TNC looks at North Carolina’s efforts to come to terms with the state’s forced sterilization of thousands of its own “feeble-minded” citizens. Who decided who was feeble-minded? Why, the “Eugenics Board.” More from the NYT:
The board operated from 1933 to 1977 as an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.
Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.
Only North Carolina gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization. They often relied on I.Q. tests like those done on Mr. Holt, whose scores reached 73. But for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability. For example, as an adult Mr. Holt held down three jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working at a grocery store and doing maintenance for a small city.
Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.
A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.
Over all, about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.
The program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families.
Do notice that the Eugenics Board did not disband until 1977. Nineteen-seventy-seven! That’s a generation after the horrors of Auschwitz, the ultimate telos of the German eugenics program, were made known to the world. But see, in North Carolina, the program only affected poor, uneducated country people, white and black alike. The people who were the least powerful in our society.
1977. The past isn’t even the past. And yet, on we go, into a eugenic future, convinced that the bad eugenics of the past are behind us. Don’t say this was just a relic of a racist state that was once part of the old Confederacy. As TNC reminds us:
Now North Carolina is trying to make amends for the past, but can’t quite figure out how. The fact is that sterilization was perfectly legal, if shockingly immoral. Moreover, eugenics was national program enacted, in some form, in most states throughout the country. North Carolina is one of the few states that’s actually trying to grapple with the issue.