Margaret Sanger and Eugenics

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Who do you think gave this speech?

Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you….

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life [as easily], perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.

Would you be surprised if it was Abraham Lincoln? Well I have news for you! On Aug. 14 1862, Abraham Lincoln hosted a “Deputation of Free Negroes” at the White House. As far as I know, it was the first time in American history that blacks were invited to the White House to discuss a policy issue. The above paragraphs are from Lincoln’s speech, “Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negros”. Lincoln, like most of our great leaders, wasn’t a stranger to weird ideas. For most of his political career, he was big on the whole “let’s ship those free blacks back to Africa” thing. There were racial and political reasons for this (1), but the fact is, Lincoln wasn’t very different from his contemporaries. He was a stone cold racist that didn’t think highly of black people (2), a far cry from the president I learned about in high-school.

But you don’t see David Donald and Daniel McPherson throw tantrums over Lincoln’s racism. Instead, they analyze US history during the 1820s-1860s and see that most people who lived in this era were virulent racists (3). Only the most impervious abolitionist might escape this fate. Institutions are powerful things and we shouldn’t underestimate them.

When you judge a historical figure, you should probably have some understanding of the institutions that shaped their views and character. So when people rip on Margaret Sanger for getting caught up in the eugenics movement, they’re usually being disingenuous. You see, eugenics was a big deal during the progressive era. Many of the era’s brightest minds, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and Ronald Fisher, believed in eugenics. This doesn’t even begin to cover the other several thousand or so scientists, biologists, and politicians that took the idea seriously. Even W.E.B. Dubois believed in eugenics (4). In his very short essay, “Black Folk and Birth Control”, he wrote:

The result, among the more intelligent class, was a postponement of marriage which greatly decreased the number of children. Today, among this class of Negroes, few men marry before thirty, and numbers of them after forty. The marriage of women of this class has similarly been postponed.

In addition to this, the low income which Negroes receive, make bachelorhood and spinsterhood widespread, with the naturally resultant lowering, in some cases, of sex standards. On the other hand, the mass of Ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.

There comes, therefore, the difficult and insistent problem of spreading among Negroes an intelligent and clearly recognized concept of proper birth control, so that the young people can marry, have companionship and natural health, and yet not have children until they are able to take care of them. This, of course, requires in the first place a revulsion of the general laws, and in the second place, it calls for a more liberal attitude among Negro churches.

This gem sits next to an essay that called women “child factories” (5). DuBois even approved the opening of a birth control clinic in Harlem in 1930. You wanna guess who opened the clinic? Margaret Sanger.

Contrary to the irate ramblings of Sean Davis, Margaret Sanger was more of an equal opportunity eugenicist. When eugenicists used the word “race”, they used it in a nebulous way (6) and Sanger was no different. On top of that, she wasn’t very racist to begin with. In his short essay, Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?, Charles Valenza goes at length to show that many of the “racist” quotes attributed to Sanger are either not racist at all or pretty mild. Even at her worst, Sanger doesn’t even begin to approach the heinous racism of her eugenicist contemporaries. I’m not even trying to defend everything the women said, I don’t know enough about her, but the idea that she was a proto-Nazi is not rooted in historical fact.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t look at her views on eugenics, we absolutely should. We should analyze and criticize them. We should learn from her flaws. We should also look at the good she did. Her activism gave many women access to medical options they’ve never had  and eugenics was hardly her main motivation. Health issues and reproductive rights always occupied her thoughts. That’s huge and, in my opinion, far outweighs her views on eugenics.  If conservatives like Sean Davis want to do propaganda (7), they should probably take a page out of Goebbels, at least he knew what he was doing. But if you want to do history, you need to do some legwork. You need to take a genuine look at the historical context of someone’s actions to make a serious judgment. Moralizing hackery simply won’t do.


Notes:

1. There’s some literature on why Lincoln supported Black Colonization. This essay by Michael Vorenberg provides a useful overview.

2. It’s important to note that Lincoln did not think blacks were innately inferior to whites.

3. See Lincoln by David Herbert Donald pg. 633:

It would, I think, be a mistake to attempt to palliate Lincoln’s racial views by saying that he grew up in a racist society or that his ideas were shared by many of his contemporaries. After all, there were numerous Americans of this generation – notably, many of the abolitionists – who were committed to racial equality. At the same time, it ought to be noted that Lincoln fortunately escaped the more virulent strains of racism. Unlike many of his fellow Republicans, he never spoke of Africa-Americans as hideous or physically inferior; he never declared that they were innately inferior mentally or incapable of intellectual development; he never described them as indolent or incapable of sustained work; he never discussed their supposed licentious nature or immorality.

4. See In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes 1915-1935 pg. 3:

Eugenic thought and practice among African-Americans, however, was hardly new and appeared in pivotal works by intellectuals like William Hannibal Thomas, Kelly Miller, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Eugenics appealed to many New Negro intellectuals as an extension of racial uplift ideals that promoted marriage and reproduction between physically and intellectually superior members of the race. While sidestepping the racist overtones of mainline eugenic theories, New Negro eugenicists utilized variations of the language and classifications established by white eugenicists to categorize the unfit among them.

5. To be fair to Dubois, his brand of eugenics wasn’t nearly as bad as some forms, e.g. Nazis, but it was still eugenics.

6. See Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era pg. 208:

In the United States especially, Progressive Era eugenics tended to be racist. But “race” had connotations in the Progressive Era different than those of today, and eugenicists of that time were both imprecise and inconsistent in their use of the term. Sometimes the term refers to all of humankind—the human race. Sometimes “race” was used in something like its modern sense. But more commonly, the Progressive Era usage of “race” meant ethnicity or nationality, especially when distinguishing among Europeans, so that the English, or those of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, were presumed to be a race distinct from, say, the Irish race or the Italian race.

7. These malignant idiots make the gratuitous non-sequitur that her legacy somehow makes Planned Parenthood a crypto-fascist organization. Every time they try to uncover some nefarious plot, they’ve failed miserably. Of course you can still believe that abortion is evil, but humans have been doing secular ethics for thousands of years and you don’t need believe in eugenics to support birth control or abortion.

Links:

1. Watch Hillary Praise Planned Parenthood’s Eugenicist Founder Margaret Sanger by Sean Davis

2. Lincoln’s Panama Plan by Rick Beard

3. Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes by Abraham Lincoln

4. What is an Institution? by Alex Lenchner

5. Black Folk and Birth Control

6. Margaret Sanger

7. The Huge Right Wing Anti-Choice Fake Outrage of the Day by Charles Johnson

References:

1. Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

2. Leonard, Thomas C. “Retrospectives: Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19.4 (2005): 207-24. Web.

3. Valenza, Charles. “Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?” Family Planning Perspectives 17.1 (1985): 44. Web.

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