York City, at the American Museum of Natural History, home to the recently established Gallon Society—the inner circle of the movement—and a center of eugenic fervor. In his opening address, Henry Fairfield Osborn, a professor at Columbia University and president of the museum, insisted that the battle “to maintain the predominance of our race” had still to be won. He warned that America must learn from the example of “national decadence and decline which undermined the great republics of Greece and Rome” and reject “the appeals of false humanitarianism.” As chairman of the Exhibits Committee at the conference, Harry Laughlin prepared elaborate displays on the genetic toxicity of the unfit. He displayed this skill again when Congress revisited its immigration restrictions imposed in 1921. In the months preceding passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, members of Congress and visitors walking the halls of the Capitol passed charts and posters that made clear the looming threat to the nation’s germ plasm.