Institutionalized Racism and the Eugenics Movement in the USA during the Early 20th Century

How scientific racism and eugenics have shaped the U.S. mindset from the early Puritans to WWII

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

41 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The construction of cultural concepts
2.1. The construction of the collective memory and ideology
2.2. The construction of a racial identity

3. Institutionalized racism in the U.S. in the early twentieth century

4. The eugenics movement in the U.S. in the early twentieth century

5. Conclusion

Works Cited


Magazine articles

Online resources

1. Introduction

Racist Ideology touched ground in America with the arrival of the Puritans, who established a restrictive apparatus that had been governed and controlled by a white Anglo-Saxon power relations ever since. They believed to be superior over the American Natives due to divine prophecy. The mistreatment of ethnic minorities throughout the entire American history, e.g. the subjugation, expulsion and the near extinction of Native Americans or the enslavement and exploitation is deeply rooted in the ideology of a white superior race, regarding non­-white ethnicities as weak and inferior and in terms of their different cultural behaviour as barbaric and heathenish and therefore not worthy of equal treatment.

Yet, it was not before the nineteenth century that an overly culturally justified racism became subject to "scientific determinism". Natural and social science sought to constitute a law of general understanding to explain and predict scientific inquiry by modelling the conditions necessary to produce any natural or social phenomenon. This law or formula could be used to manipulate the conditions to produce the predicted or desired outcome, bestowing a god-like status of infallibility on science. With the beginning of the twentieth century, prestigious academics and esteemed scientists merged in the law of natural order as postulated by Charles Darwin, the recently rediscovered Mendelian law and Puritanism to create a powerful pseudoscientific movement heralding the 'white race' as the pinnacle of human civilization. They introduced a racialized hierarchy based on the ability and worth of human beings whom they would measure through the evaluation of their different biological and cultural traits which they believed to be inherited and thus indelible racial markers. Strongly related to the theory of the "Great Chain of Being" which was popular among scientists in Victorian England, they saw the white or the Nordic race due to its superior ability, intelligence and strength as to occupy the top position in this chain gradually descending towards the lowest position occupied by African people, regarded as animalistic and often compared to apes. American scientists adopted the concept of what they claimed to be a natural order favouring the white race and maintaining its status quo by systematically denying 'inferior' races or classes the possibility of social and economical progress. Their purpose was to sort out those who would not meet their standards of human value adding a social component to their racial agenda. With the beginning of the twentieth century, U.S. Anglo- Saxon intelligentsia started waging a war against everyone who they saw 'unfit, weak: or defective and therefore incapable of self-sustenance.

These undesired individuals were considered a burden to themselves posing a serious threat to society and eventually mankind. The solution was the application of draconian measures such as segregation, sterilization and elimination of the socially inadequate. The pseudo scientific movement devoted to that endeavour was called eugenics.

Eugenics, both the ideology and the movement that propagated it were the twentieth century interpretation of a set of philosophical maxims that had long prevailed within Western thought. The all-encompassing eradication of those considered weak or physically deficient had already been common among the ancient Spartans and can also be traced to the writings of Aristotle and Plato such as Politics or Republic where they suggest supplying the state with the power to control procreation with respect to mental or physical soundness. Scaled models and systems of human worth have been devised throughout the entire history of intellectual thinking. During the late nineteen century, Social Darwinism and the employment of a "survival of the fittest" tenet to social theory started occupying the mindset of a rapidly growing public opinion devoted to social and economical progress paving the way for the eugenic ideology propelling it into a movement of international scope. (Winfield, 2007)

