The first image above is a 1920s poster encouraging the practice of eugenics, while the image below is a billboard for…well, it’s pretty clear what the image on the right is for. Rick Tyler, a Tennessee resident running for the House of Representatives, had this billboard created for his campaign in 2016 in Polk County (Chasmar 2016). The billboard was quickly removed after the image received backlash by Polk County residents but Tyler stood by his message and believed that “the majority of the people in the county like[d] the sign” (Chasmar 2016). The billboard features four pictures. Two are historical paintings from colonial times, and the other two appear to be photographs of families, both of which are White and all members have blonde hair. Tyler told an affiliate for NBCNEWS that his message was a desire to return to a “’Leave it to Beaver’ time when there were no break-ins; no violent crime; no mass immigration,” (Chasmar 2016). The implication then, is that people of color and immigrants are solely responsible for crime and that, if the nation becomes “White again,” crime will cease to exist and the United States will improve. The eugenics poster above, though much more subtle, carried a similar message during its own time.
In the late 1800s and for a portion of the 20thCentury, the belief that eugenics was the answer to social problems such as poverty, crime, was popular in the Western world. Eugenics is the practice of selectively “breeding” human beings in such a way that prevents “undesirable” traits from being reproduced and increases “desirable” traits (National Public Radio). The second image of the poster above reads “check the seeds of hereditary disease and unfitness by eugenics,” encouraging people to stop passing on deficient genes through reproduction. “Unfitness” could be applied to anyone who did not appear to follow social norms. If one was declared “feeble-minded,” disabled (including blindness and deafness), an “imbecile” or “mentally deficient” in some capacity, or “promiscuous” (applied to women only), they had “unfit” genes (National Public Radio). The label of unfitness was also applied to minorities and people of color, and poor people of all races and ethnicities. Though today, we might use the term “imbecile” to refer to someone we believe to be not very bright, during the time when eugenics was popular, the terms “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” were used as official designations for those who fell into a certain IQ range. Among women, a “heightened sexuality and fertility” could be used to deem someone unfit, as it was believed to be a trait common to the mentally deficient (DenHoed 2016). The eugenics movement saw the legalization of forced sterilization of those who were deemed “unfit.” While these sterilization laws in the United States were applied to poor, White people along with people of color, the “Make America White Again” billboard prescribes to many of the same ideals that the eugenics movement used as its platform. That social problems—such as crime, prostitution, poverty, and so on, could be fixed by only allowing certain groups to reproduce and “pass on” their genes that had been socially (and at that point, legally) defined as superior.
Both of these pieces of propaganda prey on fear. They cater to the scapegoating of minority groups for society’s ailments, which is far from a new phenomenon. Redirecting blame on minority groups not only reinforces the power structure and allows the dominant group to maintain their control, but it provides an easy escape from examining one’s own contributions to the social structure, including its problems. It removes all responsibility and creates and enforces the “Us vs. Them” mentality—“I’m successful because I pay my own bills and follow the moral code, so I am not a burden like theyare.” “Theyjust want to take advantage of the system and get a free ride, instead of working like the rest of us.” “Theycome here and take our jobs and that’s why the economy is so bad.” And so on.
Some would argue that we live in a time of progress and “political correctness”; where racism and especially anti-Semitism are relics of the past. We may think of “propaganda” as being historical caricatures of African Americans and Jews used to encourage support for Jim Crow Laws or the Final Solution left in the last century. The billboard above is dangerous evidence of the contrary. With the advent of the internet and social media, propaganda is everywhere and exists in more forms than it ever has. A simple meme that, on the surface, appears to just be poking fun at one political group carries a message that separates its sharer from the group it makes fun of. This is propaganda. Memes create and enforce in-groups and out groups, thus furthering a political or social agenda, whether the meme creator consciously recognizes this or not. In addition, the internet allows people to anonymously express their thoughts and opinions and find others who think just like them, building solidarity and community for people looking for such. While this can be a positive outcome, it can also be a negative one. The White Supremacist alt-right movement can easily recruit members online without being publicly ostracized. Users can create fake names and other identifiers and find others who want to “Make America White Again” without suffering the consequences of breaking social norms. The alt-right was able to grow stronger with the internet, and spread beyond the dark depths of the web, especially when politicians began justifying the alt-right’s beliefs and widening their platform.
Chasmar, Jessica. 2016. “House Candidate Rick Tyler Wants to ‘Make America White Again.’” The Washington Post,June 22. Retrieved October 7, 2018 (https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jun/22/rick-tyler-house-candidate-wants-to-make-america-w/).
DenHoed, Andrea. 2016. “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement.” The New Yorker, April 27. Retrieved October 7, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement).
National Public Radio. 2016. Fresh Air: The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations, March 7. Retrieved October 7, 2018 (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations).
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.