INSIGHT: Eugenics. Segregation. U.S. universities facing racist pasts


The Trump administration recently announced plans to scrap Obama-era guidelines that encouraged universities to consider race as a factor to promote diversity on campus, claiming the guidelines “advocate policy preferences and positions beyond the requirements of the Constitution.”

Some university leaders immediately went on the defense.

Harvard University stated that it plans to continue to use race as an admission factor to “create a diverse campus community where students from all walks of life have an opportunity to learn from and with each other.”

Similarly, Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas, noted how the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 “affirmed the University of Texas’ efforts to enroll a diverse student body.” He also stated that “diversity is essential” to the university’s efforts to provide the highest quality education.

But, why is diversity essential for the educational mission of U.S. universities?

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Advocates for diversity in higher education emphasize a variety of reasons. They range from business oriented considerations, like the need for a diverse and well-educated workforce to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse marketplace or the belief that diversity fosters innovation and creativity. Another reason is based on the idea that diversity enriches the educational experience of all students on campus, not just minorities.

In addition to the reasons above, we believe that diversity is also an ethical obligation of American universities. We write not only as professors but as higher education administrators with a keen interest in diversity on campus. We believe that promoting diversity in our campuses helps fulfill the inclusive vision that gave birth to our nation. This vision became enshrined in the Declaration of Independence when it proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”

Sadly, the “all men are created equal” proclamation was not a guiding principle for our universities not so long ago. Quite the contrary, they fostered ideas that promoted racial disparagement and exclusion, causing great harm to the country in ways that we must still deal with today. For instance, black students were not admitted to the University of Texas and many other universities until the 1950s, and lack of black representation among students and faculty remains an issue. The pursuit of diversity now can help universities make amends for aggressive anti-diversity practices of the recent past.

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Universities and eugenics

At the beginning of the 20th century, many administrators, alumni and faculty members from American universities were at the forefront of the eugenics movement, a pseudoscience that sought to improve the genetic qualities of human populations by selective breeding. The movement was led by presidents of elite private institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and also at public universities like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Eugenicists championed ideas of racial superiority. For them, the Nordic “race” – that is, people from Northern Europe, like Anglo-Americans – was the master race. Accordingly, they regarded Africans, Asians and even Southern and Eastern Europeans as inferior. They believed the immigration of these groups to the U.S. should be curtailed.

“The Nordic race will vanish or lose its dominance,” renowned Yale professor and economist Irving Fisher warned in 1921. Eugenicists were anti-diversity. They considered immigration and racial mixing a threat. They spoke of the “yellow peril,” the “flooding of the nation with foreign scum” and the arrival of “defectives, delinquents and dependents.” These views are not unlike President Trump’s recent complaints about Mexico sending “rapists” and “criminals,” or about admitting people into the U.S. from “shithole countries.”

Beyond teaching eugenics on campus – 376 American colleges were offering courses on the subject by the late 1920s – these academic leaders and their followers worked hard to take eugenics ideas mainstream – and did so “with considerable effect,” according to Harvard Magazine.

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The eugenecists’ ideas may not have predated the racial prejudices and segregationist practices that existed in the United States, but they provided academic validity to help sustain those prejudices and practices.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court had paved the way for segregation when it ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that keeping races “separate but equal” was constitutional. Then in the 1920s, at the height of the racial caste system known as “Jim Crow,” the U.S. government embraced new policies promoted by eugenicists.

Those policies included new anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized interracial marriage. They also included forced sterilization programs. These programs affected all racial groups but especially targeted women, minorities and the poor. Eugenicists advocated effectively for forced sterilization in court cases that remained the law of the land for decades.

The eugenics movement also actively advocated in Congress for policies to prevent immigration by “undesirable” racial and ethnic groups. And the movement succeeded. With the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress implemented quotas that favored immigration from Northern Europe and drastically reduced arrivals of Eastern European, Jews, Italians and Africans. It completely stopped immigration from Asia.

These policies were developed to reverse fears of what President Theodore Roosevelt called “race suicide” or the dwindling of the Anglo-American “stock.”

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Reversing a racist past

New York lawyer Madison Grant, a graduate of Yale and Columbia, was a prominent eugenicist and friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1916 he published “The Passing of the Great Race,” widely considered the most influential eugenics book. Grant attempts to use science to justify racism. The book was translated to German and after he became Fürher, Adolf Hitler wrote a fan letter to Grant thanking him and praising the book as “his Bible.”

It was only after the Holocaust that the U.S., rather slowly, abandoned its own eugenicist policies. Interracial marriage was still forbidden in 16 states when it was declared unconstitutional in 1967. Coerced or involuntary sterilizations continued to happen into the 1970s.

The fact that thinkers from prestigious American universities provided the intellectual foundations for Hitler’s racial cleansing policies is scarcely mentioned in our country. We believe it is time for universities to undertake a discussion about this disturbing chapter of their history – a time when their own community led the development of white supremacist ideologies.

It is also timely to reflect on the extraordinary impact universities can have in our nation and the world. A century after the misguided eugenics movement took a hold of higher education in the U.S., most universities now actively work to be inclusive and diverse. They must embrace their renewed values and help lead our nation toward a more just and equitable future.

Miró is the Centennial Professor in Urban Studies at the University of Texas. Gordon is vice provost for diversity at UT.



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