American Eugenics Trinity, Part 2

Part Two in a Two-Part Series

[To read Part One, refer to the archive at]

With so much support drawn from both academia and the press, it becomes less surprising that state and local government would feel obliged to exploit the pervasive racism in the culture for the cause of eugenics. The fields of medicine, biology, as well as aspects of the burgeoning social science field, were legitimizing white supremacist and imperialist philosophy by giving it the veneer of empiricism, while the press happily promoted these concepts to the general public. The U.S. government did not necessarily need the realm of science and the print media to codify white supremacist laws and policies, but it certainly made the job easier. U.S. policy had already been essentially one of gaining and then preserving dominance for Americans of Anglo and Germanic ancestry. Since this was already part of U.S. procedure, in practice even when not in name, embracing white supremacist eugenic policy more overtly was a sensible move by those operating the levers of power in the United States government at both the state and federal level. “In America, eugenics would become more than an abstract philosophy; it would become an obsession for policymakers.”[1] As stated earlier, with the help of the eugenics movement, the U.S. was able to establish its history of African American, American Indian, and Asian American subjugation, as well as its newly-embraced imperialist aims, as holding scientific legitimacy. “The racial purity and supremacy doctrines embraced by America’s pioneer eugenicists were not the ramblings of ignorant, unsophisticated men. They were the carefully considered ideals of some of the nation’s most respected and educated figures, each an expert in his scientific or cultural field, each revered for his erudition.”[2]

Under the color of law, government at all levels in the United States enacted procedures to sterilize and even castrate individuals in mental institutions, prisons, and even poor houses. From there, with the eugenic academic establishment’s support and encouragement, laws based on race also began to take form due to a race-based eugenic ideal. The U.S. had a long history of anti-nonwhite legislation, but the backing of the eugenic wing of the scientific and medical communities legitimized such laws and created new ones. “In America… different races and ethnic backgrounds considered inferior were no more than a hereditary blight in need of eugenic cleansing… Defective humans were not just those carrying obvious diseases… but those whose lineages strayed from the Germanic, Nordic, and/or white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal.”[3]

In the case of the treatment of American Indians, the long and horrific history of U.S./Native relations was a bloody and sorrowful affair for more than a century already when the eugenics movement came into being in the United States. American Indians had been displaced, slaughtered, removed from their ancestral homes, had their treaties broken, their very lives and culture taken from them. The eugenics age in the U.S. was sadly just one more case of Indian exploitation and abuse. In the name of purifying the white race, laws were being passed by the 1920s which used the science of eugenics to rationalize them. “To halt mongrelization, a coalition of Virginia’s most powerful whites organized a campaign to create the nation’s stiffest marriage restriction law. It would ban marriage between a certified white person and anyone with even ‘one drop’ of non-Caucasian blood.”[4] The Carnegie Institution, a major pro-eugenic group, published the book The Mongrel Virginian in 1926. It was hailed as an academic breakthrough in the treatment of the different races. The subtitle of the book, The Win Tribe, was a term no one had ever been familiar with. This is because, as the book states, Win stood for white-Indian-negro, and was a label, created by white academics, to describe the mongrels who were seen as human mutts. “’The Wins themselves claim to be of Indian descent,’ the book asserted. ‘They are described variously as ‘low down’ yellow negroes, as Indians, [and] as mixed. No one, however, speaks of them as white.”[5]

The American southeast, and Virginia in particular more and more began to see American Indians as just another nonwhite class of people who did not deserve the distinction or the placement in society as those of the white community. A conflation between Native Americans and African Americans began to be much more utilized by whites in both academia as well as the state. “With its increasing miscegenation legislation, arbitrary census enumerations, separate school systems, and bifurcated southern racial hierarchy where all non-whites belonged to one undifferentiated racial group, many of the southeast’s Indians were increasingly constrained by a society that refused to recognize them as anything other than black.”[6] Further, elements in the government and the culture at large in the first few decades of the twentieth century sought to expunge American Indians from the history of the continent. It was no longer enough to diminish their numbers and remove them from their bygone homelands. Their influence now also had to be stricken from the historical record. “One century after the Indian Removal of the antebellum era, Native peoples in the American southeast provide an important but often overlooked example of how racial policies, this time rooted in eugenics, led to a documentary erasure of Indians as peoples in the twentieth century.”[7] This was done, in part, by forcing Native peoples to register themselves as either white or some nonwhite race other than American Indian on census records and other data in the early part of the twentieth century. Doing so made it much harder for American Indians to later receive official recognition of their Native ancestry because of existing documentation contradicting such claims. This was a cruelly brilliant means of diminishing the influence and identity of Native people nationwide—just as they became official citizens of the United States in 1924. Also, by asserting their dominion over deciding which American Indians would be categorized as native, white, or something else, the United States government facilitated the fracturing of inter-tribal relations and native self-identity even further. “In arrogating to themselves the power to identify and define Native peoples in the southeast, eugenicists… helped to promulgate public policies that led to Native displacement and detribalization.”[8]

