Edwin Black: Barack Obama and the Triumph Over American Eugenics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Edwin Black is the author of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create aMaster Race. Buy it here. The award-winning book is the basis for the just released film, War Against the Weak—The Movie.]

Among Barack Obama’s many historic achievements is the ultimate triumph over American eugenics. No one in America should forget that about 100 years ago, the American intellectual and academic elite created the race science known as eugenics. This genocidal pseudoscience claimed that humanity was destined to be comprised solely of blonde, blue-eyed Nordic Americans. Anyone who did not conform to this racial stereotype was not worthy of existence on Earth. The list of undesirables included Southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, brown-haired hillbillies, Jews, American Indians and of course African Americans. Above all, all race-mixing was taboo, a concept eugenicists called “race suicide.”

This bizarre pseudoscience arose in the early 1900s, following the rediscovery of Mendel’s principles of heredity as applied to peas and horses combined with the corrupted views of Francis Galton, the quirky British scientist who originated the idea of eugenics at the end of the 19th Century. Galton almost whimsically hoped that if rich, talented people married other rich talented people, then rich, talented offspring would result. In the hands of early 20th Century American racists, Galton’s and Mendel’s ideas were transmogrified into a racist ideology: American Eugenics.

According to eugenic thought, blacks and other “undesirables” were lazy, shiftless, disease prone, and genetically predisposed to a criminal life, including prostitution and thievery. You were not born into poverty. Poverty was born into you. Racist intelligence tests, known as the Alpha and Beta Test, were concocted to prove that some 70 percent of tested Negroes were Morons. Indeed, the word “moron” was a scientific term invented by the academics to help damn the destiny of those who did not resemble themselves.

The solution to the existence of these racial and social inferiors or misfits was set out in a 1911 manifesto by a coalition of national eugenics organizations. Among the solutions were public gas chambers designed to march whole neighborhoods en masse into utopian euthanasia programs. In fact, several states, such as Ohio in 1908, actually considered formal legislation to enable this mass murder. With government sanctioned euthanasia seemingly an impossible goal, the eugenics community instead settled upon forced sterilization, marriage prohibition and concentration colonies.

By the time they were done, some 27 states had adopted eugenic legislation which resulted in the coerced sterilization of some 27,000 Americans, mostly women, and most without their knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of marriages were prohibited and, following the “one drop rule” of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, thousands were actually unmarried through state action. Indeed, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was not overruled until the 1960s in the famous Loving v. Virginia case.

The complex network of coast-to-coast local racial laws based on a fake biology became the law of the land in 1927 after Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in favor of eugenics with his famous Buck v. Bell decision which ratified the forced sterilization of a mother, her mother and daughter, the Carrie Buck case. Holmes enshrined the sentiment: “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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes." Holmes concluded with the infamous phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Who was behind this awful science? It was the best minds, the wealthiest Americans and the most elite academicians from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Indiana and Stanford University, among many others. It would have been no more than bizarre parlor talk without the enormous financial backing of racist corporate philanthropic support of the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The darkest corner of this national social nightmare, which culminated in the 20s and 30s, was that the United States extended its race science into Nazi Germany, where the ideas were faithfully acknowledged, praised and duplicated by Adolf Hitler with profound ferocity and velocity. It was, in fact, American eugenics that was mimicked by the Third Reich into the concept of “the master race.” The niceties of due process proposed by the Americans in order to send people to the gas chambers were not needed by Hitler. Millions died as everywhere the eugenic-minded Nazis put into force American policies. As Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess insisted, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”

Barack Obama is the son of a Black African father from Kenya and a White Irish-English mother from Kansas. Under American eugenic principles, which prevailed during the first six decades of the 20th Century, Barack Obama would have never been born. Had his family settled in Virginia, as opposed to Hawaii, the marriage would have been invalidated. Had his family lived in California, where about half of all coerced sterilizations occurred, he or his mother would have been either incarcerated and/or sterilized. Had he lived in the South, he would have been barred from the best schools on the basis of the one-drop rule that defined him as Negro even though he was half-white and half-African.

Now, for all the well-financed academic fraud that claimed that Blacks were inferior and incapable of ethical conduct—while overlooking how the wealthy scarred and exploited this nation with robber barons and pedigreed thieves—Barack Obama has proven that he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, most accomplished analysts, and a champion of ethics. In his first moments in office as the 44th President of the United States, President Obama signed executive orders dramatically overhauling the ethical duties of the White House and government in general.

American eugenicists would have been as shocked at Barack Obama's election as President of the United States as Hitler was when Jesse Owens beat his athletes at the 1936 Olympics. The fact that Barack Obama has achieved his greatness in spite of a nation that enslaved its blacks, made them second-class citizens, and then banished them to biological doom is perhaps his greatest triumph. Greater than his political victory, greater than his victory for integration, is his victory over the discredited theories that have caused so much death and misery to so many millions throughout the world—his triumph over the false science of eugenics that dared to define America.

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