Genocide is not a word most of us associate with the United States and its history. If we do, it’s probably in the context of America stopping Adolf Hitler and his attempted extermination of Jews, Romani, and other “undesirables” during World War II. Hitler’s “Final Solution” is the most commonly remembered instance of genocide, but there have been far more acts of genocide in human history than the Holocaust. Some we plainly acknowledge, such as the Rwandan Genocide while others, especially those that occurred in the U.S. and may not seem as horrific, we generally ignore or brush over. Ignoring acts of genocide, whether they involve herding groups into gas chambers or forcible removal of children from their families and culture to embed them in a dominant culture, is dangerous. As the saying goes, if we ignore history, however shameful and incriminating, we are doomed to repeat it.
As sociologists, we study racism and other forms of social inequality, in-groups and out-groups. Examining social conditions that allow social phenomena such as genocide to occur is central to our research. But we need to ensure that we use such research to prevent genocide from happening whether on a large or small scale. While the United States may have never directly committed an explicit genocidal assault on any one group, our society is far from innocent when it comes to enacting policies that ultimately, can be boiled down to some form of ethnic cleansing. Aside from what I and many scholars consider to be the genocide of Indigenous Groups in the Americas and the slavery of Africans from the Atlantic slave trade, the practice of eugenics and enactment of eugenics policies was and is not uncommon in the United States. Reproductive freedom in this country’s history has largely alluded to the right for white (generally wealthy) women to have access to abortion and birth control. For women of color and other “undesirables,” the right to have a child often became the issue. Eugenics, which was federally-funded, “was a commonly accepted means of protecting society from the offspring (and therefore equally suspect) of those individuals deemed inferior or dangerous – the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals, and people of color” (Ko 2016). The list of those considered “undesirable” closely resembles those included in Hitler’s Final Solution.
The prevailing belief that the harsh treatment of Indigenous groups in the U.S. ended a century ago speaks to the need for genocide studies. Most people may be surprised to learn that in the late 20thCentury, the government was forcibly sterilizing American Indian women, often without their knowledge and consent (Lawrence 2000). It is estimated that about 25, 000 First Nations women were sterilized by the government by 1975. Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, who conducted the study that found these results, noted that there were only 100, 000 American Indian women that were of child-bearing age to begin with (Lawrence 2000). The United Nations definition of the crime of genocide includes “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” (Jones 2011:13). Forced sterilization is undoubtedly, then, an act of genocide, whether explicitly stated or not. Americans generally react with shock and horror to the Jewish Holocaust. We say, “Never again!” and yet, less than a half a century ago, our own government was still enacting genocidal acts on women of color.
Women of color were not the only victims of eugenics policies in the United States in the 20thCentury. In 1927, in what is perhaps the most famous case of forced sterilization, an impoverished white woman named Carrie Buck became the first person in the state of Virginia to be sterilized, as the result of new legislation in the state (Ko 2016). Carrie was one of 65, 000 Americans who would be sterilized during the 20thCentury by the U.S. government due to the belief that those with mental illness (which could include such things as “promiscuity” or “feeble-mindedness”) or disabilities should not reproduce.
Though largescale eugenics practices in the United States seems to have ended around the late 1970s, it is still not entirely a thing of the past. As recently as 2010, the state of California authorized the coerced sterilization of almost 150 female inmates (Ko 2016). This practice has been common in California throughout the 1900s, with an estimated 20, 000 people sterilized, most of whom were Mexican-Americans and African Americans (Garcia 2013).
These dark clouds in American history are not unheard of or entirely ignored in sociological circles, but perhaps more attention and focus should be given to them. Perhaps they should be explicitly acknowledged as stepping stones to genocide. With the recent events of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a group of White Nationalists marched through the Downtown Mall and through predominantly black neighborhoods carrying torches and signs that read, “You will not replace us!” we must be careful to not ignore the very recent history of government funded acts of genocide (Politico Magazine 2018). We absolutely need to take responsibility as a nation and take a hard and painful look at what we have allowed to pass and the damage that has been caused to so-called “undesirables” in our own backyards. Only then can we ensure “Never again.”
For further reading:
Garcia, Saudi. 2013. “8 Shocking Facts About Sterilization in US History.” Retrieved September 19, 2018 (https://mic.com/articles/53723/8-shocking-facts-about-sterilization-in-u-s-history#.8C6npv24p).
Jones, Adam. 2011. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2ndEd. New York: Routledge.
Ko, Lisa. 2016. “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States.” Retrieved September 19, 2018 (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/).
Lawrence, Jane. 2000. “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women.” American Indian Quarterly24(3):400-419.
Politico Magazine. 2018. “What Charlottesville Changed.” Retrieved September 19, 2018 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/08/12/charlottesville-anniversary-supremacists-protests-dc-virginia-219353).
Rebecca Morales is finishing up her Master of Arts in applied sociology and the certificate in women’s studies at ODU. Her research and writing interests include issues that impact American Indians such as cultural misappropriation and representation, domestic and sexual violence, and neocolonialism. She currently works at the Richmond SPCA and although not relevant to her degree, is currently pursuing a career in the field of animal welfare and rescue.