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The Brian Lehrer Show: Reckoning with History of Eugenics

Jack Tchen, professor of Public History & Humanities and director at the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University Newark and Cara Page, grassroots organizing director of the Anti-Eugenics Project and founding director of the cultural memory project, Changing Frequencies talk about reckoning with how eugenicist ideals are still wrapped up in current social structures, and discuss their work toward what they call an anti-eugenics future.

Jack Tchen: Thank you, Brian.

Cara Page: Thank you.

Brian Lehrer: Jack, as a refresher, what is eugenics, and what was the 1921 International Eugenics Congress?

Jack Tchen: Well, eugenics comes out of American elite breeding practices. Just imagine breeding racehorses, and showcase dogs, champion dogs and it was really an effort to breed, "Well breed, well breed" to maximize the qualities that the elite patricians were seeking and to minimize or dysgenic practices of bad breeds. In other words, sorting out the good from the bad, getting rid of the bad, and maximizing the good and it was applied towards humans. Eugenics was the brave new world sense among these elites that they needed to do this to improve society and part of it was really this moral panic of the great numbers of Europeans coming into the United States, into New York City, and essentially invading their city.

These were people, of course, coming from all parts of Europe, Jews, Italians especially seeking a better life and they were trying to find jobs that were being advertised and manufacturing businesses and elsewhere and the elites who have established Fifth Avenue as their domain and just think of the Carnegie mansions and the Astor's and all the other, the Rockefellers who had kind of settled from around the country into Fifth Avenue and thinking that this was their city on a hill, it kind of goes back to in some ways, kind of Puritan practices and really believing that they were the select people.

Brian Lehrer: Well, how are they going to stop Jews and Italians, for example, and there are others but the two groups you mentioned, how are they going to stop Jews and Italians who are coming in through Ellis Island from having kids?

Jack Tchen: Well, there was that and they also instituted the 1924 Immigration Act, which basically dropped the numbers coming through in 1890. Drop the numbers to 2% of the "inferior Europeans" which were classified by Madison Grant as Alpines or central Eastern Europeans and those even more inferior "the Mediterraneans." They were all dropped to 2% of that number.

Brian Lehrer: Sure, but that's immigration law and when we talk about eugenics, I think we're talking about somehow limits on reproduction?

Jack Tchen: As well, yes. That a lot of the sterilization advocacy policies and population control policies begin to emerge out of these same very same logics as well as the carceral practices of segregating those who are "unfit or the dysgenics" from keeping the mainstream society as a place for the "fit."

Brian Lehrer: Cara, I wonder what else you see as the political or social backdrop of the eugenics movement of a century ago? Because Jack mentioned the immigration but other things happening at that time in this country included women getting the right to vote one year earlier, Jim Crow laws taking deeper root in the south right at the same time, the flu pandemic, and World War II had just ended. What else connects with people taking eugenics seriously in 1921?

Cara Page: Thank you. It's an honor to be here. What you're really wrestling with is looking at post-slavery, post-emancipation, understanding the regulatory laws and policies that were still implicitly racist, that were still trying to establish an us and them society. Using eugenic ideologies to really differentiate between those that were still perceived as having a predilection to criminalities or disabilities or disease which included right formerly enslaved African people, indigenous people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and incarcerated people, that eugenics was used to really create this perversive idea in society that some communities would always, based on their genetic materials, have a predilection to becoming criminals or dependence on society, and therefore should be genetically removed.

Read entire article at WNYC