When Racism Is Policy

“What is your ancestry?” Chances are, we’ve all heard this question from time to time. Often, we’ll respond to this line of inquiry with something similar to: “oh, I’m about three-quarters Scottish, one quarter Danish.” But have you ever stopped to consider just where the idea came from? At some point, someone came up with the idea that our parents’ lineage constitutes 50% of our genetic inheritance, our grandparents make up 25%, and so on. While reading “Eugenics as Indian Removal,” an article in The Public Historian 29, No. 3, it struck me that this very idea, which we often so easily dismiss as a simple conversation starter, became the basis for the eugenics movement, and numerous policies that persist even today.

The idea that one inherits racial and ethnic traits from one’s parents (the percentages for which decrease as you go higher up in the family tree), is called “fractional inheritance,” and it first appeared in the writings of Sir Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century. Fractional inheritance then led to the logic that a person’s racial identity could be assigned based on the race of his or her most socially subordinate parent. For example, Virginia’s 1866 declaration that “every person having one-fourth or more Negro blood shall be deemed a colored person, and every person not a colored person having one-fourth or more Indian blood shall be deemed an Indian,” [1] This practice was known as hypodescent, and together with the notion of fractional inheritance, they formed the basis for the “science” of eugenics.

After the Civil War, Progressives throughout the South latched onto the idea that science could contribute to real, quantifiable social reform. They came to believe that biological determinism, and the study of the role one’s genes play creating behavior, could be used to better society. With the scientific trifecta of fractional inheritance, hypodescent, and biological determinism, scientists had all the evidence they needed to link race to behavior. In the North, progressives were bolstered by scientific evidence collected by Henry Goddard, Charles Davenport, and others.

And here is where things get just a bit more complicated. It would be easy to say, simply, that these ideas led to negative eugenics, and to leave it at that. But then, somehow, they became policy at the federal and state levels. For instance, the federal government passed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, putting a stranglehold on immigration from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. In the South, anti-miscegenation laws attempted to limit the interaction and reproduction between whites and blacks. As these laws across the country were deemed inadequate to protect racial progress, many states began to implement forced sterilization programs. North Carolina, for example, passed laws in 1919, 1929, 1933, 1935; Virginia did in 1924. Then, in 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization law in the case of Buck vs. Bell. While the case of Buck vs. Bell concerned a patient in a mental health facility, and did not focus on the lineage of the person in question, it essentially legitimized the practice of eugenic sterilization in general. For several decades following the ruling, sterilization efforts focused on the “feebleminded” or the “degenerate.”  However, as federal policies shifted and public health facilities began to desegregate, sterilization of Native Americans and other groups skyrocketed due in large part to coercion and other practices at state-run healthcare providers. [2]

Hypodescent, and thus the ability to negatively categorize human beings by their parental heritage, were obviously at the core of each and every one of these policies. Even though eugenics has been discredited from an ethical standpoint, we continue to use the ideas at its heart to influence and create policy. Native American tribes, for example, still determine lineage and tribal ancestry through the use of the “blood quantum.” Society also identifies a person as “mixed-race” based on the skin color of their parents. We still consider the notion of fractional inheritance to be a determining factor in a person’s identity, and we still develop policies operating under that assumption. Is this right or wrong? I will let you decide.

[1] “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast,” The Public Historian, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2007): 56.

[2] Ibid, 57-60.

18 thoughts on “When Racism Is Policy

  1. Wow Drew. You make a very good point in your introductory paragraph as I have never really thought about that phrase deeply. I always just assumed it had to do more with pride in ones heritage when, as you point out, it also ties into ethnic identity.

    1. Agreed, Michelle. I thought that was a really interesting point Drew raised. It seems like such a benign question, but when you reflect on history it suddenly becomes a bit more loaded. I think is some ways, whether consciously or not, we still use it as a way to relate to, and sometimes judge others.

    2. You know I was thinking back about this. I don’t remember being asked about my ethnic heritage until college. Everyone seemed obsessed with that question there. I’ve always wondered why. Maybe it relates to Britney’s point that we inadvertently use that question to make judgments and find points of relate-ability (if that’s a word).

