Excavate the Past to Make Amends for an Old Sin

Tony Platt, emeritus professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento, is a member of the editorial board of Social Justice and author of books and articles on U.S. history and social policy.

Since spring 2002, state governments in Virginia, Oregon, North Carolina and South Carolina have published apologies to tens of thousands of patients, mostly poor women, who were sterilized against their will in state hospitals between the early 1900s and the late 1960s. In March 2003, California Gov. Gray Davis and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer expressed contrition for the injustices committed in the name of “race betterment.” Now, the California Senate is considering a resolution, written by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), which “expresses profound regret over the state’s past role in the eugenics movement” and “urges every citizen of the state to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, in the hope that a more educated and tolerant populace will reject any similar abhorrent pseudoscientific movement should it arise in the future.” What might such a history lesson teach us?

First, the eugenics movement, which emerged in Europe and the United States around the turn of the last century, was designed, in the words of one of its founders, Francis Galton, to give “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” Supporters of eugenics promoted “Anglo-Saxon” societies as the engine of modern civilization and advocated policies of apartheid in order to protect the “well born” from contamination by the poor, the mentally ill and other races. “The Negro lacks in his germ plasm excellence of some qualities which [whites] possess,” concluded a popular 1926 California eugenics textbook, “and which are essential for success in competition with the civilizations of the white races at the present day.” The movement also targeted poor whites, especially in rural areas, on the grounds that they constituted a distinct and “degenerate” racial typology.

Under California’s sterilization laws, at least 20,000 Californians in state hospitals and prisons had been involuntarily sterilized by 1964. In the 1910s and 1920s, men were as likely as women to be sterilized, but by the 1940s restrictions on reproductive choice were aimed at women. For eugenicists, sterilization was primarily a way to cleanse the body politic of racial and sexual impurities.


Grounds for sterilization included such vague classifications as “feeblemindedness,” “idiocy,” “excessive masturbation,” “immorality” and “hereditary degeneracy.” Under the leadership of Fred O. Butler, superintendent of the Sonoma State Home (formerly the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-minded Children), patients were not typically paroled to their families unless they were sterilized before their release. “Dr. Butler has always had a strong weapon to use in getting consents for sterilization,” Paul Popenoe of Pasadena’s Human Betterment Foundation wrote to eugenicist John Randolph Haynes in 1930, “by telling the relatives that the patient could not leave without sterilization.”

But sterilization represented only a small part of the campaign for “national regeneration.” Eugenics was also a cultural vehicle for expressing anxiety about the “degeneration” of middle-class “Aryans,” perceived as resulting from a declining birthrate and, in the words of a leading California eugenicist, the “evil of crossbreeding.” Eugenicists strongly supported limits on immigration from non-European countries and restrictions on welfare benefits to poor families. As Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, a founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, stated in 1929, the Mexican is “eugenically as low-powered as the Negro. He not only does not understand health rules: being a superstitious savage, he resists them.”

Proponents of eugenics were not obscure cranks but the best and brightest civic reformers and professional leaders. Goethe, who campaigned against Latin American immigration and for sterilization of the “socially unfit,” has a public park named after him at Cal State Sacramento. In Southern California, the Human Betterment Foundation enjoyed the active support of banker Henry Robinson, as well as social scientist William Munro and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan, all of whom also served on the board of trustees of San Marino’s Huntington Library, one of the country’s most exclusive archives. Others actively involved in eugenics crusades included Stanford University’s President David Starr Jordan, Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler, welfare administrator Rabbi Rudolph Coffee and Haynes, a Progressive reformer and a member of the University of California Board of Regents.

Under the leadership of these notables, California led the nation not only in forced sterilizations but also in providing scientific and educational support for Adolf Hitler’s regime. In 1935, Goethe praised the Human Betterment Foundation for effectively “shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler.... “ A year later, he acknowledged the United States and Germany as leaders in eugenics (“two stupendous forward movements”) but complained that “even California’s quarter century record has, in two years, been outdistanced by Germany.” About the same time, California eugenicist Paul Popenoe asked one of his Nazi counterparts for information about sterilization policies in Germany in order to make sure that “conditions in Germany are not misunderstood or misrepresented.”

Not only did California eugenicists know about Nazi efforts to use sterilization as a method of “race hygiene” aimed at Jews and other “non-Aryans,” they also approved efforts to stop miscegenation and increase the birthrate of the “Northern European type of family.” The chilling words of Haynes anticipated the Nazi regime’s murder of 100,000 mentally ill patients: “There are thousands of hopelessly insane in California, the condition of those minds is such that death would be a merciful release. How long will it be before society will see the criminality of using its efforts to keep alive these idiots, hopelessly insane, and murderous degenerates.... Of course the passing of these people should be painless and without warning. They should go to sleep at night without any intimation of what was coming and never awake.”

Although much is known about Haynes, Goethe and other supporters of eugenics, we have little information about the actual number of forced sterilizations that took place in California. Moreover, the voices of the thousands of women and men who were subjected to eugenic experimentation are still hidden from history. An official apology to anonymous victims is the beginning of a process of accountability. But to excavate the Golden State’s tragedies requires full disclosure of government records and an awareness that the past weighs heavily on the present. As we now grapple with how to regulate technologies promising to solve global problems of disease and malnutrition, it is important to remember the legacy of eugenics: in the name of “human betterment,” scientific ideas and practices can be used to promote and reproduce extraordinary injustice and barbarity.