North Carolina Senate Republicans Reject Compensating Victims of Eugenic Sterilization
North Carolina’s attempt to make peace with a portion of its racially turbulent and class biased past has come to naught despite the fact that one of the state’s more prestiguous newspapers, the Winston-Salem Journal, has covered the issue extensively in its pages. Ten years ago, in 2002, the paper did a five part, extensive and comprehensive series on the state’s long-time policies and practices of state-directed involuntary sterilization. The echoes from that series are still reverberating.
A recent plan proposed by North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Beverly Purdue, which would have compensated the state’s victims of involuntary eugenic sterilization, was killed in the state senate by Republican senators. They argued that the state couldn’t afford the $10 million compensation package the governor had tried to write into the state budget. It would have granted the victims $50,000 as well as acknowledging the state’s responsibility in taking `the right to life’ from more than 7.600 victims of the procedure, done without the permission and in many cases without the knowledge of the victims. Of that number, more than 2000 were under the age of 18; a ten year old boy was castrated as a part of the program. (Colorado has its own sordid history with eugenics that will be treated in a later entry.)
One of the victims of the procedure, Elaine Riddick of now of Atlanta – but who grew up in North Carolina – was twice violated, first she was kidnapped, molested and raped at the age of 14, a rape which produced a son; then she was sterilized by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina which argued that she was “feebleminded” and “promiscuous”. The legislation justifying the state’s eugenic sterilization program was struck down by legislation in 2003, but the many victims of the procedure – mostly simply poor people and increasingly since World War II, poor Black women – were never compensated for what were now admittedly crimes committed by the state against its citizenry. ”I will die before I let them get away with this”, Riddick is quoted as having told the BBC. (2)
In a feeble attempt to explain his opposition to offering North Carolina eugenic sterilization victims compensation Republican State Senator Austin Allran commented:
” if you start compensating people who have been ‘victimized’ by past history, I don’t know where that would end.”(3)
Given North Carolina’s history of racism, anti-labor union-busting traditions and class-based bigotry, despite its liberal facade, Allran has a point.
On the other hand, to give the state a bit of credit, North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims, actually a state agency, has done much to publicize the state’s eugenics record, holding hearing this past year across North Carolina, gathering testimony from many victims willing to come forward and share their story. The Foundation’s records indicate that some 1800 of the victims are still alive and living in North Carolina.
In what was an unusual gesture – most states prefer to bury the subject – Gov. Perdue established the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation in 2010 to provide justice and compensate victims who were forcibly sterilized by the State of North Carolina. To quote from its website:
The Foundation functions as a clearinghouse to assist victims of the former N.C. Eugenics Board program and thereby serves as the primary point of contact for victims, potential victims and the general public who are seeking guidance about North Carolina’s former sterilization laws and program.
For those few American’s familiar with the nation’s unadvertised flirtation with Eugenics, Riddick’s case rings a bell. In the early 1920s, one Carrie Buck, the adopted teenage daughter of a Virginia white family (who used her mostly as a maid), was raped by a family relative. While the rapist was never prosecuted, Carrie Buck was accused of being `feebleminded’ and `promiscuous’ and institutionalized. The Buck vs. Bell case as to whether or not Carrie should be sterilized went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1927 with Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the case for the majority, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the same logic which applies to involuntary vaccination against disease, should be applicable to limiting the reproductive options of `the eugenically unfit’. Holmes concluded his rationale for state-supported sterilization with the eerie commentary: Three generations of imbeciles is enough. And through a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had only one dissenter, Judge Pierce Butler, eugenic sterilization became the law of the land in this country. It still is; although there is congressional legislation limiting the extent of eugenics, Buck vs. Bell has never been overturned and remains in place.
True that Buck was White, Riddick Black; Buck wasn’t mentally retarded, just poor, Riddick both poor and Black.
As for the state of North Carolina, its love affair with eugenics is one of the longest in U.S. history, While both Blacks and Whites were victimized, it is interesting that the percentage of Blacks sterilized increased dramatically after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s as the country as a whole was struggling with its heritage of slavery and racism, North Caroline remained a bastion for race separation and claims of Black inferiority. In Nothing Could Be Finer, (4) a book detailing the struggles for racial equality in North Carolina in the 1970s, centering around the life and work of the Reverend Ben Chavis, author Michael Myerson touches on the state’s eugenic practices which were still in operation full blown.
One of the main defenders of North Carolina eugenics even into the 1960s was Professor Wesley Critz George head of the Department of Anatomy at the University of North Carolina Medical School Although eugenics had long since been scientifically discredited, both by American geneticists and the Nazi extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs (done on eugenic grounds), in a study to bolster segregation in Alabama, Critz defended eugenic practices on racial grounds. (5) “Shall we pursue programs that would result in mixing the genes of the Negro race with those of the White race and so convert population of the United States into a mixed-blood people?’
Spewing little more than the KKK catechism on race, Critz describes Blacks in that study as “highly emotional”, “readily goaded by irresponsible leaders into violence”, that if mixed with whites they are “destined to bring about the deterioration in the quality of our genetic pool”. Critz goes on, “Some of us know Negroes who are intelligent, industrious, thrifty and dependable; but these are not the qualities that characterize large numbers of the race…Indolence, improvidence, and consequent pauperism are qualities commonly ascribed to them.” Hence the logic: Blacks are in the main stupid, lack the intelligence of white people, and can be characterized as `feeble-minded’, eugenically unfit and therefore subject to state-sp0nsored sterilization.
In 1948, the North Carolina Eugenics Board issued a document that made it clear as to who among its citizenry would be targeted for sterilization. In A Study Relating to Mental Illness, Mental Deficiency and Epilepsy in a Selected Rural County (6), the Board cites the “potentially (couldn’t this mean anyone?) mentally ill, mentally deficient, and epilectic. By occupation, these potentially castrated or sterilized subjects were farm laborers, saw mill workers, other laborers, textile workers, janitorial and other service workers, farm tenants, vehicle drivers, ammunition and aircraft workers, furniture factory workers. Seems that doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers, factory owners nor members of North Carolina’s illustrious state legislature need concern themselves that their sons and daughters might lose their testicles or have their fallopial tubes cut and cauterized.
While early on class bias seemed to main basis for eugenics in North Carolina and elsewhere, with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, racial and gender targeting soon came to center stage, targeting people like Elaine Riddick. According to North Carolina Eugenics Board statistics, by the late 1950s the sterilization of males virtually ended. Black women became the main victims. Similar patterns of racial profiling took place nationwide depending on the population. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a rash of Native American women were involuntarily sterilized in Indian Health Service clinics. In the Southwest, sterilization abuse targeted Chicanas and in the South it was Black women.
Frankly no amount of money can `compensate’ Elaine Riddick for the injustice done to them. The United Nations Convention on Genocide – signed by most nations of the world in the late 1940s includes interferring with the reproductive rights of a population as a form of genocide, nothing less. In the end, that is all eugenics ever was – a way to eliminate an entire group of people – based upon race, religion, ethnicity or what have you, as a reproductive population. Few – especially those who practiced eugenics – like to call eugenics genocide; they squirm, become uncomfortable, speak of `exaggeration’ when the charge is made. What else would you call it?
1. Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program, Part One. Winston-Salem Journal
2. BBC article - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18529735. June 20, 2012
3. Charlotte cbs.local.com “North Carolina Refuses To Compensate Victims of Forced Sterilization” , June 22, 2012
4. Michael Myerson. Nothing Could Be Finer. International Publishers, New York: 1978 pp.155-161