Dismantling Eugenics: One Writer’s Response
In September of 1921, the Second International Eugenics Congress was held at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. That monthlong conference occupied three floors of the museum, had thousands of visitors, and brought together the movement’s leaders, lending momentum to an already-powerful movement. Within the decade, eugenic policies would become law in the United States, with immigration drastically restricted and compulsory sterilization legalized, and soon the writings of American eugenicists would inspire the leaders of the Nazi regime.
Though much of this is well known, the legacy of eugenics is far broader, deeper, and more enduring than commonly acknowledged. That was one message of Dismantling Eugenics, an online, weeklong convening held one hundred years after the 1921 Congress, and conceived as an “anti-centennial”: not commemoration but memory, an exploration of the past in the service of reckoning and justice.
I joined the convening as a writer-in-residence from my home in Oregon. What follows is both too brief and well over the suggested word count. Blame the richness of the presentations, which I can only touch on here, and treat this piece as an invitation to delve in further: the proceedings are available online and free for anyone to stream.
As organizer Milton Reynolds told us in his introductory address, there’s more than a single story of eugenics. What we call “eugenics” is a theory and a practice, a way of understanding and controlling human bodies, including the policing of borders, to the exclusion of racialized others, to the sterilization, incarceration, and extermination of bodies deemed deviant or unfit. As historian Richard Clemminson noted, eugenics was and is “plastic,” changing with different contexts.
In panels held on the first day, historians and activists noted the changing face of eugenics across Europe, the Global South, and the Americas. Despite its local variations, though, one common feature is the link between eugenics and nation formation. Discussing the history of eugenics in Central and Eastern Europe, sociologist Bolaji Balogun pointed to the 2015 migration crisis, where the question of whether to welcome Afghan refugees to Poland was related to the question of who is truly “European.” These impulses, of course, are playing out now at the United States’ Southern border. In fact, as Mark Tseng-Putterman explained, the entire apparatus of immigration enforcement began with a racialized ideology, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, through to the Mounted Patrol at the turn of the century, then the Border Patrol. That system of enforcement has vastly expanded, but the rhetoric aimed at immigrants—a toxic brew of disease, deviance, and sexual and economic threat—persists to this day.
That persistence was a major theme of the convening. As multiple speakers demonstrated, eugenic values endure and flourish. These included ableism as an anchoring value (Talila Lewis, Lydia X.Z. Brown); the ideal of human perfectibility, with intellect and beauty, among others, the values to be aimed for (Angela Saini); the rigidity of race as a biological category; the belief in a hierarchy of races, with the ideal of Anglo-Saxon whiteness at the summit; the policing of perceived sexual deviancy; and the measurement of intelligence. (One powerful moment: the reading aloud of Henry Fairfield Osborn’s welcome address to the 1921 conference. It was, with its blunt racism and xenophobia, its unabashed white supremacy, at once shocking and utterly contemporary.)
Here, too, the plasticity of eugenics is relevant: its “epistemic flexibility,” per the literature and gender studies scholar Asha Nadkarni, has been key to its endurance. But eugenics is not merely a matter of ideas, but of people and institutions. After the revelation of Nazi horrors, “eugenics” became a pejorative word, but its spirit endured, as its advocates turned to other, related causes. As historian Lina Maria-Murillo told us, eugenicists rebranded themselves, after the war, as interested in “population control.” And as N. Ordover explained, The Pioneer Fund, a “race betterment” foundation dating to 1937, is still in operation; its first president was the notorious eugenicist Harry Laughlin, and it has continued to fund openly racist publications and writers.
So eugenics is transnational, adaptable, and endlessly evolving. But resistance to eugenics has its own tradition, and has evolved with the times as well. It includes figures as different from each other as the conservative Catholic G.K. Chesterton and the radical anthropologist Franz Boas. And even before eugenics coalesced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Ruha Benjamin noted, the racist visions of 18th century naturalist Georges Cuvier were opposed by his student Friedrich Tiedemann. Speakers from multiple disciplines agreed that we must, in Benjamin’s words,“denaturalize these racist visions,” exposing them as unjust and unscientific. As genetic epidemiologist Charles Rotimi explained, “we are all admixed,” and dividing the admixture into racial groups is “like slicing soup.” In her discussion of the nexus of racism, technology, and eugenics, Benjamin noted the centrality of data collection to eugenics, but traced a counter-narrative of liberatory approaches to data, from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells to the tech accountability movement today.
