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Review, Conference: America & Its Unfit: Eugenics Then & Now

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“’Eugenics’”, writes Thomas Leonard in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “is a dirty word in contemporary discourse.” Yet, for a number of speakers and activists who participated in a cross-disciplinary conference on the subject on the 25th and 26th of September at New York University, it remains an important concept for understanding the systematic exclusion and marginalization of communities in the United States today. Organized by the Asian / Pacific / American Institute at NYU and co-sponsored by the Urban Democracy Lab (amongst others), the conference, entitled America & Its Unfit: Eugenics Then & Now, brought together scholars, artists, and practitioners from a variety of backgrounds to highlight the role of the eugenics movement in American history and its continued effects in the present day, and to “collaboratively reimagine a more progressive future”.

The opening session of the conference was titled “America for Americans,” after the Progressive Era lawyer and noted conservationist Madison Grant’s 1925 polemic against immigration. In the article, Grant asserts that “the great mass of our foreigners remain foreign” and he speaks in support of laws enforcing quotas on what he calls “totally unassimilable immigrants.” This kind of crude categorization and “otherizing” of those that did not fit a particular vision of acceptability laid the basis for much stronger and often horrific forms of social homogenization, which were explored over the course of the conference. One particularly harrowing set of events was given life in the duologue Unheard Voices – written by Michael Slade and Judy Tate, and performed at the conference by Antu Yacob and Stina Nielsen.  The performance draws upon collected records from the 1920s to describe the plight of a “half-Chinese negress” girl named Hazel, who was twice denied motherhood.

Of course, this kind of case was not isolated or even unusual in the early 20th century. Nielsen’s character,a social care worker,cheerfully announces that her work is “funded by some of the most important people in the country: the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller foundation, Mr J. H. Kellog, the Harriman railroad people…” Leonard, tracing the history of the eugenics movement, states that “it was mainstream; it was popular to the point of faddishness.” And, indeed, it was not restricted to the archetypal right-wing extremism now associated with the Nazis, but “appealed to an extraordinary range of political ideologies” across countries and continents. (Leonard notes that over in Scandinavia, “more than 60,000 Swedes, over 90 percent of them women, were sterilized from 1941 to 1975,” while the uncomfortable history of the British left’s relationship with eugenics has been tackled in the past by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian).

The wide reach of the eugenics movement’s motivations and adherents leaves open the question of its continued pervasiveness in less visible forms. This was a major point of concern for the conference’s participants. In a discussion session on the second day entitled “Intervening and Changing,” LaToya Strong, an educator and member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators, asserted that eugenics still existed “in its most raw form” in the education system in the way that it systematically disempowers “students of color, bilingual (students), immigrants.” Marta Moreno Vega, president and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, recounted an incident where former New York mayor David N. Dinkins was ignored by a white taxi driver as another instance of a deeply entrenched social segregation.

Another panelist, Dr. Nancy Ordover, author of American Eugenics (Minnesota, 2003), noted that “eugenics has gone after a lot of different people in a lot of different ways; it is in a way a coalition. And this gives us a lot of opportunity to build a coalition to beat it back.” This, perhaps, was a sentiment emblematic of the conference as a whole, which Professor Jack Tchen — a co-convener of the event with whom the UDL blog had a conversation earlier this month — praised for enabling participants to “talk to people across specializations.” One of the final sessions of the conferences was structured around doing just this: all participants broke off into smaller discussion groups to brainstorm strategies of resistance to systemic marginalization, with suggestions (later shared with the larger group) focusing on education, communication, and “field-transcending” modes of discourse.

The suggestions and links generated at the conference will be archived and available at The conference’s schedule and details, as well as certain recommended readings, can be found at A/P/A’s page for the event.