The confluence of institutional powers during the progressive era which allowed the eugenics movement to make such a sweeping impact upon the entire country is worth some consideration. Academia, the press, and the state were only entirely capable of this grand effect with the cooperation, implicit or explicit, of all three parties. The fact that each of the three held within them enough influential individuals who supported the race-based eugenic theories to move the agenda forward at an alarmingly successful rate is quite telling and not often discussed. Regularly, there may be some time spent on the complicity of science and medicine in the eugenics policies of the early twentieth century. Academia more generally is similarly raked over the coals for its participation, as it should be. The U.S. federal government and individual state governments will, at times, be condemned for certain laws passed over a century ago, such as when Indiana “made its mark in medical history, and became the first jurisdiction in the world to legislate forced sterilization of its mentally impaired patients, poorhouse residents and prisoners,”[9] or when New Jersey passed legislation in 1911 which decreed that its Board of Examiners would “systematically identify when ‘procreation is inadvisable’ for prisoners and children residing in poorhouses and charitable institutions.”[10] That legislation curiously not only identified feeble-minded, epileptics, and certain criminals to be sterilized, but also a group obscurely denoted as “other defectives.”[11] Woodrow Wilson, who would be elected President of the United States within a year, signed the New Jersey legislation into law as its governor.

The press, however, as they often do, got a pass. There are countless newspaper articles excitedly advocating the eugenics movement, such as the ones included in this work, in archives all over the country. When the press gets something wrong, people move on. The press is not taken to task often for its failures, perhaps because it is a moving train, and is constantly driving forward. Because of this, however, the news media, then as today, can rely on the public having a short memory.

Nevertheless, the press could not have made the eugenics movement happen alone. They were merely its most vociferous and vocal supporters. It was the academic world who created and legitimized the entire eugenics meme, and it was government that transformed theory into policy—or used the theories to rationalize already-existing laws and programs. They were able to use eugenic philosophy to make sense of official, codified racism. The very way races were identified, by the amount of white, black, or native blood in one’s body, underlined how eugenics sanctioned deep-rooted and long-held prejudices. “[The] systematic categorization of race with its rules governing identity served to maintain not only white power and authority, but also as justification for black slavery and the dispossession of Native peoples. The amount of ‘blood’ required to be Indian (one-quarter) or black (one drop) reflected the difference in white attitudes toward Indians and blacks.”[12]

The American eugenics trinity is one of the most important, and most historic, accidental conspiracies to ever occur in the United States. The collusion that occurred did not need to be intensely orchestrated between academia, the press, and the state. The eugenics movement was not a cabal. It was a case of influential members within three of America’s largest bodies sharing similar aims, similar racial prejudices, similar quests for empire, and similar elitist tendencies. No orchestrated plan need be at work when enough individuals simply share the same ideal. The ideal in this case was a belief in white superiority, backed by alleged scientific evidence—which could then rationalize any and all policies that would expand the power of the state and create a supposedly higher caliber of human being. The best and the brightest of the United States press, universities, and government saw fit to embrace an ideology, cloaked in pseudoscientific jargon, which rationalized, justified, and made empirical sense of deeply-held supremacist philosophy. The ramifications of this philosophy were felt around the globe in the twentieth century, and its dark legacy remains to this day.


[1] Black, War Against the Weak, 19. [2]Ibid., 31. [3] Black, War Against the Weak, 29. [4]Ibid., 165. [5]Ibid., 180. [6] Angela Gonzales, Judy Kertesz, and Gabrielle Tayac, “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (2007): 54. [7]Ibid. [8]Angela Gonzales, Judy Kertesz, and Gabrielle Tayac, “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (2007): 66. [9]Black, War Against the Weak, 67. [10]Ibid., 68. [11] Black, War Against the Weak, 68. [12] Angela Gonzales, Judy Kertesz, and Gabrielle Tayac, “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (2007): 66.