Adam Cohen has written an exhaustive account of the nexus between eugenics, racism and immigration law in the United States. Against the backdrop of the Carrie Buck case, a young, poor Catholic woman, sentenced to a colony for folks categorized as morons, imbeciles and the feebleminded, Cohen provides a stark reminder of the complicity of the Courts, scientists and policy makers in the devolvement of equality and due process for persons labeled undesirable. He reminds us that in the 19th Century “undesirable” was pinned to women who were working poor, Catholic, and not of Anglo (British) origin. These women were segregated from society until aging out of childbearing or were sterilized against their will.
The case of Buck v Bell stains not only the early history of Progressives, adherents to eugenics, but the legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes who opined, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” as he upheld the forced sterilization of women. With the stroke of a pen, countless women were housed in segregated colonies, sterilized and branded for life as the result of an accident of birth and social caste.
Using the power of storytelling, Cohen peels back the layers of ethnic cleansing, which sought to purge the population of children born to women who were not part of the upper class–a class defined not only by economics, ethnicity and religion. Whilst not erecting a Wall, Congress passed legislation that first limited and then attempted to prevent the immigration of Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe; the limitation was extended to all emigres from Southern Europe.
In the 1930’s the nascent National Socialist Party sent a delegation to the U.S. to learn the mechanics of ethnic cleansing which they perfected during the start of the Holocaust. Indeed, we learn that during the Nuremberg Trials, the Nazis cited the eugenics program in America as model for the Third Reich campaign to genetically promote the “Aryan Race.”
Cohen makes clear that the eugenics movement was aimed at Caucasians thought to be genetically inferior and was supported and promoted by Northern progressives, intellectuals and professionals. Various iterations of ethnic cleansing took hold from marriage laws and practices which restricted marriage of persons who were “undesirable,” to Immigrations Laws from 1924 which increased immigration from Northern European countries while closing the door to those from Eastern and Southern Europe, to forced sterilization of young women who failed to match the profile of upper class Protestant women with ethnic roots in Northern Europe.
This book is fascinating especially in light of the language of the 2016 election. Cohen reminds that conceptions of ethnic and racial desirability were not confined to “racial” characteristics. Rather, such categories were and are a movable object. In 19th Century America objectionable and unfavorable ethnicities tracked Southern/Eastern European ancestry, while in the 21st Century the category applies to Latina, Muslim and African American.
While reading Imbeciles, I was reminded of the forced sterilizations in New York City of Latina and African American women who were on public assistance. Without their knowledge, doctors tied their tubes when they went into the hospital to give birth to their children. In 2013, 150 women were sterilized in California. The political rhetoric of the 21st Century reminds us that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, the statute which prohibited “race mixing” and gave us Loving v. Virginia, resonates still with politicians, policy makers and junk scientists who believe that ethnic and racial cleansing is about “protecting America.”
Imbeciles is a fascinating read; it is a must read for anyone who teaches law or is an advocate for social change. It is a troubling testament to the French saying–Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.