July 1, 2015
Tony Platt on American Eugenics
Posted on Jun 20, 2008
By Tony Platt
A prisoners’ committee raised $1,000 from McAlester’s canteen fund and hired well-connected lawyers: Fay Lester, a former chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and Claud Briggs, a populist leader in the Senate who had made his reputation fighting for the “masses against the classes.” The prisoners held media-savvy demonstrations inside the prison—with placards proclaiming “Save Your Manhood” and “Contribute here to the Sterilization Campaign”—and lobbied the Tulsa Daily World to publish “A ‘Life Termer’ Denounces Sterilization,” a smart essay written by “Convict No. 18051.”
After a prisoner targeted for sterilization escaped in 1936, the state settled on a candidate who would pass judicial scrutiny. Jack Skinner was a short, skinny three-time loser with a limp, who had done time for chicken stealing and armed robberies. His first sterilization trial lasted less than a day. The appeal process took almost five years, until 1941, when Oklahoma’s Supreme Court in a split decision affirmed the decision to sterilize McAlester’s test case, even though by then Skinner had been paroled, had married and had moved to California.
In 1942, with a couple of small-town, inexperienced trial lawyers added to Skinner’s team, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma. In a unanimous decision, the court decided for Skinner: “The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far reaching and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear.” In the lead opinion, Justice William O. Douglas exposed the double standard of a law that punished “a person who enters a chicken coop and steals chickens,” while exempting the white-collar criminal who “appropriates over $20 from his employer’s till.”
It was an extraordinary victory—greeted “with jubilation in the cells and trusty buildings”—for an improbable campaign begun in McAlester prison eight years earlier. While the Skinner case did not provide protection for women in institutions or on welfare, “at a minimum,” notes Victoria Nourse, “legislative expansion of compulsory sterilization was suspect.”
When the author sticks close to the details of this compelling story, “In Reckless Hands” is a fascinating tale. But when she ventures into historical analysis, the book loses traction. For it is then that the author tends to sacrifice complexity for pithiness, and to make too many sweeping, and sometimes inaccurate, generalizations. It’s facile, for example, to reduce the successes of Nazism to the conclusion that “the German public embraced Hitler as the last chance for a bit of order.” Or to suggest, without evidence, that the rise of Nazism was responsible for transforming the American “public’s understanding of racism from a matter of science into one of politics”— a point which Nourse herself contradicts in the epilogue: “It became obvious [in the 1940s] that the racism of eugenics would not die.” (The book’s subtitle adds to this confusion.)
Also, the author doesn’t need to inflate the importance of her book by suggesting that it is somehow groundbreaking to do research “in local archives where most fear to tread,” or ingenuously arguing that the history of eugenics “has largely been forgotten”—I have at least 15 books on my shelf written on this topic since the mid-1980s.
Nevertheless, “In Reckless Hands” is well worth reading because it gets us to think in new ways about the scope of eugenics. Moreover, by bringing us face to face with some of the typically anonymous victims of forced sterilization, Victoria Nourse teaches the important lesson that the masses can take on the classes.
History of Eugenics: a Select Bibliography
Black, Edwin. “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.” New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
Briggs, Laura. “Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U. S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Broberg, Gunnar and Nils, Roll-Hanjsen (eds.). “Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.” Michigan State University Press, 1996.
Carlson, Elof Axel. “The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea.” Cold Springs Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001.
Davis, Angela Y. “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” in “Women, Race & Class.” New York: Random House, 1981.
“Facing History and Ourselves. Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement.” Brookline, Mass: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2002.
Ley, Astrid and Morsch, Günter. “Medical Care and Crime: The Infirmary at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 1936-1945.” Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2007.
Gordon, Linda. “The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America.” Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2002.
Haller, Mark. “Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought.” New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963.
Kevles, Daniel. “In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, 1995.
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.
Kühl, Stefan. “The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Kuntz, Dieter and Bachrach, Susan (eds). “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.” Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004.
LaPan, Amy and Platt, Tony ” ‘To Stem the Tide of Degeneracy’: The Eugenic Impulse in Social Work,” in Stuart A. Kirk (ed.), “Mental Disorders in the Social Environment: Critical Perspective.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Molina, Natalia. “Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Nourse, Victoria F. “In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near Triumph of American Eugenics.” New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
Ordover, Nancy. “American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
Platt, Tony (with Cecilia O’Leary). “Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial.” Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.
Platt, Tony. Reviews of books on eugenics: “The Great White Hope,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2002; “Breeding Only the Best,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 7, 2003; “In and Out of the Shadow of the Holocaust,” Social Justice, April 2006.
Quine, Maria Sophia. “Italy’s Social Revolution: Charity and Welfare From Liberalism to Fascism.” Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Quine, Maria Sophia. “Population Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe: Fascist Dictatorships and Liberal Democracies.” London: Routledge, 1996.
Stepan, Nancy Leys. ” ‘The Hour of Eugenics’: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Stern, Alexandra Minna. “Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Turda, Marius and Weindling, Paul J. “Blood and Homeland: Eugenics and Racial Nationalism in Central and Southeast Europe, 1900-1940.” Budapest: Central European University Press, 2007.
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