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Can You Write a Check for Genocide?

America’s pseudo-scientific crusade to create a white, blond, blue-eyed biologically superior “master race” was a misguided twentieth century quest called eugenics. More than twenty-seven states joined the shameful decades-long utopian campaign of medically and legislatively engineered racial supremacy. But only one state, North Carolina, is now readying a massive plan of financial reparations to its surviving victims. Just how much North Carolina should pay is now the subject of a historically wrenching debate even as the state grapples with its budget deficit. 

Eugenics was a fraudulent social theory claiming that a better society could be created by eliminating “undesirable” human blood lines, while promoting the desirable types. This dark crusade was waged by progressives, liberal do-gooders, and social engineers who sought to forcibly manufacture a utopia. In Greek, the word utopia means “no where.”

Race science sprang to life in the socioeconomically convulsive first decade of the twentieth century, during which Asians, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Mexicans, Native Americans, Blacks, and other ethnic groups and racial mixtures flowed into U.S. cities, creating overcrowding and class conflict. The intellectual, academic, scientific, and financial elite—many of them wealthy ranchers and livestock breeders—believed better men and women could be cultivated using the same techniques a farmer would employ to create a better herd of cattle or field of wheat: eliminate the bad stock and proliferate the good. They planned to eliminate all those who did not resemble themselves, ten percent at a time—that is, as many as 14 million people at a slice. Their eventual goal was to eliminate as much as ninety percent of the population from the reproductive future of the United States.

As hard as it may be for post-WWII society to believe, the preferred methods of the eugenics movement were gas chambers and other forms of euthanasia. The first public euthanasia legislation was introduced into the Ohio legislature in 1908. That measure was unsuccessful, as were other death panel bills. The next best thing was forced surgical sterilization under specific state authority. This policy in many states was validated as the law of the land in the U.S. Supreme Court by one of America’s most stellar jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1927, Holmes ruled on an obviously collusive lawsuit seeking to justify the forced sterilization of a poor, white, and seemingly uneducated Appalachian named Carrie Buck, as well as her mother, and her average and healthy daughter. Local society undoubtedly denigrated them with the epithet “poor white trash.” Carrie Buck’s lawyers and the state attorneys were openly in cahoots, manipulating the legal system to uphold the values of racial supremacy—and sterilize and entire bloodline. They succeeded.

“It is better for all the world,” Justice Holmes infamously wrote, “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Ultimately, more than 60,000 Americans, mainly women, were coercively sterilized. Many victims were systematically tricked into thinking it was a harmless procedure. At all times, California led the nation in the number of such sterilizations, all taxpayer funded.

America’s eugenics movement, powered by millions of dollars from the opulent Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune sought to extend its reach into Germany. Rockefeller and Carnegie spent Depression-era fortunes to finance the worst Nazi doctors and race institutes. Hitler promptly implemented American precepts with stunning ferocity and velocity. Among the chief recipients of Rockefeller money was top Nazi doctor Otmar von Verschuer. During the Holocaust, Verschuer’s assistant, Josef Mengele, continued eugenic twin research at Auschwitz. Mengele’s efforts yielded monstrous experiments. At Nuremberg, the Nazis read the words of Holmes and entered the California statutes in their defense. Nonetheless, Nazi doctors were convicted of genocide.

Eugenics and its forced sterilization were repugnant enough to be deemed genocide from the first moments that the term came into use. The United Nations’ original Nazi-era Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide identified eugenics and sterilization as genocidal transgressions. Article 2, section D identifies: “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

In the tear-stained ashes of post-Nazi Europe, Americans recoiled at the fruit of their official raceology. Collective amnesia set in. Eugenics was renamed and reinvented as the new science of genetics. 

Universities changed their plaques from “Department of Eugenics” to Department of Genetics. Research labs, scientific journals, organizations, and others in the field did likewise. States coast-to-coast began repealing or dead-lettering their eugenics-influenced laws, from marriage prohibition, to compulsory confinement in special colonies, to state-ordered sterilization. Modern genetics cast off its genocidal past, and raced into the future promising to benefit mankind. New generations of caring scientists forged medical miracles, advanced animal husbandry, developed strains of food resistant to agricultural pests, and initiated the Human Genome Project.

But North Carolina continued its eugenic practices for years, with vestigial race laws designed and purportedly deployed to eliminate poverty. From 1946 to 1968, an estimated 7600 more Americans were sterilized, mainly poor blacks. One county, Mecklenburg, coercively imposed an estimated 468 sterilizations— three times as many —as any of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

North Carolina’s forced surgical sterilization law was repealed only in 2003, but some say even that held out the option when considered a medical necessity. The measure repeals Article 7 of Chapter 35, “the law authorizing involuntary sterilizations and permits the sterilization of mentally ill and mentally retarded wards only when there is a medical necessity.” Fraudulent mental and psychiatric diagnoses of the never-defined condition known as feeblemindedness, slow learning, and even overly shy smiling, were common legal justifications for eugenic sterilization.

Now, the state of North Carolina, under the weight of a multi-billion dollar deficit and a rising black political power base, is struggling to augment its official apology for its racist ways into financial compensation.

Some have suggested $20,000 per survivor. Others suggest $50,000. An estimated 2,900 medically ravaged victims may be qualified. But can society right a wrong by merely writing a check?

The true victims of this tragic national disgrace are not only the survivors now telling their stories, but millions more never born. How do you compensate people and families who do not even exist because of pernicious eugenic laws that criminalized or negated interracial marriage, murdered helpless patients by institutional medical abuse, and sterilized unwanted segments of entire generations?

While money to victims who present themselves can constitute a token of governmental remorse, the best compensation is illumination. Spend resources to document the crime, teach the revelations in our schools, and ingrain the strain, so that the next wave of race scientists will be met with the historical imperative: “never again.” Then the checks can actually make a token down payment on righting a wrong.

Bottom line: Yes, the state must pay compensation to the victims, but spend an equal, if not greater, amount of resources to create a continual educational effort to confront the heinous legacy of eugenics so that this will never happen again. 

Edwin Black is the bestselling author of "IBM and the Holocaust" and the eugenic chronicle "War Against the Weak." He can be found at www.edwinblack.com and www.waragainsttheweak.com.