Tony Platt, Alexandra Stern: It's time to stop honoring the leaders of the eugenics movement





[Tony Platt, professor emeritus of social work at Cal State Sacramento, is the author, with Cecilia O'Leary, of "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws, From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" (Paradigm Publishers, 2006). Alexandra Minna Stern is the Zina Pitcher collegiate professor of the history of medicine at University of Michigan and the author of "Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America" (University of California Press, 2005). ]

Many communities around the country are grappling with what to do about schools, buildings, monuments and public places named after Confederate heroes or people who profited off slavery and racism. The University of Colorado renamed a residence hall after it came to light that the original honoree had participated in a 19th century massacre of American Indians. Brown University did a thorough study of the "grievous crimes" committed by its founders who owned slaves or captained slave ships.

California faces its own dilemma: What to do about the legacies of honored public figures who promoted and justified racism in the name of "eugenics," and about the institutions that made them honorable.

Eugenics, popular across the globe from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, was politically and ideologically diverse, and ranged from the "softer" pronatalist eugenics of France to the annihilationist "racial science" of Nazi Germany.

Between the world wars, California was one of the centers of the most virulently racist strand of eugenics. From Pasadena's Human Betterment Society to Sacramento's Eugenics Society of Northern California and San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, leading academics and policymakers promoted forced sterilization of the "socially inadequate," nativist immigration policies and educational tracking, all based on a belief in "Nordic" superiority.

At the forefront of these campaigns were some of our most distinguished citizens: Nobel prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan, Berkeley zoologist Samuel Holmes, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, family counseling guru Paul Popenoe and local philanthropist Charles Goethe. Goethe was publicly active in the 1930s as a defender of the Nazi regime's "honest yearnings for a better population."

Sacramento's school board is under community pressure to rename its Charles M. Goethe Middle School. For 45 years, the school has been named after a leader recognized by Sacramento State's first president as the city's "most remarkable citizen" and by then-Gov. Edmund Brown as the state's "No. 1 citizen."

But one of California's most renowned historical figures is fast becoming persona non grata. Sacramento State has taken Goethe's name off the campus arboretum and the mansion that he bequeathed to the university. And a member of the board of supervisors is talking about getting his name off a county park. Goethe will soon be out of sight in Sacramento.

We welcome this change in his standing and call on other cities to explore their ties with the eugenics movement. In San Francisco, until 2003 when it razed its buildings in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences housed a classroom dedicated to Goethe, one of the Morrison Planetarium's founding donors.

As historians who have done extensive research on American eugenics, we know that Goethe's primary legacy was one of racism, hatred and bigotry. He was born, raised, educated and died in Sacramento, but he was well known throughout the state. With money from his father, he became modestly successful in banking and real estate, but became wealthy in 1903 when he married Bay Area heiress Mary Glide. After her death in 1946, Goethe devoted most of his time to philanthropic and social causes. All of his activities and interests were guided by a fervent passion for eugenics and a conviction that the country's pure white stock was being degraded by foreign and racial contamination.

In the early 1920s, Goethe formed the Immigration Study Commission to lobby the state and federal governments to prevent the influx of "low powers" from Mexico. Unable to do that, he refused to sell Mexicans real estate. A few years later, he successfully pressed the Commonwealth Club to create a eugenics section to promote immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization.

In the early 1920s, Goethe formed the Immigration Study Commission to lobby the state and federal governments to prevent the influx of "low powers" from Mexico. Unable to do that, he refused to sell Mexicans real estate. A few years later, he successfully pressed the Commonwealth Club to create a eugenics section to promote immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization.

Goethe was proud about his bigoted views, writing in 1936, "We are moving toward the elimination of humanity's undesirables like Sambo, husband to Mandy, the 'washer-lady' ... whose unfitness to propagate is most glaring." He was also quick to praise a leading German racial scientist for his "marvelous work. America is flooded with anti-German propaganda," Goethe told his Nazi counterpart in 1937. "It is abundantly financed and originates from a quarter (Jews), which you know only too well."

Goethe stubbornly remained in the extremist camp throughout his life. In 1965, one year before his death and years after many scientists had rejected biological racism as scientifically simplistic and inhumane, Goethe sent money to a Dutch organization called the Northern League. It was established to "build cooperation between all Nordic peoples" to defend against contamination by "worthless peoples of Africa and Asia." We wish we had "more men like you among our members," the League wrote Goethe in a thank you letter.

The beliefs espoused by Goethe and similarly minded eugenicists during the 20th century articulated and reinforced institutionalized prejudice. Racially coded intelligence tests, for example, were used to label African American, immigrant and Mexican children as having below-average intelligence and channel them into vocational and remedial education.

As Goethe became more active in philanthropy during the last part of his life, many institutions and individuals shamelessly courted him for donations. Aware that he was childless and that his estate was worth millions, they also lobbied to be remembered in his will. Some turned a blind eye to his widely known racism, while others shared his views. As he got older, there was fierce competition to enhance Goethe's public reputation.

Sacramento was by no means unusual in its decision to honor Goethe by naming a middle school after him in 1962. In 1955, the University of Pacific awarded him an honorary doctorate. Several years later, Sacramento State named its science building and arboretum after its most generous benefactor.

"We cannot change the past," noted Brown University's Committee on Slavery and Justice, but "an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges."

There are different ways to express our commitment to retrospective justice. We can start by acknowledging the injustices committed in the name of eugenics. In California in 2003, activists and historians compelled then-Gov. Gray Davis to apologize for the more than 20,000 sterilizations, most involuntary, performed in the state's public institutions between 1909 and 1979.

Today, Sacramento confronts its own peculiar historical burden at Goethe Middle School. Not surprisingly, given the school's public commitment to preparing its diverse student population to "participate in our diverse multicultural society," many staff, parents and students want the school's name changed.

Yet as we move to erase Goethe's name from our public sites, we should remember the enduring harm he and his eugenic colleagues did, and how so many respectable Californians helped to legitimate the reputations of white supremacists.


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Randll Reese Besch - 6/28/2007

I salute their tenaciousness and their willingness to confront an ugly past.

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