AUTHOR: Eli Kozin
Earlier this week, famed author Edwin Black spoke on campus about the relationship between the genocide in Germany and Europe perpetrated by the Nazi Party during World War II and the eugenics program in North Carolina in the decades thereafter. The sterilization program affected primarily rural women in this state, predominantly African American in race, and was most striking for occurring after the atrocities of the Holocaust were revealed. While other states were rejecting the notion of negative eugenics as a legitimate science, North Carolina was embracing it, and Duke University played a pivotal role. If you have yet to hear of this issue, I guarantee this will not be the first time as a plan to compensate the remaining survivors is being debated in the state legislature and is becoming a national news story. Here’s how this impacts you.
First a brief bit of background for non-genomics majors. Modern-day genomics, the study of genes now preoccupied with curing disorders and disease, directly evolved from the study of eugenics, now widely considered a pseudoscience. The early eugenics movement began in the United States as a “progressive” means to create a better society as “three generations of imbeciles is enough” [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Buck v. Bell 1927]. By definition, eugenics was a field that believed in creating a better society by rooting out those with unfavorable traits, negative eugenics, and increasing the population of favorable traits, positive eugenics. If this sounds a lot like modern genetic modification of plants or an artificial version of natural selection, you are getting the gist. However, eugenics differs from the modern field of genetics differs in many ways. Eugenicists believed that traits such as poverty and criminality were inbred within ones’ genes, and wanted to select not the best ear of corn or string bean plant, but the “best” humans, and remove the “worst” humans. Furthermore, they created essentially arbitrary terminology such as “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” to label targets for legal and forced sterilization. Often, victims of sterilization programs were not given a choice or were intentionally misinformed about their procedure. A trickle of sterilizations were performed across the United States through the 1920s and 30s, however, North Carolina did not partake. In the United States, eugenics was confined primarily to sterilization, but science textbooks used in the classrooms of high schools in North Carolina found their way to the cell of a young political prisoner in a German prison. In 1945 and 1946, when the public became informed of Adolf Hitler’s extreme commitment to eugenics and the terror it had wrought in the deaths of millions, every state that had sterilization programs quietly ended their efforts. Except North Carolina. After the Holocaust, North Carolina became the epicenter for eugenic “research,” following in the wake of Nazi Germany. Until 1969, Duke published a journal, “Eugenics Quarterly,” that still exists today as “Social Biology.” And between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina legally sterilized almost 8000 people.
But why discuss this topic now? North Carolina was the last to end forced sterilization, but the state may see the light of a new day as the first to compensate its victims. In a story currently receiving national exposure, Governor Bev Perdue created the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a governmental department working to spearhead compensation for those who were mistreated years ago. While the compensation proposed is not substantial at $20,000 per victim, it is a recognition of the extreme error on behalf of the state. No amount of money can ever replace the loss of the victims’ right to choose. A bill to create a fund to compensate the victims has failed to leave its legislative committee for two consecutive sessions; however, momentum seems to dictate that a vote will take place on the floor in Raleigh sometime during the Spring. Most legislators and state senators have already agreed to the compensation in theory, but this will be a pivotal moment in ensuring the justice due is the justice served.
We at Duke have a responsibility as well. Our state, which committed atrocities defined by the United Nations as a genocide, is on the eve of taking steps to rectify their mistakes. As a University, we too shared a large part in committing the sin. It is only fair that, like our state, we take the lead in speaking out against what occurred in the past and ensuring that it never again happens in the future. This means full support of victims compensation, lobbying to increase compensation from $20,000 to $50,000 and upwards, and helping to find and identify victims of the state Eugenics Boards. However, in our unique position as a University, we can do more. Duke, it is not an understatement, is a bastion of knowledge, yet I am sure that few of these readers, and an even fewer percentage of the Duke and North Carolina populations, are aware of the sterilization program. Duke needs to take the lead in educating ourselves, and educating the rest of the state. Curriculum is currently in development to teach about the sterilization program statewide in high schools. Duke needs to contribute. The Anil Potty mess has scholarly dishonesty on the tip of many a campus tongue. Sterilization and the falsified research conducted on this campus in Durham needs to be part of the conversation as well. I laud the Chronicle for their coverage of Edwin Black’s lecture, but do not let this be the last coverage of this topic: continue to report on the compensation fund and take the lead as The Winston-Salem Journal has done for years. It is mainly due to effective investigative journalism completed just up I-40 that this issue is rising into political and public consciousness.
