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American Eugenics

Eugenic science employed pseudoscientific genetic theory, that relied on an inherently racist and classist notions of heredity, intelligence, and morality, to fortify the established power hierarchy in American society. The eugenic movement pursued the purification of the genetics human race by creating a heightened fertility rate of those who corresponded to the white European archetype of genetic superiority and by coercively restricting the fertility of those perceived as inferior. Academic, ethnocentric elitists took the theory of Social Darwinism and applied it to the American racial dynamic in response to the threat of an impending subversion of the traditional race and class based power structures at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The emergence of eugenics in the social, political, scientific, familial, medical, and judicial spheres of society deprived a recorded 65,000 American citizens of their bodily autonomy via sterilization (Kleeves). Scientific propaganda branded these 65,000, as well as many unrecorded citizens, as morally deficient and mentally inept and claimed that their immorality and degeneracy were hereditary traits capable of polluting society (Largent).

Implications of Race and Class

American eugenicists operated based on their social anxiety about the threat of hierarchical racial subversion. They aimed to restrict the fertility of those perceived as racially inferior in order to retain the overarching notion of white, middle class superiority, under the pretense of procuring a healthy gene pool. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an influx of immigration and poverty that began to overwhelm the United States. Between 1890 and 1920, eighteen million impoverished immigrants migrated to the United States, fostering another race based layer of destitution within the social anatomy of the American class system (Black). Simultaneously, racial prejudice had enveloped the social interactions between those who corresponded to the Nordic, affluent archetype and those who were viewed as racially inferior (Kleeves). Racial inferiority was equated to a social disease that must be quarantined and eventually exterminated. Eugenicists claimed that intelligence was predestined by racial heredity. They equated racial degeneracy to mental degeneracy and asserted that mental ineptitude was a trait inherited from racially inferior ancestry and was a disease that would ruin future generations. The institutionalization of racially inferior members of the lower class was justified due to the eugenic theory that race was a fundamental determinant of intelligence. The IQ test, the SAT and most other American intelligence test were developed by ethnocentric eugenicists as vehicles for cultural exclusion (Black). The disparity between the scores did not reflect a disparity in mental aptitude, but rather a disparity in cultural preparation and an exclusion of minorities from the privileged background of their white counterparts. The intelligence tests were tailored to yield lower scores from those who diverged from the archetype of white superiority (Black).

Although initially the institutionalization and sterilization of the victims of the eugenic movement was brazenly racist, eventually, as geneticists began to refute the pseudoscientific assumption that mental deficiency is a hereditary trait capable of enacting the degeneration of the nation, the eugenic movement began to fixate on environment rather than genetics (Kline). Eugenicists survived the increasing scientific doubt by claiming that the same population who were previously deemed unfit due to their genes still required institutionalization and procreative restriction due to the social conditioning of their environment, which also produced inferiority.

Eugenicists began to restrict the fertility of potential parents in the lower class, who engaged in a threatening amount of sex, under the pretense that they would be both unable to afford adequate education for a potential child and unable to imbue the child with necessary social and mental skills due to their own mental ineptitude, which was produced by their environment. Ultimately, race and class were inescapable factors of environment.

Implications of Gender and Sexuality

At the root of the eugenic movement was a sexually-loaded, gendered social anxiety concerning the disparity between the fertility rates of those perceived as socially superior and those perceived as socially inferior (Foucault). In the decades surrounding the turn of the century, the subversion of traditional gender roles in the middle class, as well as a surge of immoral sexual autonomy in the lower class, threatened to undermine the established power hierarchy (Kline). Population growth, and the way in which certain demographics within the population had the potential to shift the established power dynamic through sex, became of increasing governmental concern.

Demographics with greater proclivity had a greater influence on the genetic composition of the nation and, as eugenicists claimed, on the subsequent generations aptitude for moral sexual decisions. To combat this eventual degeneration of American society, Eugenicists aimed to purge the gene pool of all physical, mental, and moral traits perceived as inferior. To control the population and accomplish their proposal for a moral, genetic, and ultimately racial cleanse they employing the tactics of both positive and negative eugenics.

The tactic of positive eugenics sought to protect the American distribution of power, which heavily favored the white middle class, by fostering a social responsibility to produce children within women perceived as genetically superior. At the turn of the century, there was an influx of potential mothers choosing to shun domesticity and a life defined by the rearing and bearing of offspring, in favor of engaging in the male centric world of industry and economy (Largent). This social phenomena threatened the traditional gender roles and fostered a severe decline in the birth-rates of the white, affluent population. Those who eugenicists claimed possessed superior genetic strains, predominantly white, middle class women who adhered to the societal standards of conventional sexuality, were held accountable for the gene pool and the racial disparity of future generations (Kline).

Gender and sexual politics were not only a prevalent aspect of positive eugenics, but were also fundamental in the crusade of negative eugenics. As the fertility rate of the white middle class curbed and an anxiety began to develop concerning their social and racial authority, the proclivity of lower class, immigrant women flourished. Negative eugenics equated ‘abnormal’ sexuality to mental deficiency, both of which were considered to be a hereditary threat to the gene pool. Certain expressions of sexuality became apt justification for the involuntary segregation of mentally and physically sound women in mental institutions (Kline). Feeblemindedness, a term used to describe women who engaged in promiscuous sex due to perceived mental ineptitude, became an excuse for governmental and doctoral restrictions on female bodies. Traits that opposed sexual and reproductive norms, such as large genitalia, masturbation, fornication, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and sexual frigidity, when paired with traits deemed socially inferior––traits ultimately determined by the individual’s racial and socioeconomic orientation––became rationale for institutionalization due to the overarching belief that these traits were hereditary (Foucault).

Initially, ‘degenerate’ members of the lower class were merely institutionalized to deter them from procreation by segregating them from the genetically superior portion of society. Eventually, however, mass involuntary sterilization was employed as a more drastic, cost effective strategy for the salvation of the race. Eugenicists wanted to sterilize all those who came from an inferior demographic and who could potentially threaten the established power dynamic.


  • Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak. New York City: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976.
  • Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race. Berkeley: University of California Press, November 20, 2001.
  • Kleeves, Daniel. In the Name of Eugenics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Largent, Mark. Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilizations in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, August 30, 2007.