The term eugenics derives from the word 'eu' (good or well) and the suffix -genes (born) was coined by British mathematician and natural scientist Francis Galton in 1883. He was a half-cousin to Charles Darwin whose work Origin of Species (1859) provided the scientific backdrop for his lifetime devotion to the heredity of human abilities. In his book Inquiries into human faculty and its development (1883) he advocated the encouragement of the early marriage between families of high stand through "monetary incentives" which were supposed to provide the financial means necessary for the successful procreation of the socially adequate and the proliferation of a 'superior stock', which became known as positive eugenics. As Galton's eugenics theory swapped over to the United States at the turn of the century, it was enthusiastically embraced by the academic elite and wealthy capitalists as the scientific justification and ideological framework for perpetuating their view of the thousands of immigrants who would overflow the American shores everyday disseminating their defective genetic material over the country as well as of those whose parasitically benefit from the charity and benevolence of the state and living on the costs of the hard-working, pious Anglo-Saxon community. They had to be dealt with. The radical idea of eradicating the unwanted and the respective measures applied became known as negative eugenics.

In the early twentieth century, American eugenicists launched a nation-wide pseudoscientific campaign against the spread of "inferior blood" and "worm eaten stock" as John Franklin Bobbitt, the highly respected "Father of Education", famous author of The Curriculum (1913) and fiery eugenicist bad described one of their primary objectives in Practical Eugenics (1909). Unlike Social Darwinists who rejected charity and education of any kind in order not to interfere with natural selection, eugenicists believed that social ills and deficiencies would not be able to fix themselves and that social progress required governmental intervention. (C.f. Bobbitt 387) Widespread opinion among eugenicists supported the idea that the process of evolution and natural selection would be too slow and not suffice to appropriately serve the needs of a civilized society. Cautiously embedded in the mindset of the American people through media such as newspapers, medical books or scientific reviews and constantly propagated through institutions such as the nations' elite universities and state schools, eugenics soon became a respected field of science and was not much questioned by the broadest part of society unaware of its ultimate goal, to wipe out the weak. Provided with almost unlimited financial assets courtesy of the wealthiest dignitaries of corporate America and legally approved by state agencies and governmental institutions headed by minds who thought alike, they led a crusade of dystopian proportion targeting thousands of blacks, Mexicans, Eastern or South-Eastern immigrants, poor whites, homeless, petty criminals, illiterates, mental defectives, disfigured persons, sexually deviants, epileptics, blind, deaf or those who were just reluctant to the eugenicists' way of thinking. All of them were, regardless of their skin colour, of 'inferior stock' and 'impure blood', hence worthless of contributing to the creation of a Nordic super race. During 1916 and 1930, more than a decade before the atrocities committed in the concentration camps of Nazi-Germany overshadowed the entire world, American eugenicists, with the assistance of capitalist power and federal law, thoroughly veiled by pseudoscientific scrutiny and philanthropy, organized, orchestrated and exercised what most probably provided a blueprint for institutionalized methods of 'racial and ethnical cleansing' and the 'purification of blood' through mass segregation, forced sterilization, castration, euthanasia and eventually elimination of the 'unfit', employed by the dominant political regimes and dictators throughout the following four decades of the twentieth century.

Respectively, this work's thesis claims that the American eugenics movement and institutionalized racism were deeply intertwined and conditioned each other directly. As the movement was systematically designed as a long-term operation to be promoted and applied to socio-economical and political conflicts on an international scale its chief-advocates needed to undermine the societal key institutions such as universities, state and federal courts, mass media in order to successfully promote and disseminate their racial agenda. Tue United States only served as giant model laboratory to put global eugenicist and racist ideologies to the test and promote their hidden agenda, the final eradication of the inferior and the breeding and worldwide dominion of a Nordic master race. The work will critically elaborate on institutionalized racism and eugenics in the United States of America during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The first part will briefly examine the sociological function of cultural concepts and racist ideologies forming and shaping the collective memory of people in order to affect their judgement to a desired end. The main part will separately focus on governmental and state institutions deliberately established to exercise national racist policy and on the American eugenics movement during that period, consequently pointing out the ramifications and interrelation between national bureaucracy, political, social and educational institutions and the eugenics movement. The final part will conclude and evaluate the findings with respect to the work's thesis.

