When I was in college, a professor maintained that the racial hostilities of the time (around 1970) were carried over from slavery and Reconstruction, still fresh a century later. That never seemed like a sufficient explanation to me, and recently I’ve been learning more about an important piece of the history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bad science tried to put “race” on a scientific basis gave new life to the idea that some racial groups were superior to others. The Foundation for Economic Education has run a number of articles on the subject lately, such as “How States Sterilized 60,000 Americans – And Got Away with It”. I’ve also been reading a library book, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century by Michael Yudell.
The terms “moron” and “imbecile” are just insults today, but to the eugenics movement they were precise terms, used to justify practices like forced sterilization. The weak-minded needed to be kept from breeding. The idea had roots in a misapplication of Darwinian theory, using imprecise methods that couldn’t distinguish lack of education from defective genes. Not surprisingly, this led to the conclusion that the groups that were denied access to education had genetically weaker brains.
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