In the early 20th century, over 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized by the state. Minorities, victims of sexual abuse, autistic people, queer people, and poor people were targeted. The right of a state to do this was upheld by an 8 to 1 vote in the supreme court case Buck v. Bell, establishing state-enacted eugenics as constitutional and inspiring the Nazi party just a couple of decades later. Eugenics and Social Darwinism are harmful and false ideologies that still have their roots in our modern politics, namely the conservative stance on welfare. They posit that poverty is the result of poor decision making (not a condition necessary to profit-drenched mega-corporations), that wealth is always earned, and that any ‘destructive’ or ‘savage’ behaviors shown by poor folks are the result of their natural inferiority (not the mental health effects inflicted by poverty). They assert that the state should selectively breed humans to achieve the most ‘advanced’ evolutionary stage, and sterilize (or, in the case of the Nazis, kill) any who have not shown the ‘desirable’ qualities. They want us to be disgusted by the poor and they have given rise to the ‘prosperity gospel’ practices by most wealthy televangelists.
Economic class so often lines up with race in America, and these horrific, uncompassionate sentiments follow. Conservative pundits paint black culture as celebrating “the bottom denominator of our society” (as Shelby Steele and Candace Owens put it). They combine a context-less understanding of the racial distribution of violent crime (usually only using arrest numbers, not convictions, and not controlling for poverty and it’s social and cultural ripples) with an appeal to white audiences who only interact with this culture on the news and radio. They try to link rap to black crime, but don’t address the affect it would have on white people who listen to rap if the correlation existed. They frame black success to exclude internal community, cultural, and business work, instead focusing on assimilation with white centers of power. They, like so many queer and trans folks, have internalized the bad stats and anti-black propaganda and turned it outward to be seen as one of the “good ones”.
Forced sterilization, like slavery, hasn’t stopped in America, but been hidden away in our prison systems. In 2017, a Tennessee judge offered inmates a 30 day early release if they agreed to sterilization, dangling the keys to their freedom over an operating chair. In 2009, a 21 year old mother from my state of West Virginia had her tubes tied as part of her probation after being charged with possession of marijuana. In 2014, a man in Virginia was given a lighter child endangerment charge in exchange for a vasectomy. Numerous women have come forward after being coerced into sterilization procedures by prison staff at Central California Women’s Prison as recently as 2013. These procedures often target people of color and trans people (in environments where they are often already targeted by higher sentences and more policing than their white counterparts).
We need to acknowledge the links between conservative attitudes towards those living below the poverty line, racial minorities, and queer people, Eugenics, Social Darwinism, American history, and our present. Social Darwinism assigns moral value to evolution and ‘proper behavior’, thinking evolution makes a species ‘better’ instead of adapting them to their environment. These ideas gain in power when they can convince you that resources are in short supply and that sacrifices have to be made (they originally grew out of Robert Malthus’s debunked predictions of industrial economics). We can see this now with conservatives asserting people who are high risk for the virus are necessary sacrifices for economic stats.
I’ve attached some screenshots of comments on a Fox News article covering a documentary on the California prison cases in a rather even and objective way (not too common for them). While the article seems to understand the evil of coercing prisoners into sterilization, the comments section seems to show just how their readership feels!
Here are some links to more resources on these topics:
- A wonderful video explaining the legacies these ideas have left in modern politics: Charles Darwin Vs Karl Marx | Philosophy Tube
- An article covering the history of 20th century forced sterilizations in America: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations
- An article covering prison sterilization in modern America: https://talkpoverty.org/2017/08/22/dear-andrew-young-poverty-doesnt-make-people-racist/
- The Fox News article covering this as well: https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/new-documentary-illuminates-the-forced-sterilization-of-women-in-california-prison
- And an article showing how conservative have misrepresented stats to justify police violence: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/06/how-conservatives-use-made-up-nonsense-to-justify-police-killings/