Eugenics, as Benjamin argued, is productive: it is a way of imagining the world. In keeping with this view, the resistance to eugenics is an act of counter-imagination. One example came from textile artist Judy Dow. In response to the logo of the Second International Congress—the “Eugenics Tree,” with its slogan “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution”—Dow created a tapestry of an Anti-Eugenics Tree. Its slogan: “Anti-eugenics is the collective creation of an equitable and healthy world for all.” Throughout the conference, artists offered alternatives to eugenic visions. From krip-hop to dance to the work of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo—whose conversation with curator Rick West was a highlight of the conference—art, no less than history, sociology, or genetics, was shown as a powerful tool to help dismantle eugenics. If eugenic thinking is essentialist, class-based, anti-democratic, hierarchical, then a community-based radical art might point the way to reimagining the nature of community. A standout piece, for me, was “Where Good Souls Fear,” a short video featuring the dancer Alice Sheppard both in performance and zipping through New York City in her wheelchair, a fisheye lens pointed at her as she calls out to pedestrians (“on your left”), negotiates subway steps, and refuses to apologize for herself. Sheppard’s video and performance meditate on the disabled body in public space; at the same time, she argues against a conventional idea of assistive technology, describing her wheelchair and crutches “as body, not tech.”
If one goal of the convening was, in the words of Lina-Maria Murillo, to “bring the present into conversation with the past,” another was to move the conversation forward. Lydia X.Z. Brown, an advocate, organizer, attorney, strategist, and writer, spoke passionately about discrimination against autistic people, and the links between this discrimination and other forms, the policing of bodies and minds judged to be deviant. Related to this, Brown identified a core problem of eugenics: problems are situated in individuals, which leads us to “moralize and medicalize,” while avoiding the problem of oppressive structures. Like many, Brown pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on people with disabilities, those “at the margins of the margins.” Brown ended by advocating a disability justice framework as a way forward, asking the question: “What are we building?” Sebastian Margaret, an educator and activist, also had a systemic focus, arguing that a capitalist system, in which “lives [are] valued for the capacity to produce wealth for the wealthy,” are inherently hostile to disabled people. To this critique, Margaret added an ethos of self-acceptance: “we embrace the biology that has been deemed to be defective.”
For me, that line hit home. I began thinking and writing about disability, and eventually eugenics, after the birth of my second daughter Laura, who has Down syndrome. For this reason, the convening’s focus on disability was welcome, as was the understanding that policing and eliminating disability is both central to eugenics and indistinguishable from the legacy of white supremacy. In other words, the convening was, like eugenics itself, synthetic and interdisciplinary, a true anti-centennial. A complex history demands a complex response.
I’ve only touched on the rich variety of Dismantling Eugenics, and I’ve left out brilliant presentations from many: Susan Schweik, Thomas Leonard, Evelynn Hammonds, Alexandra Minna Stern, and Subhadra Das, to name only a few. But I’ll mention one talk that I found particularly moving: Mary Bishop’s reporting on the victims of forced sterilization in Virginia, many of whom are still alive. In Lynchburg, Bishop found an extraordinary legacy of systemic injustice, underwritten by incarceration and surveillance: a system in which unwanted children were not only sterilized, but who became cheap labor for wealthy citizens, perpetually tracked, always under threat of return to the institution. Bishop found lives disrupted, men and women who had always hoped to have children and could not, many of whom showed “an extreme tenderheartedness towards children and animals.” Bishop’s journalism showed that the legacy of eugenics is in bodies as well as in ideas, and in unjust systems: an “apparatus,” as she put it, that simply continued on its own. Her work, like the work of so many at the conference, pointed to the need to make the victims of eugenics visible, and to expose unjust systems, so that alternatives might be imagined.
George Estreich is the author of Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves, named by NPR’s Science Friday as a Best Science Book of 2019. He lives in western Oregon. More: http://georgeestreich.com/