The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, May 19, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Know the dark side of North Carolina eugenics

Alongside the benefits of our growing understanding of genetics, there’s been the dark shadow of its pseudoscience.

More than just an unfortunate chapter of history confined to Nazi Germany, eugenics — the practice of selective breeding — has long had a foot in American politics. North Carolina provides a perfect example of the wretched history of eugenics in the United States. 

The focal point of the Old North State’s relationship with eugenics over the years was the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, a state board formed in 1933. It forcibly sterilized citizens, many of whom were black and impoverished. 

The stated targets of sterilization of the Eugenics Board were the so-called “feeble-minded,” which was bad enough, but they also sterilized the blind and deaf, expanding to the sterilization of any welfare recipients social workers chose to single out. Over the course of more than 40 years, about 7,600 people were sterilized by the state until 1977, when the Eugenics Board was formally abolished. However, laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained in place until as late as 2003. 

The driving force behind the forced sterilizations authorized by the Eugenics Board after World War II was the so-called “Human Betterment League,” an organization made up of Winston-Salem’s wealthy elite for the purpose of furthering the cause of eugenics in North Carolina. Founded in 1947, the efforts of the League led to an 80 percent increase in forced sterilizations in the state and continued to promote forced sterilizations until the early 1970s, eventually disbanding in 1988. 

Beyond thousands of forced sterilizations administered under the authority of the Eugenics Board, countless more were carried out by local clinics in the state. While a bill passed in 2013 provided compensation to victims of involuntary sterilization by the Eugenics Board, no compensation has been instituted for victims of these clinics. 

North Carolina is only one of many states that have sanctioned forced sterilization. Beyond the already horrible history of American eugenics, the American model of eugenics and forced sterilization would provide a direct model for similar programs implemented in Nazi Germany. 

Harry Laughlin, one of the leading American eugenicists of the 1930s, would brag to colleagues about how Nazi Germany was adapting his compulsory sterilization law models, and in 1936 was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg for his contributions to the “science of racial cleansing.” 

Despite the repeated debunking of eugenics by respectable academics and researchers, Social Darwinist thinking and support for eugenicist thought remain far more prevalent than they should. The most prominent example is Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 "The Bell Curve," a perniciously ignorant, poorly researched and deliberately misleading book which claims human intelligence is linked to race. The book was published without any peer review, based itself on flawed statistical methods and faulty assumptions and has been torn to shreds by a number of prominent scholars. 

But Charles Murray’s pseudo-research is still taken seriously in certain circles. The majority of Murray’s “research” came from the Pioneer Fund, a non-profit foundation that has funded prominent white supremacists, such as Roger Pearson and Jared Taylor. Among the founding members of the fund was Harry Laughlin. 

The original eugenicists saw themselves as philanthropists who were helping the world, and future neo-eugenicists will probably view themselves that way as well. This is why it is important we dispel the pseudoscientific, white supremacist myths that are perpetuated by people like Charles Murray and organizations like the Pioneer Fund.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.