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Fighting Fire with Fire: African Americans and Hereditarian Thinking, 1900-1942

Fighting Fire with Fire: African Americans and Hereditarian Thinking, 1900-1942

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Published by wdarre
Fighting Fire with Fire: African Americans and Hereditarian Thinking, 1900-1942

Gregory Michael Dorr, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
University of Alabama

W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Wyatt Turner, and Marcus Garvey.
Fighting Fire with Fire: African Americans and Hereditarian Thinking, 1900-1942

Gregory Michael Dorr, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
University of Alabama

W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Wyatt Turner, and Marcus Garvey.

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Published by: wdarre on Nov 25, 2012
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Fighting Fire with Fire: African Americans and Hereditarian Thinking, 1900-1942
Gregory Michael Dorr, Ph.D.Assistant ProfessorUniversity of AlabamaIn the past three years, the American public has rediscovered our nation’s eugenicpast. Recently, the states of California, Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina, andVirginia have all confronted the legacy of their compulsory sterilization programs—efforts undertaken to purify the white race by eliminating antisocial genetic traits fromthe population. Media coverage of these events revolves around racist white elitesabusing populations they deemed to be “unfit”—specifically the mentally retarded, lowerclass women, and racial and ethnic minorities. The media’s interpretation follows fromthe bulk of scholarship on the eugenics movement. Historians have traditionally focusedon prominent white scientists, psychologists, and eugenics propagandists. More recently,attention has turned to “second tier” white eugenicists, and state-level studies of the pro-eugenics rank and file, illustrating the pervasive nature of eugenic ideology in Americanculture.
While this work has recovered a sense of the political, social, and culturalheterogeneity of the eugenics movement, it remains a “whites only” history. Relativelylittle work has been done to show how hereditarian ideas influenced the African-American community. Most studies merely position African Americans as the targets of eugenic control and repression, or as vocal—if disempowered and ignored—critics of eugenics. These accounts strip black historical actors of their agency, and fail to revealthe full complexity of the American eugenics movement.This paper outlines an untold chapter in the history of American eugenics bycomparing the hereditarian beliefs of three African Americans: W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas
1 Foremost among these are Wendy Kline,
 Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Nancy L.Gallagher,
 Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State
(Hanover, NH:University Press of New England, 1999); Steven Selden,
 Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and  Racism in America
(New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1999); and Edward J. Larson,
Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
2Wyatt Turner, and Marcus Garvey.
Building on the work of Kevin Gaines, Marouf Hasian, and Michele Mitchell, I’m going to argue that hereditarianism and eugenics heldstrong appeal for various segments of the African American community. Some AfricanAmericans, like W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas Turner, believed that relatively “fit” and“unfit” human beings existed, and that society as a whole could be improved by assuringthe propagation of the fit—the best and brightest individuals, regardless of race. Whatemerged from this school of thought was “integrationist” or “accomodationist” eugenics,which assumed the essential biological similarity of all human races. Even as Turner andDuBois developed integrationist eugenics to batter down the racism of mainline whiteeugenicists, however, Marcus Garvey used eugenics to argue for racial separatism andblack racial purity. On the surface, Garvey represents the black analog to white mainlineeugenicists. Garvey, however, generally eschewed notions of racial superiority thatmany white eugenicists associated with the ideology of racial purity. Ultimately, thecareers of these men reveal how both whites and blacks could contest the racial divideusing the theories of eugenics. Moreover, both integrationist and separatist eugenics sayas much about their expositors’ politics as they do about biological reality, revealingmuch about the nexus of science and society.From the moment Sir Francis Galton coined the word eugenics in 1883, the notion of scientifically improving humanity through better breeding captivated modern scientists.Whether advocating increased procreation among the "fit"—so-called positive eugenics—or demanding negative eugenic interventions like immigration and marriage
2 I omit consideration of William Hannibal Thomas, the so-called “Black Judas” who accepted whitearguments for black biological inferiority for a number of reasons. First, the publication of his book 
The American Negro
(1901) and the bulk of his public career occurred at the dawn of the modern age of genetics. Second, he believed in a more Lamarckian view of heredity that did not comport with the moreastringent particulate ideas espoused by later eugenicists and geneticists. Third, his career and beliefs wereso aberrant, that he represented a committee of one. Finally, his career is exhaustively detailed in JohnDavid Smith,
 Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and 
The American Negro (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000). In contrast, Garvey, DuBois, and Turner all worked during the heyday of theAmerican eugenics movement, and they all adhered to notions of particulate heredity.
3restriction, sterilization, and segregation to reduce the propagation of the "unfit,"scientists remained convinced that eugenics promised a millennial advance in humansociety. A host of social problems, like alcoholism, criminality, pauperism, prostitution,tuberculosis, venereal disease, and the catch-all category of "feeblemindedness," mightbe eradicated by preventing the birth of those genetically destined to fill these categories.That fitness and unfitness generally mapped to native-born, white Americans' racial,class, and ethnic prejudices merely underscored the overlapping scientific and culturalimperatives embodied in the eugenics movement.
Despite affinities between eugenicsand white supremacy, black folk saw promise in the new science, too.Any discussion of DuBois, Turner, and Garvey’s eugenic beliefs must be placedwithin the broader context of African-American support for "popular eugenics"—thegeneral belief in "fit" and "unfit" babies with "good" or "bad" characteristics
that sweptAmerican society during the 1910s and 1920s. Americans, black and white, understoodhuman heredity by analogy to domestic animals, an analogy fostered by direct experiencestockbreeding. (Remember, it’s not until the 1920 census that America becomes an“urban” country; until the Great Migration, 90% of African Americans lived in rural farm
3 Daniel J. Kevles,
 In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity
(New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), ix and Chapter 1. The traditional standard scholarly works on the history of eugenics, in addition to Kevles's fine book, include: Richard Hofstadter,
Social Darwinism in AmericanThought 
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); Mark Haller,
 Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought 
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963); Kenneth M.Ludmerer,
Genetics and American Society: A Historical Appraisal
(Baltimore and London: The JohnsHopkins University Press, 1972); and Alan Chase,
The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the NewScientific Racism
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). A new wave of scholars has produced a series of important reinterpretations of the American eugenics movement, the most significant of which include:Gallagher,
 Breeding Better Vermonters
; Steven Selden,
 Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and  Racism in America
(New York: Teachers College Press, 1999); Diane B. Paul,
The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate
(Albany, NY: State University of NewYork Press, 1998); Paul,
Controlling Human Heredity
(1995); Nicole Hahn Rafter,
Creating BornCriminals
(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Hasian,
The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought 
; Martin Pernick,
The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babiesin American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915
(New York and London: Oxford University Press,1996); and Edward J. Larson,
Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South
(Baltimore and London:The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

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