2. The construction of cultural concepts

2.1. The construction of the collective memory and ideology

In her book Eugenics and Education in America (2007), Ann Gibson Winfield states that the American society shares a collective memory that forms, shapes and defines the way people think about cultural constructs such as race, ability and human value. This common mindset dilates into practically all public perception. This observation is crucial to the comprehension of how racial ideologies are imbued in the collective memory of a society supporting the establishment and sustenance of a repressive system which understands to convert the ideas of a few into issues of mass interest. In Power, Racism and Privilege (1973) William J. Wilson delivers a definition of racism by distinguishing between racism and ethnocentrism.

He compares both by pointing out their essential differences. He regards ethnocentrism

"as a principle of individous group distinction with reference to either cultural or physical criteria, racism is different as an ideology of racial domination or exploitation that (1) incorporates beliefs in a particular race's cultural and/or inherent biological inferiority and (2) uses such belief to justify and prescribe inferior or unequal treatment for that group". (Wilson 32)

According to Michael Freeden in ldeology: A very short lntroduction (2003), a political ideology is "a set of values, opinions and ideas that (1) exhibit a recurring pattern; (2) are held by significant groups; (3) compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy; and (4) do with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community. To understand how concepts and ideologies work it is important to understand how language functions and where it derives its power from. Language is the primary sign system applied to form and communicate meaning. By representing social practices, that means, by repeatedly exercising commonly approved, behaviour and by communicating it through language, we do not only constitute meaning, but we also simultaneously organize and structure these processes. Thus words and concepts develop certain historically/culturally connotations and function as tropes. Learned cultural behaviour is transformed into customs, habits and laws which express and govern social relationships or power relations. Power relations are permanently established, exerted, rejected and renewed in cultural institutions such as family, education, media, churches, etc. There are ideological positions within these institutions called 'discourses'.

By imposing culturally constructed meaning of a society, these discourses form a concept of a common identity which is maintained through power. However, as much as culture itself is dynamic and ever-changing, discourse and power relations within a certain cultural system are inevitably submitted to transformation or change. Certain discourses become dominant, establish a social order and are challenged by counter-discourses questioning and resisting that order by providing alternative cultural concepts which themselves might become dominant.

2.2. The construction of a racial identity

This discourse has remained dominant for centuries due to its prevailing ideological concept in the everlasting play of contrasts, in this case "black" against ''white". The idea of the colors black and white representing and signifying two specifically opposing ethnical and cultural concepts, derives it importance from this very ideological context. "Ethnicity", which is generally defined as an idea based on the sharing of norms, values, beliefs, cultural symbols and practices, is completely relational. That means that our identity solely depends on what we think we are not. By relating to a certain group and its social conventions and practices, we clearly distinguish and separate ourselves from other people who do not share these ideas. That is how we constitute our own identity, either in terms of ethnicity, race or nation. The concept of "black" and ''white" constituting two extremely different cultural counterparts could only prevail by consistently creating myths about the "others" and how they have been' described and depicted in Anglo-Saxon literature throughout the centuries.

According to Edward Said's "Orientalism" (1978), the "western" comprehension of "Orientalism" and everything it is associated with is a "set of western discourses of power that have constructed an Orient in ways that depend on and reproduce the positional superiority and hegemony of the west ." That means that a certain constructed concept of the "Orient" or "otherness" is absolutely necessary to constitute a specific idea about the ''west." Tue ideologies and beliefs that are imposed on and shared by the members of "western societies", form their ethnical, racial and national identities that are maintained by metaphors of blood, kinship and homeland. There are different accounts on how and when whiteness became institutionalized as a racial category. Although different theorists of whiteness studies approach this subject from distinctive point of views, they all agree that colonial racial definitions did not explicitly generate :from an ideological point of view,

but also to establish a legal foundation in order to exclude non-whites from the material fortunes produced in a developing capitalistic meritocracy.

