Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement

Article excerpt

Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement. [Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 2002; 356 pp.]

Reviewed by Mignonne Pollard

What makes pedagogy radical? Is it the subject or the perspective? Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement challenges America's history teachers and other scholars in education to address the eugenics movement and its legacies.

As a part of my research, I scour the well-stocked section on eugenics in our university library. I'm intrigued by the title Breeding Better Vermonters (Gallagher, 1999). I pull the book off the shelf and before I able to flip through the pages, out falls a family photograph. There are four tall healthy blonde children. The parents wear casual sportswear and could be models for a Ralph Lauren advertisement. The picture is dated 2001. I wonder what message is being sent: is this racial pride? Is it some dark ominous foreshadowing? I flinch while looking at this portrait. It is a reminder of the lingering legacies of the ideals of the eugenics movement and how these images are perpetuated in American culture.

While Race and Eugenics focuses on early 19th century America, constant use of these ideas in American media, including television, magazines, and most advertisements, underscores a need for understanding eugenics.

Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement, published by Facing History and Ourselves, is a sourcebook rather than a textbook. It includes replications of historical texts, references to popular culture, current laws, and issues in the bioethical debate.

This text presents point and counterpoint arguments contained in written original documents. It sets the stage in 19th century America and explores many aspects of American identity focusing on the impact of the eugenics movement in the development of the country. The book suggests that the eugenics movement in America laid the groundwork for the Nazi Holocaust through legal, public health, and popular sentiments of the time.

This book has the potential to open a dialogue between teachers and students who are interested in understanding racial categories, and to push beyond easy answers in examining the history of the eugenics movement in the United States.

Unlike other texts, Race and Membership is written with America's youth as its primary audience. It is written for middle and high school history classes as well as to supplement college courses in history, American culture, or education. It is both the subject matter and the approach to the pedagogy that makes this book radical.

Facing History and Ourselves is an international educational and professional development organization known for its work with middle and high school teachers and youth of diverse backgrounds in moral education. Their primary focus is "the Holocaust and other instances of collective violence" (see: www.facinghistory.org).

Race and Membership in American History shows how the early eugenics movement in the United States was connected to the Nazi Holocaust.

Charles Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, invented eugenics and defined it as "the science of improvement of the human race germ plasma through better breeding... [It is] the study of agencies under social control, that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally" (American Bioethics Advisory Commission, retrieved July 5, 2002).

The work of the eugenicists have influenced the development of several types of social control mechanisms: abortion and euthanasia, the development of the birth control pill, restriction of immigration to the United States, and the development of global population policies. …