Racist Eugenics: Alive and Well in NC

Scholars have long drawn parallels between laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage. The conversation came full circle Monday morning when Jodie Brunstetter, wife of North Carolina Senator Peter Brunstetter (R), explained that her husband co-authored a recent piece of anti-same-sex marriage legislation to “protect the Caucasian race.” Brunstetter continued, “The reason my husband wrote Amendment 1 was because the Caucasian race is diminishing and we need to uh, reproduce.” Placing “race reproduction” at the center of her argument, Brunstetter advocates for a positive eugenics program, a central element of traditional anti-miscegenation statues.

 

Jodie and Peter Brunstetter

Faced with increasing interracial contact in the late 19th century, whites turned to the pseudo-science of eugenics to justify racial segregation. Eugenicists argued that both the physical and character traits of individuals are biologically determined, and thus the genetic quality of society can be made better or worse through artificial selection. Whites were attracted to eugenics because they assumed the superiority of the white race and the importance of racial separation, but they feared, and eugenics proved “proof,” that interracial sex would result in future generations dominated by “inferior” racial characteristics. Thus, a positive eugenics program was required to guarantee the longevity of the white race. Central to this program, was legislating the prohibition of interracial intimacy. One of the most notable pieces of anti-miscegenation legislation is Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Desiring to maintain the “racial integrity” of the nation as well as their dominant position, white Virginians once passed the Racial Integrity Act, a law forbidding whites from marrying anyone of another race. Limiting marriage to persons of the same race, the Virginia law sough to ensure the reproduction of the white race and prevent the “deplorable evil” of interracial sex.

Specifically, “racial integrity” laws were concerned with preventing biracial children. As Justice Brown argued in Scott v. State (1869):

The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the offspring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate, and that they are inferior in physical development and strength to the full-blood of either race. It is sometimes urged that such marriages should be encouraged, for the purpose of elevating the inferior races. The reply is, that such connections never elevate the inferior race to the position of the superior, but they bring down the superior to that of the inferior. They are productive of evil, and evil only.

This except from Justice Brown’s opinion is indicative of the eugenicist ideology dominating the courts of this time. Primarily concerned with “reproducing the race” and maintaining the “racial integrity of the nation,” anti-miscegenation laws presented a positive eugenics program much like that advocated by Brunstetter. However, such laws also had a damning impact on white women… confining them to the one role of mother.

Fueled by eugenicist rhetoric, whites argued against education and careers outside the home for white women, charged them to reproducing the race. According to eugenicists, changes in traditional gender roles equates to racial suicide and thus women were should be confined to their “birthing duties.” As historian Lisa Linquist Dorr [[]] explains, “social stability depended on the controlling of women’s sexuality as a means of assuring they were virtuous enough to raise virtuous children.” Dorr continues:

Eugenic supporters of the Racial Integrity Act articulated a central concern: women, intoxicated by the exciting adventures of youth, might ignore the opinions of their elders, their traditions, and, ultimately, their racial pride, which, because of women’s reproductive capacity, was especially important.

Framing white motherhood as a matter of racial pride, eugenicists sought limited white women to the role of mother. Women desiring interracial sexual contact were often met with forced sterilization by white doctors seeking to “protect the white race.”

Reflecting on the eugenicists rhetoric motivating anti-miscegenation law, there are parallels between anti-interracial and anti-same-sex marriage advocates such as Brunstetter. Arguing America was “founded by whites,” Brunstetter is establishing America’s racial genealogy which must be “preserved” through guaranteeing white procreating. Because gay and lesbian couples lack this ability, Brunstetter deems their relationships null and void. Situating reproduction at the center of her argument, Brunstetter also confines white women to their “birthing duties” advocated by eugenicists

Since making the original comments, Brunstetter has insisted her comment “wasn’t anything race related” and “they [democrats] have made it a racial issue when it is not.” However, Brunstetter has not been able to explain her use of explicitly racial rhetoric in an allegedly non-racial conversation. Placing Brunstetter’s comments within a larger sociohistorical context, her arguments against same sex marriage heavily coincide with those used against interracial marriage.

Fox News’ Racism

Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade revealed a glimpse into the depths of his own racism on the air recently. During a discussion of a study based on research done in Finland and Sweden which showed people who stay married are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, this exchange happened (short, less than 1 minute):

In this clip, Kilmeade questions the results of the study saying, “We are — we keep marrying other species and other ethnics and other …” The co-host tried to distract Kilmeade, but he goes on to add, “See, the problem is the Swedes have pure genes. Because they marry other Swedes …. Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society.”

The argument Kilmeade is making, and to their credit that his co-workers at Fox News seem appalled to hear, is one that’s rooted in the discredited racial pseudo-science of eugenics.

Eugenics, which reached ascendancy in the U.S. and Europe in the 1930s, advocated social progress through encouraging those deemed “fit” to reproduce to have children and discouraging, even coercing through forced sterilization, those thought to be “unfit.” One of the intellectual factories producing knowledge steeped in eugenics was at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, just outside New York. While claims about “fitness” and “unfitness” were sometimes tied to inherited disease, just as often these designations were linked to poverty and race. Thus, people who are poor or not considered white are designated “unfit.” Indeed, in the extreme version of eugenics, some people were considered “less than human” or of “another species.” This kind of thinking is part of what fueled the Third Reich’s calculated extermination of six million Jews. Following the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the camps, the theory of eugenics fell into disfavor.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics (NY: Routledge, 2nd Ed., 2003), sociologist Troy Duster explores the ways that current practices, such as prenatal detection of birth defects, gene therapies, growth hormones, are once again introducing “genetic answers” to what are fundamentally social questions. In Kilmeade’s ill-informed discussion of research about the length of marriage, he is stepping into a long tradition of eugenics as the scientific basis for racism and antisemitism. Fox News rarely disappoints as a source for broadcasting such retrograde thinking.