However, the issue is far more compelling when broken down to a caucus level:
- For those involved in social justice, how were these acts allowed to perpetrate in the first place? Why did North Carolina run towards eugenics as every other state was fleeing the concept as fast as they could. Is $20,000 really a fair compensation to those who were denied the right to offspring and the pursuit of happiness?
- For those critiquing the transparency of government, why is it that until now, nearly forty years after the last sterilization, is this issue suddenly relevant? Which leaders were responsible for the continues endorsement of the actions of Board of Eugenics of North Carolina? Which legislators and senators continued funding the misdeeds? Who in the executive and judicial departments utilized a silent endorsement of these activities? Most importantly, why have all of these stakeholders tried to repress any memory or public discussion of sterilization? Should they be brought to trial under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, not only for their actions, but for their deliberate and widespread cover-up?
- For those tackling government corruption, the funding of much of eugenics “research” and sterilization execution came from private family foundations. How were these interest impacting those of the state? If a family foundation were to offer North Carolina millions of dollars to pick up the mentally ill and drop them off in Virginia or South Carolina in the middle of the night, would our politicians accept that offer? How can we police the corrupt practices that led to state-sponsored genocide in the future?
- For the feminist camp, the state took away these women’s’ right to a personal choice, whether or not to have a baby. In this case, the choice was even more permanent than in the abortion debate. How can we protect the ruling of Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose if the state cannot even acknowledge a women’s ownership of her own womb? Mainstream conservatism is attempting to take away a women’s right to not have a child, but the state took away the right to have a child in the past. State compensation and admission of error would certainly strengthen an argument upholding a women’s right to choice.
- For those who care about the role of Duke, how will we be perceived if North Carolina goes on to begin to correct their wrongs while we, active participants decades ago, stand on the sidelines? Duke’s image has been dragged through a string of high-profile scandals in recent years, so can we truly afford to take non-action on this issue? No. Duke needs to lead in supporting compensation legislation and education of the role of sterilization in the history of North Carolina, and acknowledge where we belong within that dark history.
Finally, on a slightly different but related note, I do want to recognize the student turnout at Edwin Black’s lecture. A total of six students attended the lecture, two of whom were from the Chronicle. An award-winning author and speaker spoke to us about a genocide committed in our state, after the world responded “never again” to the Holocaust, and four students could be troubled to even show up. This issue, relevant in the breaking news of the compensation fund, as well as controversial considering forty years of political cover-up could only attract four students. If Duke is going to be in any way a model for social justice, the first step is simply showing up. Please take this opportunity to educate yourself on this issue and share what happened with friends and family. Seek potential victims and lobby for greater compensation. We can never fully right this wrong, but we can learn from it. And please, as with the Holocaust, never forget.
- A special online report from the Winston-Salem Journal, the publication who first broke this story, about the entire history of North Carolina’s Sterilization Program. The timeline is particularly informative. http://extras.journalnow.com/againsttheirwill/
- The North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, the agency created by governor Bev Perdue, with information on the future compensation of victims. They need desperate help in finding these victims. http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/
- The Charlotte Observer Paper Trail blog, with timely updates on public documents relating to the sterilization program and the compensation fund. http://obspapertrail.blogspot.com/
- The website for Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak, the current definitive source on the North Carolina Sterilization Program, with a lot of pertinent information. http://www.waragainsttheweak.com/