In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Eugenics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intellectual History and History of Science
  • Popular Histories
  • Literary Representation
  • Visual Culture
  • Popular Culture
  • Disability Studies
  • Whiteness Studies

African American Studies Eugenics
Daylanne K. English
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0029


Eugenics, a word derived from Greek and meaning well born, refers to the science of breeding better human beings. The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, an English explorer and natural scientist who was cousin to Charles Darwin (see Galton 1883, cited under British and Anglo-American Nonfiction). Eugenics emerged powerfully as science and ideology in the United States and Britain in the late 19th century because it offered a seemingly effective response to a wide range of national, geopolitical, and demographic conditions of the period. In the United States, rising imperial power coupled with widespread immigration and migration were among the most powerful spurs for the rise of eugenics. Eugenics reached a peak in the United States during the 1920s, with intelligence testing, immigration restrictions, compulsory sterilization of the “feebleminded,” and other social practices and policies all responding to perceived overbreeding by the American dysgenic (i.e., the badly born). Eugenics was so pervasive in the United States that it found expression across the political spectrum and even across racial lines, despite its origins in elitism and white supremacy. Eugenics appealed to so many modern thinkers, regardless of race, because, unlike more general discourses of race, it circumvented the tension between the individual and collective that characterizes the modern nation-state. Many US intellectuals, black and white, addressed perceived intraracial, that is collective, weakness by encouraging certain individuals within the race to breed (positive eugenics) while discouraging others from breeding (negative eugenics). As Daniel Kevles has shown, there were even progressive and reactionary versions of eugenics (see Kevles 1985, cited under General Overviews). Because of its ideological flexibility and its promise of national or racial improvement, eugenics shaped a wide variety of disciplines and policies in the United States. It influenced labor practices that aimed for efficiency; it influenced art and design that aimed for streamlining; it influenced literature that was shaped by ideas about human betterment. Popular culture, too, was influenced by eugenics, as in fitter family contests at state fairs and “prize baby contests” that were sponsored by some chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). Indeed, among modern African American intellectuals, only a handful of writers resisted and challenged eugenics (see Larsen 1986 and Thurman 2008, cited under African American Fiction, and Grimké 1998, cited under African American Drama). As a number of scholars have argued, although explicitly eugenic policies may have been on the wane in the United States after the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany, less overt but no less eugenic practices and ideas have persisted. Welfare and birth control policies, differential access to fertility treatment, and insurance practices regarding reproductive health: all potentially work to promote births among some while discouraging births among others. Racially targeted sterilization practices between the 1960s and the present have been perhaps the most common topic among scholars arguing for, and challenging, the ongoing power of eugenics in the United States. Indeed, unlike in the modern period, contemporary expressions of eugenics have met with widespread, thoroughgoing resistance; see, for example, Duster 2003, cited under General Overviews, and Roberts 1997, cited under Fertility, Birth Control, and Abortion.

General Overviews

Excellent overviews of the eugenics movement are available but few that include discussion of participation in it by African Americans. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Image Archive, an online source, gives an excellent overview not only of eugenics activities at the US Eugenics Record Office, but also of the history and appeal of eugenics in the United States. Allen 1986 likewise provides an extensive history of the Eugenics Record Office and of the US eugenics movement; Allen also shows that eugenicists, although influential in the public policy arena and on popular culture, were sometimes discounted by mainstream biologists and geneticists. Kevles 1985 stands as one of the most important and useful broad histories of eugenics in the United States, while Duster 2003 constitutes one of the most powerful analyses of the racism embedded in eugenic thinking across the 20th century and into the 21st century. Stepan 1982 offers a crucial corrective to post–World War II understandings of eugenics, arguing that to term eugenics a “pseudoscience” is to misrepresent its status as an actual science in the first half of the 20th century. Kline 2001 offers a welcome focus on women as targets of eugenic discourse. Lombardo 2011 and English 2004 focus substantially on African Americans as both participating in and challenging thinking on eugenics.

  • Allen, Garland. “The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910–1940: An Essay in Institutional History.” Osiris 2 (1986): 225–264.

    DOI: 10.1086/368657

    This essay by science historian Allen provides an extensive, critical history of the US Eugenics Record Office and the American eugenics movement. Explains the central role Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin played in the movement. Positions eugenicists within a larger scientific community that was sometimes hostile to their methods and aims.

  • Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. Cold Springs Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

    Remarkable digital archive from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, once site of the US Eugenics Record Office. Analyzes the history, development, and appeal of eugenics, along with its flaws and social policy applications. Includes digitized primary materials, from photographs and charts to newspaper articles. Includes a link to a DNA Learning Center blog that covers many topics, including the “Better Babies” program, involuntary sterilization, and IQ and intelligence issues.

  • Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203426951

    Originally published in 1990. This book is a classic study of the eugenics movement that reveals its racial and racist underpinnings. The updated edition considers the eugenic implications in contemporary medical and scientific contexts that include the human genome project, prenatal testing, and genetic medicine.

  • English, Daylanne K. Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    This is a cultural study that offers a useful history of the eugenics movement in the United States, along with a concise intellectual history of eugenics. Notable for its analysis of the ways that many African American intellectuals, writers, and artists participated in intraracial eugenic thinking as well as the ways that some African American women writers challenged it. Includes consideration of W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and anti-lynching drama (see Du Bois 1932, Du Bois 1922, and Dunbar-Nelson 1927, cited under African American Nonfiction, and Burrill 1919 and Grimké 1998, cited under African American Drama).

  • Kevles, Daniel. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985.

    This is a very useful, indeed classic, overview of eugenics. Offers an invaluable discussion of negative (seeking to limit births among the unfit) and positive (seeking to encourage births among the fit) eugenics, as well as of reactionary and progressive versions of eugenics.

  • Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    This is a broad and rich cultural history of the eugenics movement in the United States. Focuses on discourses of morality and female sexuality. Traces the continued expression and influence of eugenics up to the 1990s.

  • Lombardo, Paul A., ed. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

    This is a very useful collection of essays that together provide a broad overview of the eugenics movement in the United States. Includes a chapter on the “Black Eugenics and the NAACP’s Baby Contests” (also a subject of English 2004).

  • Stepan, Nancy. The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1982.

    This classic study examines scientific racism in Britain over a span of 150 years. Helps establish a genealogy for eugenics.

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