Confronting Our Eugenic Past and Genetic Future

Roundup: Historians' Take

Edwin Black, writing in Newsday (Oct. 2003):

On October 14, the Senate unanimously passed America's first serious anti-genetic discrimination bill, which now goes to the House for consideration. The measure would forbid discrimination by insurers, employers and others based on genetic background or identity, just as current protections cover workplace or financial bias because of race, religion and national origin.

All eyes are now on the House. If the bill does pass the House, it is expected to receive an enthusiastic signature from President George Bush. If anti-gene-lining legislation succeeds, it would mark the first time America has preemptively checked an entire category of discrimination before society accumulates thousands of victims. As such, we are confronting our future before a dismal new legacy is created.

In so doing, our nation must also confront the dismal legacy of American eugenics, where genetic information was twisted and distorted into an official crusade to create a white, master blond-haired and blue-eyed Nordic race. In the process, the reproductive ability of all other peoples who did not resemble this Nordic ideal would be eliminated.

It took me and some fifty researchers two years, delving through dozens of archives to retrieve some 50,000 pages of documentation to connect the dots for my book War Against the Weak, Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. The story is an ugly one.

In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy combined with prestigious academic fraud to create the pseudoscience eugenics that institutionalized race politics enshrined as national policy with enabling legislation in 27 states. These laws were ruled constitutional and the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The method? By identifying so-called "defective" family trees and subjecting them to legislated segregation and sterilization programs. But eugenicists also talked about public gas chambers and medicalized euthanasia. Indeed, doctor-organized euthanasia was sporadically practiced.

The victims: poor people, brown-haired white people, African Americans, immigrants, Indians, Eastern Europeans, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the superior genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists. The main culprits were the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, in league with America's most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, operating out of a complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island....

[W]hile the House ponders the anti-genetic discrimination bill to guard our future, America must also explore its own biological crimes. Society must ensure that the much needed, long overdue genie of human genetics will never return to the black days of eugenics--from whence it came.

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