Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The evil of "scientific" racism and eugenics theory still with us today

I was watching a documentary on Pennhurst State School in Pennsylvania, founded in the early 20th century with the alleged intention of providing mentally and physically-disabled children and young adults a healthy, supportive living environment. This institution was in fact meant to cut these people off completely from society at large; Pennhurst’s sprawling complex of buildings on 120 acres of land was meant to “promote” self-sufficiency, even including gardens in which to grow the inmates’ own food. It soon became a warehouse for all those in the state deemed “feeble-minded” and a ward of the state;  parents of children who could not or refused to care for them simply dumped them there, and many an incorrigible anti-social person was ordered confined there by the courts. 

Pennhurst was so overwhelmed by over-population that it became a practical death trap for those confined there; over-worked staff resorted to “short cuts” in so-called therapy (such as the removal of teeth from “biters”) that could be construed as torture. Very few who were “admitted” to the institution did not die there as well, no doubt many of them prematurely from the horrible conditions that existed there.

Pennhurst was shut down in 1986. Many of its remaining “patients” were simply left out on the street, many of them said to be still living in the vicinity. Today, Pennhurst’s buildings still stand, looking just like a decaying place would after nearly 30 years of abandonment and neglect. Beds, tables and chairs (many with restraining straps) still remain where they were left. A blackboard still announces “Today’s Menu.” Shelves still stock paper towels and food trays. A movie projector and antiquated copy machine are in one room.  In Rockwell Hall, old, rusting typewriters are everywhere. In the auditorium, there is a decaying piano with sheet music still on it: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,”a song best remembered from the Platters’ 1950s hit.

Pennhurst remains a ghostly reminder of the promotion of scientific racism and eugenics in the United States, “theories” more commonly—and disingenuously—applied to Nazi Germany alone. “Scientific” racism in fact goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times, when dark skin was associated not necessarily with the lack of intellectual capacity, but with “timidity” on the battlefield. This was “explained” by the effects of too much sun, making their blood “thinner” and causing them to act like reptiles which could not function in colder climes. The “courageousness” of lighter-skinned peoples from northern Europe in battle was explained by being more used to cold weather, which was believed to require a higher quantity of “courage-producing” blood. 

The idea that the human race consisted of different “species” was somewhat modified in some quarters by the Enlightenment, although only in the sense that non-European peoples were a mongrel off-shoot from Adam and Eve. Those like Robert Boyle who suggested that “beauty” was not necessarily to be found in skin color but “comely features” were rejected by most Europeans as being an overly “liberal” opinion.  One of the first suggestions of what would be termed  “Nordic” superiority over other European “races” was set forth by French aristocrat Henri de Boulainvilliers, who claimed that the French aristocracy was comprised of a “race” of Germanic peoples, as opposed to the lower classes comprised of native Gauls, who had been conquered first by the Romans and then the Franks. 

18th century biologist Carl Linnaeus put forth a treatise that applied behaviors “typical” to different versions of human, although he put less emphasis on racist ideology and more on the cultural stereotypes. Georges Cuvier, on the other hand, was more “forthcoming” in applying racist principles to human categorizing; it was his belief that the features of Africans suggested that they were more closely related to apes and monkeys than Europeans. Many “Christian” scientists—i.e. Bible literalists—maintained that if humans only existed on the planet for 6,000 years, it was impossible for physical and color differences to have changed in such a short time; thus Asians, Africans and Native Americans must be a separate “species” of humanity.

Nevertheless, there were some scientists who maintained that “race” was a product of environmental and cultural factors, not due to the existence of a separate stream, like homo sapiens and Neanderthals. But the attitude of those like Christoph Meiners predominated, who asserted that differences between “beautiful” Europeans and “ugly” Africans was wholly explained by a separate origin. It is interesting to note that Meiners insisted that “inferior” races were more prone to a “lack” of virtue, while we have seen in the historical record that the “superior race” is guilty of the most horrific atrocities ever witnessed—albeit couched in “science” and such concepts as “purity.” 

In the late 19th century, Sir Francis Galton conducted a “study,” the aim of which was essentially to justify the continuing existence of a class system in Britain, despite the fact that its political class was largely comprised of “commoners.”  His “finding” was that they were simply made of superior genetic qualities, maintained from centuries of inbreeding and selective features; for example, there is apparently a “rule” that brown eyes are out when royals choose a marriage partner, because brown eyes denote genetic “inferiority.”  This, of course, was the only possible conclusion, since one that suggested that if it was simply based on quaint table manners and snooty attitudes could be cause for unrest. While some “superior” commoners could arise to knighthood, this was not permitted to be hereditary. 