      1. I remember being asked constantly in college, what my ethnic background is. I think there might be times where people judge you or try to relate to you. I also think that college is a time for most people to step out of their circles and learn about new things, new culture, new people that they may have not experienced up until that point.

      2. Questions about ethnicity and race in college can also be related to a more general awakening of self-identification and consciousness. I know that for my own experience, learning about gender issues coupled by meeting other women and men who felt the burden of gender-based oppression really enlightened my own feminism. I also know my African American or Mexican American friends had a similar experience. Many of my friends had gone to white-dominated schools that did not allow them to explore their own identities as people of color. When they got to college and met other students with similar backgrounds, or students who did not go to predominately white schools they began to form a firmer identity.

    3. The question is, can we continue to use the phrase as we originally thought about it while acknowledging its prejudiced origins? I like to think so. Frances Galton was also responsible for developing standard deviations, which are a critical part of statistics today. He used standard deviations to justify his eugenic policies, but it is a sound concept. The problem wasn’t with the concept itself, but with how Galton interpreted its results. The meaning of words and phrases change over time as society changes. The loaded meaning of the phrase is largely gone now because the vast majority of us are not aware of it. Even if someone judges me because I state that I am half Italian, then I think there is a problem with that person, not with the phrase. Chances are that they would judge me regardless of the language used to describe my heritage.

      1. I agree that our heritage is something that we can be proud of, Rick, despite the initial prejudices of the question. What I find interesting is that it seems more people embrace certain aspects of their racial heritage. Growing up in South Carolina, everyone was proud to one-eighth Cherokee (though I doubt how accurate this was for some who made this claim) and numerous fake tribes existed that required potential members to prove their lineage. Which is certainly ironic given the “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast.” Some of us overtly celebrate our backgrounds for different reasons but it’s important that we remember what could have possibly been the origins of this pride –to make distinctions based on social constructions. As the readings so clearly illustrate, the history of eugenics is not a story America widely acknowledges. The Public Historian articles served to challenge the idea of eugenics being a product of Nazi science and bring light to this part of our past.

  2. Eugenics is something I always thought belonged only to Nazi Germany, during a specific period of time. This week’s readings made me realize that this was not the case, and this post made the further connection to the longer history of eugenics, which is also important to note.

    1. Megan, I’ve also always viewed the Nazis as the ‘poster child’ for eugenics. While some of the readings discussed that this reputation can be problematic insofar as it distracts us from other eugenics programs outside of Germany, I think that it is important when we consider the German scientists who came to the United States after World War II. Just as we shouldn’t forget that Nazi Germany wasn’t the only place where eugenics was an accepted practice/belief, we shouldn’t forget that scientists involved with that program were accepted in the United States.

  3. Descendants of the “blood quantum” take a strange role in some parts of today’s American culture. Certain scholarships came to my mind, where if the applicant can prove a certain percentage of lineage, whether Native American, African American, Chinese American, or even Mayflower American. Lineage here is something to embrace, and perhaps it affects an individual’s choice on with whom he or she chooses to associate, or choose as a spouse. Drew, are we wondering what society would look like without any form of hypodescent thought? In the name of defying eugenics?

    1. Patrick, that’s a great question, and one that I struggled with a bit as I wrote this blog post. I certainly wanted to avoid in any way insinuating that people who receive scholarships and the like due to blood quantum are in some way wrong. I don’t believe that at all. Mainly, I wanted to point out how the scientific theories that governed eugenics are still used as policy. Whether this is moral or ethical is a different argument. Hope that answers your question!

  4. Your opening paragraph is great, I never would have thought about that question in any other way other than as innocuous. I can’t help but feel that the question of “What is your ancestry?” is uniquely American in some ways with so many different immigrant groups here from almost the very beginning of the United States of America. Especially so with companies like 23andme (https://www.23andme.com/) where for $99 you can find out where you’re ancestors are from going back over 10,000 years and how much of you is from there. That is a lot of information. And while it might be really neat to know where your ancestors are from some companies also dispense more than just ancestral information but also genetic medical information, the FDA has objected to this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/12/06/249231236/23andme-bows-to-fdas-demands-drops-health-claims. So what happens now that we have the technology to figure out exactly where we’re from and what percentage of ourselves is from there? Does this change the question or make the answer more interesting? And what about current use of “blood quantum” for entry into societies like pdickerson points out or how Native American tribes use it as radtkedrew points out in this post?

