The Price of American Eugenics

Forty years later, only one state is making reparations for thousands of forced sterilizations.
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The North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh. (Photo: W Edward Callis III/Wikimedia Commons)

The North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh. (Photo: W Edward Callis III/Wikimedia Commons)

From the early decades of the 20th century until 1974, 32 states in the union mandated the sterilization of more than 65,000 citizens. At the behest of government eugenics boards, girls and women had their tubes tied or uteri removed, and boys and men their vasa deferentia snipped because they had been deemed unfit to reproduce. Still others came under the scalpel of private doctors, and this second group makes the calculations difficult—65,000 represents only the number of sterilizations where there was municipal paperwork.

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Eugenics Compensation statute, and last week the state's department of commerce began the long-awaited disbursement of financial reparations to victims of sterilization. Two hundred twenty living victims will receive checks of $20,000 each—220 checks, out of 768 claims. Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized at least 7,600 people. However mortifying the disparity here, we must give the Assembly credit for passing legislation that no other state has so far brought to a vote; by contrast, California has kept positively mum about its own similar history, which accounts for a third of all American sterilizations.

These procedures were medieval in their autocracy, especially in the South, and occasionally fraudulent: The “Mississippi appendectomies” are but one of the more conspicuous violations in a campaign of reproductive regulation that lasted over half a century. For those who think that racism ended in 1865 and that current disquisitions about white hegemony are misguided or outmoded, our failure to confront this poisonous legacy should stand as a stirring caution.

These states oversaw pronounced shifts in policy around 1955, before which time the majority of victims were white. Thereafter, sterilization became a fairly unapologetic mode of demographic engineering, a way of controlling and correcting the black population.

As WNCN reports: “Sterilizations were promoted by the [North Carolina] Department of Public Welfare as a solution for poverty and illegitimacy.” Further causes for sterilization included early-onset puberty; a perceived potential for promiscuity; physical or mental disability; girls who had been raped by their fathers; deafness; blindness; and, for one white lad, an apparent “interest in Negro girls.”

The state gave supreme latitude to doctors, sheriffs, and social workers in deciding who could procreate and who could not. North Carolina was the only state that allowed social workers to sign off on sterilizations.

Paul A. Lombardo, a decorated professor of law at Georgia State University and editor of A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, emphasizes the racial mechanisms at work. “In the 1960s and '70s, we saw a resurgence of attention to using sterilization punitively,” he says. “They were using it to a great extent on African-American women on welfare.”

From the 1950s through the ’70s, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were the Southern states that pursued eugenics policies most keenly. These states oversaw pronounced shifts in policy around 1955, before which time the majority of victims were white. Thereafter, sterilization became a fairly unapologetic mode of demographic engineering, a way of controlling and correcting the black population. In 1960, blacks accounted for a quarter of the population of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. Eighty percent of sterilizations from the period were done on blacks in the county. Wallace Kuralt (father of Charles), who served as welfare director for Mecklenburg from 1945 until 1972, maintained throughout his tenure that sterilization was key to managing "low mentality-low income families which tend to produce the largest number of children." In 2011, the Charlotte Observer obtained previously sealed records for Mecklenburg County's sterilization program. It boasted the highest rate of any county in the state.

By the late '60s—after the Civil Rights Act—eugenics boards became yet more aggressive in trying to engineer blacks out of the voting pool. Gregory Michael Dorr, contributing a chapter to A Century of Eugenics in America, characterizes the period:

Support for implicitly and explicitly eugenic population controls emerged from the concern that the nation faced a demographic explosion among the underclass, a "population bomb" that threatened to destroy civilization in either a hail of welfare claims or violent social revolution. Politically, the Nixon administration used population anxiety to harmonize the demands of welfare activists and the New Right on one hand, demographic alarmists and the emerging anti-abortion lobby on the other—all in the name of reelecting the president. This political opportunism had far-reaching consequences.

Despite the inadequacy of the records, we know that the majority of victims were black women. Lombardo draws similar conclusions about the effects of Nixon's strategy on Southern sterilization policies: “With the resurgence of punitive sterilization proposals in the '60s, it became clear that it was part of Nixon's plan to allow methods that would cut welfare to particularly unmarried black women in the south,” Lombardo says. “There's no question in my mind that was one of the motives.”

One of North Carolina's relatively few surviving victims is Elaine Riddick, executive director of the Rebecca Project for Justice. When she was 14, the eugenics board adjudged Riddick “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” As she told WCNC:

They did take our God-given right away from us. They did tamper, or play with our reproductive rights. These are things you just can't cover up, or you just can't let go of. These are things that are going to haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Nonetheless, Riddick hails compensation as a major step, calling herself “very pleased that North Carolina decided to do the right thing towards its citizens that it sterilized."

But what of those 500-odd claims that the state isn't yet paying off? The General Assembly has laid aside $10 million for compensation; the 220 payouts so far amount to less than half that sum. Without proper paperwork—that is, in the hundreds of cases where the eugenics board was not directly involved, or where paperwork was fudged—it is unlikely the state will start cutting more checks. Here we see a further embarrassment, one vigorously protested by Elizabeth Haddix, senior staff attorney at the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights. As Haddix writes in the RaleighNews & Observer:

These claimants were no less brutalized by the government than those victims for whom paperwork exists in the state archive. Many of those whose claims have been denied were either pressured into being sterilized by a county social services or “welfare” worker or were sterilized without their knowledge but under the “welfare” worker’s direction after giving birth or being hospitalized for some other procedure. There is no question these people were sterilized against their will, by state actors, under color of state law, with the state’s legal and political sanction.... The experiences relayed to us by victims who have Eugenics Board documentation and those for whom the state found no such documentation are, in most cases, identical.

Lombardo agrees with the dismal prognosis:

If I were guessing, I'd say the other 500 won't be paid. You had administrative machinery that did this pursuant to the law but you had lots of other people done either in a freelance way by private doctors or in a less official way by someone at a public hospital. The way the statue is written in NC, this second group is not gonna be compensated.

We can say this much at least: that North Carolina's long-awaited if sadly inadequate response to its nasty history of body-invasion and demographic manipulation will reinvigorate the issue in other states—Virginia, Georgia, California, and the remaining 28—while encouraging us to interrogate more modern modes of manipulating the black community: The war on drugs, radio rhetoric about “welfare queens” (a surprisingly durable political relic), new versions of the poll tax. Voters would do well to remember that the debate over a government's uterine jurisdiction predates Roe vs. Wade, and that Christian whites have not always been on the favorable side of history.

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