The “science” that bolsters racism

September 7, 2017

The U.S. was ground zero for eugenics, the fake science used to back up the fake claims of white supremacy, argues Eugene Dardenne.

AS NEO-NAZIS emerged within the far-right coalition inspired by Donald Trump, a patriotic consensus quickly emerged in Washington, with political leaders from Kamala Harris to Jeff Sessions deeming such open displays of white supremacy as "un-American."

Given the prevalence of Nazi swastikas at recent mobilizations of the far right, such a claim might seem obvious to most Americans. After all, the U.S. and the Allies did fight and defeat Nazi Germany in the most popular war in American history.

But take a harder look at the ideas and politics behind the movement, even the neo-Nazis at the extreme, and you'll find roots far more American than the politicians are willing to acknowledge.

One basic point worth repeating is that the white supremacists of the alt-right honor the heritage of the American Confederacy at their rallies. That heritage is very much American and no less deserving of forceful condemnation.

But there is an additional component of American white supremacy that comes from some of the leading institutions of mainstream intellectual and political thought. From the defeat of Reconstruction until the Second World War, parallel with the entrenchment of Jim Crow terror in the South, the race science of eugenics was refined in respectable academic and philanthropic institutions, well outside of the borders of the defeated Confederacy.

A lecture of the American Eugenics Society in 1920s Kansas
A lecture of the American Eugenics Society in 1920s Kansas

FOR RESEARCHERS and educators looking to improve on the older, cruder field of phrenology with more sophisticated systems to rank intelligence by race, the Ivy League in the Northeast and Stanford, CalTech and the University of California system on the West Coast led the way.

Much of the ideological and legal foundations for Nazi politics and genocide were developed and refined by American eugenists, as detailed in Edwin Black's Nazi Nexus: America's Corporate Connections to Hitler's Holocaust and War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, as well as James Whitman's Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.

Rather than "un-American," much of 20th century race "science" was actually quite originally American.

The books by Edwin Black build on an argument he first directed at IBM for its role in facilitating the Holocaust by applying its American punch-card technology to Nazi census collection--for the purpose of identifying Jews and Gypsies to be "euthanized." Contrary to modern claims by IBM executives, the technology directly expanded the genocide by allowing the Nazi administration to identify three to four times the number of eligible "inferiors" for "extermination."

IBM was so intertwined with Nazi eugenicide that it invested a million dollars to bolster its German subsidiary at the dawn of Nazi rule in 1933. Every concentration camp had its own Hollerith Department--named after Herman Hollerith, a founding inventor of IBM's population-tracking technology first developed for the U.S. Census Bureau--for supervising the incarcerated via IBM's machines.

Beyond American profiteering from, or the application of American technology to facilitate, the mass murder of Europe's Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables," Black's research also uncovered the Holocaust's deep ideological roots in American eugenics.

While the white supremacists' "Blood and Soil" chant in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month comes from the 1930s Nazi propaganda slogan "Blut und Boden," the Germans had made it a cry for applied eugenics in large part thanks to the 1902 work of Stanford University President David Starr Jordan's "Blood of a Nation: A Study in the Decay of Nations by the Survival of the Unfit."

Jordan was a pioneer of the race science that may have come to full genocidal maturity in Europe, but not before passing through its formative adolescence in the elite academic institutions of the U.S.

Through organizations like the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation, American industrialists of the early 20th century complemented the new "science" coming out of the universities by sponsoring efforts like the Long Island's Eugenics Record Office, which collected ancestry documentation and funded eugenics research to advance a propaganda campaign for the cause of "experimental evolution" by way of "race betterment."

THIS POINT is itself an important correction to those who claim there is something natural or inherently popular about racism.

Some social scientists interpret the successful spread of white supremacy and eugenics in the early 20th century--evidenced by the Better Baby Contests common to Midwestern state fairs or the popularity of forced sterilization policies in California--as proof of xenophobia inherent to our human nature, or that racism bubbles up from the working classes in society, rather than being passed down from the top.

But these arguments are belied by the indisputable responsibility for eugenics propaganda and policy carried by the most powerful elements of society.

All that said, the contention of eugenicists was not our biological or evolutionary susceptibility to racist ideology, but that differences between races are grounded in biology and/or evolution (or, as its proponents put it: breeding).

Put another way, eugenics--and the dogma of biological determinism at its heart--is racist ideology. This was never more clear to see than when Nazi Germany put the principles of eugenics incubated in American think tanks, industry, universities and laws into genocidal practice.

Building on the scientific foundation and the ideological framework contributed by their American influences, Nazis also borrowed liberally from American legal theory for the mortar and plumbing of their ethnically pure society.

But again, one might be surprised to learn that the Nazis were not only interested in, for example, the legal theory and social science behind Jim Crow segregation and forced sterilization campaigns.

As James Whitman's research uncovered, Nazi lawyers were also inspired by U.S. government policy--in particular, controls on immigrant labor and the treatment of Native Americans.

It seems that when it comes to structures of second-class citizenship or the denial of civil rights, U.S. law and social science leads the way.

AMERICA'S ENTRY into the Second World War spurred several developments in society that were secondary to the war aims, but no less important in shaping domestic politics for decades to come.

The enlistment of millions of young men into combat away from their families (including Black forces, though segregated) corresponded with the mass entrance of women into industrial production at the same time as propaganda campaigns directed against present enemies (Nazis) and future ones (Communists) celebrated American freedom and equality.

These developments in four years of war fertilized countless material and ideological seedlings that would mature into the modern social movements for civil rights, Black liberation, women's equality and gay rights.

But while these movements were set into subterranean motion, one contrary movement, above all others, was cut down: American eugenics disappeared from intellectual thought and policy pronouncements.

It took about a full generation after the war before American conservatives would openly embrace race science again. With the rise of the New Left and the civil rights movement in particular, American racism was rudderless without scientific legitimacy. As ever, it would take academics of the finest stock to reinject old-fashioned white supremacy with the intellectual pedigree it was originally built upon.

Arthur Jensen--credentialed, appropriately, by both the University of California and Columbia University--would lead the way in 1969 with his Harvard Educational Review essay, "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?" To save you the trouble, his answer can be summarized: "Not much. So don't try."

Jensen argued that intelligence was 80 percent hereditary and explicitly advanced his science against compensatory social and educational programs as well as the ideological gains of the radical left.

His work was seized upon by a right wing emboldened by the scientific pretense of the claims, and the debate flourished as new branches of science such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology claimed an intellectual lineage independent of earlier biological determinists and social Darwinists.

In truth, despite the prolonged separation from the past and claims to have emerged from new branches of genetics and psychology, the new generation resembles its parents too closely to convincingly deny the relation.

Their findings were neither innovative for science nor for the institutions that reared them. But while earlier eugenists were shamed into remission by the genocidal consequences of their "science," it was the task of the New Left, and radical scientists in particular, to expose the racist assumptions and pseudo-scientific methods underpinning these "new" ideas before they made their way back into the mainstream.

For the left to lose the argument again--or, as in the case of some progressives and even leftists, to land on the wrong side of it--would be disastrous for humankind.

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