The mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit…they must learn that among human races and groups, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity really counts. – W.E.B Dubois
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that when most people think of eugenics, they think of specters past and in their most abhorrent forms. Forced sterilizations. Anti-miscegenation laws. Kidnapping of indigenous children into mandatory assimilation programs. Ethnic cleansing. Racial purification. Nazis. Apartheid. Genocide. More broadly, they’d equate eugenics with selective breeding, the legal extermination/forced isolation/discouraged reproduction of any number of “undesirables”: namely non-whites, the poor, the disabled or anyone deemed to be mentally, intellectually, or racially “unfit”. The parameters of these categories of course, are largely determined by white supremacy and its attendant isms: racism, sexism, classism, ableism. I would also say that most people don’t think about eugenics with any regularity at all. And I am most people. But shortly before the “Dismantling Eugenics” virtual conference, however, I found myself with eugenics on the brain. I’d recently reviewed Kyla Schuller’s book The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism for the New York Times and a brief but revealing segment on black eugenicists, including the epigraph above, gnawed at me. That Dubois, architect of the Talented Tenth and a stalwart, unapologetic early 20th century elitist, had a penchant for classism comes as no surprise. But Dubois’ clear advocacy for selective breeding was blackness and eugenics made complicated all at the same time. I arrived at the “Dismantling Eugenics” conference eager to learn more about not only eugenics origins but its intersections with contemporary discourses about blackness, disability, and ableism. It did not disappoint.
Part of the conference’s success can be directly attributed to its commitment to a transdisciplinary approach but coupled with extremely thoughtful organization. The latter is necessary because it offsets a tactic that although generative, can be unwieldy. Still, my biases as an American Studies scholar aside, it is often the best possible approach to ‘big questions’ emanating from ‘big’ problems. This diverse convening of activists, and scholars —artists from multiple disciplines and impressively diverse racial, gender and sexuality orientations— created a capacious approach to eugenics that allowed for varying points of entry. For example, the “primer” approach of pre-convening symposiums made it easy for me to navigate my way through an informative refresher on the father of eugenics Francis Galton and learn more about eugenic practices, activism, and studies in the U.S, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. A deeper dive in the days following introduced me to Dr. Rana Hogarth’s work and the startling revelation that despite early 20th century eugenics clear dependence on racialized science that positioned black people as inherently inferior, surprisingly little work has been done exploring that critical collision. Bringing me squarely back into my initial interest in intra-racial eugenic practices was the real AF Black Disabled Men Talk podcast “What is Black Ableism“ with Leroy Moore, Keith Jones, Ottis Smith and Lateef McLeod. Particularly striking was their brilliant breakdown of exactly how and why famous black male intellectual leaders deliberately avoid addressing ableism because it threatens clearly revered tropes of black masculinity and desirability. This made painfully clear the ways that black ableism’s benign neglect intersects with toxic black masculinity. Another favorite panel with writer and performance artist Alok explored the ways eugenics undergirds fat/queer/trans/phobia unwittingly shaping and constricting contemporary constructions of beauty.
The biggest take away for me however was also the most daunting: the noxiousness of white supremacy noted, eugenics deep entrenchment gets its biggest assist from the eternally pervasive human desire to want to be better than someone else. This is why “Dismantling Eugenics” was so very necessary. To paraphrase many of the panelists, “the only way to get our arms around is to smoke it out of hiding.”
Dr. Joan Morgan is an award-winning writer and the Program Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at the Institute of African American Affairs and NYU.