“Scientific” views on race continued to evolve over time. It isn’t clear whether Charles Darwin believed that the different races were due to a separate evolutionary track, but in keeping with his theory of evolution, he assumed that “inferior” dark-skinned races would eventually be “exterminated” by the “superior” lighter-skinned people. Today, we have paranoid racists like Pat Buchanan who believe the opposite will happen, if whites do not take “retake” control of their countries—especially the United States. By what means Buchanan believes this should be done is not entirely clear, although one may contemplate the uncontemplatible.

As unhappy as it is to admit, scientific racism and eugenics was strongly promulgated in the U.S. in the early 20th century, and was a powerful influence on the Nazis, and in a manner the Holocaust. There was an “American Breeders Association” founded in the early 20th century which sought to “educate” Americans on the need to promote avoidance with “interbreeding” with “inferior” types, even within the Caucasian race. Henry Goddard’s studies on “feeble-mindedness”—which he was later to regret as being based on faulty data—was used to justify such eugenic practices. His “findings”  helped promote the rationalization for institutions like Pennhurst.

To be fair, it was the Nazis who took matters a step further with the T4 euthanasia program.  As many as 5,000 young children and infants who were deemed a “burden” to society were rendered not so by the state, using methods that were the forerunners of those employed in the extermination camps. Many more adults were "eliminated" for costing the state too much for their “care,” as well as to maintain “racial purity”—even the genes of the “master race” went awry every now and then, especially in the moral and ethical department.

Madison Grant was recognized for his conservation and wildlife preservation work in his lifetime; less admirable was his belief in “racial hygiene”—more specifically his advocacy of  “Nordic Theory” or Nordicism, which promoted the maintenance of “superior” Nordic and Anglo-Saxon racial characteristics, while working to eliminate people of “lesser” stock. He believed that the “master race” was under threat by “inferior” blood and culture, which he outlined in his book The Passing of the Great Race. One must remember that he was not just referring to dark-skinned races, but “dark-skinned” and other “inferior” European “races.” His fear of “racial suicide” and the need to segregate “inferior” races in ghettos were an obvious influence on the Nazis.

(It is interesting to observe the fanciful claims by Nordicists even today that their ancient forebears (and not alien beings from outer space) actually constructed the great stone edifices in Central and South America, and perhaps even the Great Pyramids—since the natives present at the time couldn’t possibly have the "know-how" to construct them. Yet historians note that there is no evidence that Nordic/Germanic peoples of ancient times independently possessed the technological or engineering aptitude evidenced by the Egyptians, Greeks or Romans, remaining essentially a tribal culture until well into the “dark ages.”)

Women were not immune from the lurid lure of racially "beneficial" beliefs; besides Margaret Sanger’s embrace of eugenics theory to justify abortion, “clubs” of women were formed to inform each other of need to be “selective” in “breeding partners,” based on racial and intellectual characteristics (which continues in more subtle discussion).

 But Harry Laughlin was perhaps the most evil of the eugenic theorists in America, since his “work” actually led to specific policy actions in this country. His ideas about genetic “inferiority” was a powerful influence on the passage of the 1924 immigration law establishing racial and ethnic quotas, and he promoted involuntary sterilization laws. One of the first persons sterilized under the “constitutional” guidelines set forth by Laughlin in 1924 was Carrie Buck of Virginia, who he described as a member of a family of “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” This occurred after the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the “constitutionality” of sterilization in 1927, ruling that 

It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, 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.

This ruling has never been overturned, despite the fact that misdiagnoses are fairly common, especially when physical disabilities are involved. Laughlin also promoted anti-miscegenation laws, which were eventually found unconstitutional in 1967. Laughlin’s theories were specifically referred to by the Nazis in their “racial purity” pursuits—even giving him an “honorary” degree from the University of Heidelberg. Laughlin’s evil influence exists even to this day, since he was a founder of the Pioneer Fund, which continues to fund and promote scientific racism and racist policies. 

A great deal is made today of immigration policy, especially “illegal” immigration, and negative racist characteristic have very clearly seeped into the discussion. It is interesting to note that before 1924 law, all immigration from Europe could be deemed “illegal” by today’s statutes, since the only prerequisite was a stopover at Ellis Island for a brief examination. So-called “intelligence” tests conducted by the military “found” that besides Jews, most southern and eastern Europeans were of “inferior” intellectual capacity. But as the late Steven J. Gould pointed out in his book Mismeasure of Man, this alleged inferiority was wholly explained by language and cultural differences. The influence of such tests and “studies” on the theory of eugenics would eventually be put to more “practical” use not just by the Nazis, but in Poland, Romania and Hungary, where anti-Semitism was particularly strong. 

It is true that after the revelation of the crimes of the Nazis, eugenics and scientific racism became less acceptable in America in open forums. Yet the evil behind these theories still seep into abortion rights rhetoric, racial profiling (whether by police or public), justification for opposition to affirmative action and civil rights, the racial fanaticism of Pat Buchanan and those of like mind, and finding its most “acceptable” expression in anti-immigration propaganda and paranoia.

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