Newspapers in North Carolina last week were abuzz with the news that a task force appointed by the governor had recommended $50,000 compensation for people who were sterilized under the state’s eugenics program. The Charlotte Observer a few years back ran a series on the sordid history of this shameful chapter of North Carolina history. The state is trying to make amends for its shameful acts in an era when the idea of racial superiority was in vogue.
The story has touched a tender spot in the American subconscious where it has lain for nearly 100 years. Like one who has escaped punishment for a hidden crime, the guilt has eaten away at us. The payment of money to those directly harmed may salve uneasy consciences, but no amount of money can repair the damage to generations of children who were subject to the stigma of legal inferiority.
Mostly black were sterilized; wives daughters, sisters, brothers the young and those thought to be mentally retarded. What is especially sad is that the movement to smarten up the race, received backing from those who ought to have known better. The Rockefeller foundation, the Carnegie Foundation and J H Kellogg were among stalwarts of the time who provided funding to the “Race Betterment Foundation”. Margaret Sanger, whose name can be found on the masthead of Planned Parenthood, thought it was a good way to prevent unwanted children from being born into a disadvantaged life.
What is most disheartening about this episode is that it was championed by the educated, the rich and the respected. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 by recent Harvard University graduates, the League sought to bar what it considered inferior races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock.
But for me the most damming testimony of the times were these words written by a revered justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for the entire world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes.” Justice Holmes concluded his argument by declaring that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough".
At the height of the race betterment movement, 33 states had passed laws similar to North Carolina’s. Eventually with enlightenment, they were all repealed. Other states need to follow the lead of North Carolina and not just apologize for the misguided act of crass discrimination but compensate the victims some of whom are still around.