    1. “I can’t help but feel that the question of ‘What is your ancestry?’ is uniquely American in some ways with so many different immigrant groups here from almost the very beginning of the United States of America.” I thought about that too! I do think there’s a large element of pride when we talk about our heritage. I don’t think it’s inherently negative to refer to the “blood quantum” concept. Maybe if more people were aware of the origin of this concept, we could think about other ways to talk about our heritage?

      1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking about that! I agree that we need to think about different ways to talk about our backgrounds. I feel like the “blood quantum” concept works in someways and not in other. At this point my heritage is almost so far removed from me what what is point in say I’m x% this and y% that. There are so many different backgrounds that the percentages would be so small as to seem insignificant, but some of the smallest ones might make up the biggest cultural influences on my family so where does that leave us now?

      2. I’m conflicted in thinking if people were more aware of the origin of this concept we would talk about heritage differently. Part of me wants to believe that we would, while the other part of me thinks we won’t. The reason why I partially think people won’t is because people like identifying with groups and it has become very natural to explain your ancestry by fractional inheritance or hypo descent. I think that we can and would talk about it differently if people were to understand the history, which I think will need a good approach. A start can be in the classroom in history courses, and another start of course in the Museum.

  5. I think Kwoodling and Emily Hopkins make a good point about some of the more positive views of genetic heritage today. Almost any time a new group of people is introduced to each other, one of the first questions that is asked is about each other’s heritage. This has the potential to lead to assessments based on a person’s heritage, but many times it moves conversations in new directions or enables a feeling of relatedness when people have a similar heritage. Many people also feel a strong connection to others with their heritage, even if these people practice different customs, which could serve as a means of bringing people together. Perhaps this is part of the country’s evolving view of ethnic diversity. However, it is also likely that this focus on heritage is an altered remnant of past custom; when knowing someone’s heritage often resulted in assessments of their trustworthiness and character. Even today, asking about one’s genetic heritage is a common question because we perceive that the answer will give us better insight into the values of people we have just met. In many cases the question is just a starting point for new directions in a conversation, but the preponderance of questionnaires that ask for a person’s ethnicity (a more general view of heritage) shows that we have not overcome the idea that a person’s background imparts some information about their views and values.

  6. This post reminded me of registering to be a recognized member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I felt hypocritical asking to be recognized when I looked nothing like a stereotypical Native American, and if we go by Eugenics my blood percentage looks something like the number 2 over 253. My tribe registers members based on paperwork. I asked to register under my father, who registered under his mother, who registered under her mother, and so on until our first registered ancestor. We had proof that we were related, and that’s all the Choctaws wanted to know. I feel this method of registration makes more sense than genetic heritage. If you are a tribe trying to rebuild after suffering loss and prejudice, why would you exclude potential tribal members because of a number? I don’t think any tribe should, but that’s my opinion. The more people you have as a part of your tribe then the more people you have to care about tribal issues and fight for your cause.

  7. Drew, I thought you brought up a couple very interesting points. First, I feel like it is alarming how much the legacy of eugenics and that kind of thinking persists today. You mentioned how we break down our ancestry. I learned my freshman year of college that I am 1/64 Native American. However, that did not make me Native American enough to qualify for a minority scholarship, many of which specify 1/4 or 1/8 Native American heritage. While I do have this a part of my ancestry, I do not identify as Native American. I was not raised a part of that culture. Like Stephenie mentioned in her comment, I don’t look like a stereotypical Native American. So how much does this percentage really matter? Maybe in a different time that would have been enough for me to be considered Native American. I also thought it was important that you mention the role of the government in forming policies that enable eugenics practices. Like our discussion about miscegenation laws in Big Ideas last semester, I am left to wonder how government policies feed into our thinking and practices.

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