The awareness of thinking about colors as signifiers of ethnicity or racial identity emerged with the beginning of colonialism, where the ''white" Anglo-Saxon colonists promoted this concept of color to refer to people with different skin pigmentation in order to establish distinct social structures and power relations only they would benefit :from.

"Whiteness" was equated with purity, innocence, brightness, perfection and universally regarded as normality, whereas "black" was automatically attributed with darkness, dirt, impurity, the unknown, the mysterious, imperfection or even evil. It represented the extreme opposite of whiteness and was regarded as an inferior cultural concept that was applied to Asians, Africans, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Based on religious myths and completely culturally constructed, this idea of "white supremacy" over people considered to be ethnically and racially different, served as a means to establish "racialization" and enforce Anglo-Saxon power structures which led from the conquest, oppression or exploitation to the enslavement or even extinction of the "others" or so called inferior races. Although successfully refuted by today’s scientists, such race theories had been regarded as commonly approved scientific doctrines and constructed a predominant idea about race and constituted an own identity among the white members of 'western societies, which promoted racialization throughout the United States of America defined as follows:

"Accepting that 'skin colour', however rneaningless we know it to be, has strictly limited basis in biology opens up the possibility of engaging with theories of signification which can highlight the elasticity and emptiness of 'racial signifiers' as well as the ideological which has to be done in order to turn thern into signifiers of 'race' as an open political category, for it is struggle that determines which definitions of 'race' will prevail and the conditions under which they will endure or wither away."(Paul Gilroy)

European-American policies of conquest and expansion are based on the logic of "civilization" vs. "barbarism", the destruction of "heathendom" through "Christianity", e.g. the extermination of the Indians, slavery and disenfranchisement of non-whites. The false assumption of that time that race is rooted in biology and that multiple races exist, had been supported by the two fundamental and most influential cultural entities which have shaped western and U.S. discourse; religion and science, :from the biblical justification for slavery to early 20th century's natural science textbooks about race theories. William J. Wilson states:

"When the ideology of racial exploitation gives rise to normative prescriptions designed to prevent the subordinate racial group from participation in associations or procedures that are stable, organized and systematized (e.g„ the electoral process, residential patterns, and formal education), institutional racism exists. Institutional racism therefore represents the structured aspects of racist ideology."(Wilson 34)

3. Institutionalized racism in the U.S. in the early twentieth century

In his book The Invention of the White Race (1997) Theodore Allen, a representative of the Marxist approach to white power relations relates his thesis to the work of Edmond S. Morgan. Allen states that in pre-revolutionary Virginia, both blacks and whites, who had been forced to cultivate the colony's monoculture, which is tobacco, suddenly found them dis equated as the market broke down. They commonly rose up against their oppressors in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. The plantation owners decided to take actions by enforcing rules to separate the group from one another. A series of laws were enacted, promoting a counterfeited white supremacy to the costs of the disadvantaged African-Americans. These laws provided European-American bond servants with exclusive privileges only whites were entitled to, e.g. the right to vote. Subsequently, whiteness became a fundamental prerequisite for U.S. citizenship and for the benefits and privileges related to it. European immigrants became "free white persons" with respect to race and rights by making them participate in exercising the political discourse of the United States.

''that any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the Constitution of the United States " (1. Stat. 103)

Given these power of political liberty, those poor whites were incorporated into the network of cultural and political institutions, fostering the concept of white supremacy in order to protect white Anglo-Saxon material property. Thus, the colonial aristocracy established a buffer-class between the 'plantocracy' and the black slaves, who remained deprived of their rights.


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Institutionalized Racism and the Eugenics Movement in the USA during the Early 20th Century
How scientific racism and eugenics have shaped the U.S. mindset from the early Puritans to WWII
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Fakultät für Philologie)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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America's dark science, scientific racism, eugenics, USA, WWII
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Marcel Rychlak (Author), 2010, Institutionalized Racism and the Eugenics Movement in the USA during the Early 20th Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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