July 30, 2018


Bad Blood (PATRICIA J. WILLIAMS, 7/17/18, TLS)

[I]f  some contemporary US policies seem uniquely inhumane, it is important to recognize how many of them have direct historical precedent. It's perhaps easy to see in the logic of America's mass incarceration, or its so-called "school-to-prison pipeline", or the internment camps where ethnic Japanese citizens were confined during the Second World War, or the enduring scar of slave auctions by which familial relationships were rendered irrelevant as children were snatched from their mothers and sold as chattel. Less well remembered, however, is the Progressive Era's embrace of social Darwinism - a pseudoscience popular in Britain and Europe as well, but which, in America, came together as a powerfully institutionalized set of laws and enforcement mechanisms premissed on a mixture of misogyny, class bias, race panic and anti-immigrant resentment. It was during this period, from the late 1800s through to the first half of the twentieth century, that New York's infamous Eugenics Records Office was formed to issue "pedigrees" of Nordic purity. This was the era of the Social Hygiene movement, which justified moral purges, intimate oversight of poor women's reproductive choices, separation of children from parents, mass sterilizations, and the indefinite detention of those deemed "unfit". This, too, was a time when the "American Plan" for eugenic manipulation flourished and grew - and which, when studied and implemented by Nazi Germany, morphed into the Final Solution.

This long-ignored history is the subject of Molly Ladd-Taylor's Fixing the Poor: Eugenic sterilization and child welfare in the twentieth century, which studies the impact of efforts to "contain" and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of "delinquency", "immorality", "imbecility", "waywardness" and "feeblemindedness". Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, "treatment" was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse. Thus, sorting the "deserving" from the "undeserving" poor became a primary metric in deciding quarantine, steril­ization, education, or release. Venereal disease, prostitution and mental disability were seen not only as social contagions but also as biologically incorrigible, genetic, innate. "Pauperism" became an economic disease, a parasite on the public dole and a burden on taxpayers; its elimination was paramount.

Ladd-Taylor literally follows the money that underwrote hospitals, prisons and special schools, using the state of Minnesota as an exemplar. There, as in many states, public policy was driven to a great degree by per­ceptions of economic class as embodied. Thus, middle-class youths were often privileged as "too independent" and therefore in need of more home-training, more moral uplift, firmer parental intervention. Indeed, "delinquency" became normalized as a stage of white middle-class boys' development. They needed "guidance, not strict punishment", according to one judge quoted by Ladd-Taylor, because such boys had energy, initiative and "are the ones who, under proper conditions, make the very best citizens". This belief grew out of the common law tradition of seeing the state as protector, underpinned by depictions of the juvenile court judge as a "wise and kind father".

In contrast, the working class and very poor were treated as inherently dependent on state resources - destined for eternal pauperism, in other words. These latter became ciphers for contagion, carriers of corruption, and therefore in need of confinement. The distinction between the deserving and the undeserving rested on quite explicit assumptions of heritable worth: at one end, "innocent" delinquents needed more care and support; at the other, "dangerous" defectives warranted strict control for fear of their contaminating others and multiplying. Families were torn apart in this sorting process: those children deemed "in suitable condition of body and mind to receive instruction" were housed in institutions such as the Stated Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna, Minnesota, until they could be "placed out to work or adopted". In the mid-1880s, the school's superintendent, Galen A. Merrill, rationalized: "There are parents who are not worthy to rear citizens of this republic".

Posted by at July 30, 2018 4:02 AM