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Charting & Challenging Eugenics 2021

Dr. Shantella Sherman

The Acumen Group

A decade ago, I covered a public hearing of the Eugenics Task Force Listening Session held in Raleigh, N.C., that allowed survivors of North Carolina’s forced sterilizations to give testimonies of their experiences. Depositions detailed accounts of children and young adults being coerced by social workers, public health administrators, physicians, teachers, and neighbors into hospitals and sterilized. My eugenics research, until 2011 had been largely archival – asylum and clinician notes, patient records, and the speeches, legislation, and mandates issued to ensure that those the nation considered socially unfit, could not reproduce.

But the testimonies of those impacted by eugenic sterilizations humanized the victims and their families and made clear just how perilous the fight against a stacked system proved. The facts: a nine-year-old girl was the young sterilization victim; most Americans were sterilized for being “feebleminded” – a catchall phrase to denote poverty, low I.Q., and the potential for sexual immorality; and many African Americans and immigrants were targeted for sterilization to decrease their social and political power.

America’s preoccupation with weeding out its “weaker” citizens did not end when eugenics itself lost social favor, but instead, continued to chart a course of reproductive and human rights abuse into 2021. In the ten years since those North Carolina hearings -- which resulted in reparations being paid by the state to living survivors through the 2015 Eugenics Compensation Act -- new allegations of forced sterilizations were leveled against penal institutions in Tennessee and California. And so, my research and that of my colleagues at The Acumen Group continues. Before I move forward though, let me push back so that you gain a clear understanding of what eugenics and eugenic sterilizations entail.


1) Eugenics (or the science of better breeding) holds that in the same way that plants and animals are bred for optimal results, so too, should humans,

2) Behaviors and social conditions (such as poverty, laziness, criminality, immorality, disease, and intellect) are transmitted in the genes or DNA in the same way that eye color or hair texture for successive generations; and

3) The unfit, if not stopped, will contaminate the gene pool of the fit, as well as reproduce at greater rates than the strong, eventually destroying the nation and its decent citizens.

The movement began in earnest in the 1840s but gained momentum around the turn of the century. The U.S. Eugenics movement made a social science of measurements (phrenology, craniology, and I.Q) to determine fitness and segregate accordingly. By the 1920s more than 30 U.S. states sanctioned eugenic sterilizations to ensure that the poor, mentally and morally weak did not reproduce. Any person committed to a prison, almshouse (poor house or work farm), reformatory, or training school, faced potential sterilization.


Odd as it may appear, much of my current research finds semblance with current events. While I am heartbroken by this reality, it reinforces my resolve to document this information and present it to the public as often as possible. The year 2021 looks an awful lot like 1921, eugenically speaking. Imagine my horror as news of Britney Spears’ conservatorship case produced documents that mimicked 1930s eugenic mandates for feebleminded girls. Guess my fears when screening documentaries like No Mas Bebes and Belly of the Beast and seeing the intake and surgical notes resemble those of Crownsville State Hospital or the 1964 Mississippi legislation to prosecute Black girls as felons for having children out of wedlock. The prison sentence would be dropped ONLY if the girls agreed to sterilizations. I have also noted with dismay the use of “race-norming” in the assessment of Black NFL players seeking concussion compensation and the continued reliance upon standardized tests (a throwback of the eugenically based Binet-Goddard and Terman mental aptitude tests). And, I have been floored by the racial assaults perpetrated by World Cup enthusiasts against Blacks who they likened on social media to monkeys.

Still, this is the work The Acumen Group and I do. I am proud that my research (however emotionally taxing) has been received well and even culminated in an honor of Book of the Year from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society for In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes 1915-1935.

Going forward, our #EugenicallySpeaking series will bring you all of the insight you need on these issues – from Spears’ ongoing court battle to the amazing reparations win of California sterilization victims announced only days ago. We have joined with some of the world’s leading legal minds, social scientists, and most importantly, those who have lived through eugenic mandates, to keep you informed. Please register for Acumen Group lectures – including the Pop-Eu: Popular Eugenics in Television, Film & Current Events series (having served more than 1,000 participants), and screening/discussions of Belly of the Beast.

Eugenically Speaking, we can do the work to educate, heal, and reform.


Dr. Shantella


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