THE ACUMEN GROUP
Examining eugenics and hereditarian thought in popular culture & everyday life
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IN SEARCH OF PURITY
EUGENICS AMONG AFRICAN AMERICANS
Among Negroes attempting to assimilate fully into society following Emancipation and Reconstruction, eugenic concepts, including race purity, selective breeding, and “breeding out” came to represent methods of uplift. When coupled with efforts to educate, own businesses and homes, and reap the benefits of full citizenship, the adoption of eugenic practices by New Negroes demonstrated the social fitness and respectability that heredity supposedly denied them.
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W.E.B. DUBOIS & THE SCIENTIFIC LIFE OF UPLIFT
W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1899 study of Black families, The Philadelphia Negro, for instance, divided African Americans into four intra-racial categories or “grades” based on social and sexual habits. Grade 1 comprised “families of undoubted respectability,” whose livelihoods were generated by men not engaged in menial or service-related jobs and whose women and children did not work. These families were eugenically sound, having placed together a man with enough cell vitality (intellect) to work as the sole breadwinner and head of household. His wife, by remaining at home functioned solely as reproducer and caregiver of progeny. These families represented the best the race offered and symbolized Du Bois’ Talented Tenth – or the top ten percent of Negroes tasked with leading the remaining ninety percent into moral and social civility. Grade 2 comprised “respectable working-class households,” but included women working outside the home.
Grade 3 included the working poor who, though honest, “with no touch of gross immorality or crime,” could not pull themselves out of poverty. It must be understood that eugenicists like Charles Davenport placed poverty or pauperism into categories of heredity in the same manner as inherent eye color or hair texture. Du Bois suggested the inability to progress financially and socially in Grade 3 households derived from a lack of energy and thrift, noting a eugenic connection between poverty and inherent self-determination, notes in The Philadelphia Negro:
We must remember that all these bad habits and surroundings are not simply matters of the present generation, but that many generations of unhealthy bodies have bequeathed to the present generation impaired vitality and hereditary disease.
Finally, Grade 4, according to Du Bois, constituted a “submerged tenth,” of the Negro population and was made up almost exclusively of the “germs of the race.”
The concept of a eugenically disparate portion of society – the submerged tenth – preceded Du Bois’ grades, and was introduced by Salvation Army founder General William Booth, in In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890), in which he categorizes a “population sodden with drink, steeped in vice, and eaten up by every social and physical malady.” Booth considered these people representative of an inherently dependent class beyond the reach of the nine-tenths. Du Bois similarly characterized his Grade 4 as prostitutes, criminals, and a willful element of degenerates, capable of outwitting both law enforcement and charitable organizations. The term submerged tenth among eugenicists like Charles Davenport identified those with an “infinite tangle of germ-plasm continually making new combinations” of dysgenic bodies through inheritance and cannot be separated from its remedy, namely, its eugenically effective elimination. While Du Bois’ hereditarian thought infused the potential for uplift from one grade to another and the potential improvement of grades or stock, Black eugenicists like William Hannibal Thomas did not.