by Ayah Nuriddin, Kathleen Brian, and William Horne
The Trump administration has shown a flagrant disregard for Americans impacted by COVID-19. That’s because of eugenics.
The Republican pandemic response has been incredibly poor to a disease that has ravaged urban areas, where the president is unpopular. Trump seems more willing to provide resources to areas important to his reelection and those home to his most ardent supporters. Although Trump promised more supplies, he wasted weeks refusing to implement the Defense Production Act to distribute much-needed masks, tests, and medical equipment. It seems so clear, in fact, that the administration’s strategy is to do nothing, that governors have started forming pacts with one another to solve these problems without the White House.
But what if the administration’s poor response is not an accident? What if they view mounting deaths and a political crisis in urban areas as beneficial?
While the administration’s response is horrible on its own, recent demands by Trump and his surrogates on Fox News point to a eugenic project to “reopen” the country and allow those who get sick to die. And as it turns out, those Americans are disproportionately poor and Black.
Eugenic thinking has long been embedded in American systems of power. White elites used these eugenic ideas to rationalize their exploitation of marginalized groups. They argued that their self-proclaimed biological superiority justified their poor treatment of working people from the enslaved Africans of the plantation era through the migrants of the 20th century.
Scientific fantasies of White racial superiority rested heavily upon disease. In the 18th and 19th centuries, White Americans fancied themselves particularly vulnerable to disease and concocted a cure to their imaginary immunological weakness in the forced labor of Black and migrant workers, who they deemed to be naturally suited to hard physical labor. These fantasies worked their way into medical treatment, or at least the lack of it available to these working-class groups, who Americans calling themselves White found to be unworthy of the price tag of disease prevention measures.
We see this system of non-treatment at work quite clearly across emancipation. White supremacists changed their ideas about Black susceptibility to disease once African Americans could no longer be enslaved. Before emancipation in 1865, doctors and scientists theorized that Black workers were immune to disease, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. This idea was grounded in the belief that Black workers possessed almost superhuman physical abilities but were mentally deficient, requiring constant White oversight to transform them into productive beings.
After emancipation, White supremacists changed their minds about this Black superpower—immunity from disease—almost overnight. According to these same racist doctors and scientists, freedpeople were dangerous vectors of disease who had to be carefully monitored so that they would not endanger the White community. This new theory of Black morbidity sprung up around number of White fantasies that African Americans, now no longer “benefiting” from White oversight in slavery, might eventually become extinct.
In fact, Trump tried to rebrand the coronavirus as the “Chinese” virus, literally crossing out the medical term in his notes. This fairly transparent race-baiting led to a surge in racist scapegoating and attacks on Asian Americans, a tactic that Trump recently amplified by suggesting that “Chinatown[s]” caused the outbreak of the virus in the U.S.
The idea that Asians are, intrinsically, vehicles of contagion is straight from Eugenics 101. Unfortunately, Eugenics 101 has long been a required course for American officials.
White Americans like historian Woodrow Wilson, who became the 28th president of the U.S., theorized that the “Teutonic germ”—a Social Darwinist idea of racial determinism—represented the basis of civilization. Under this theory, Northern Europeans and their White American descendants represented the pinnacle of human development and the only legitimate “ruling race.” These ideas also helped found the newly established social science departments of American universities that would train American thinkers and shape U.S. policy for generations.
This formal eugenics movement provided a scientific justification for Jim Crow systems of racial apartheid and eventually led Hitler to borrow from this “American model” of state-sponsored oppression.
Our present-day prison industrial complex grew from racial science that viewed inmates as intellectual and moral deviants who had to be separated from society. Early eugenicists laid the foundations for mass incarceration by creating a framework based upon biological difference under which coerced labor would benefit the “unfit” individual as well as society. In fact, Andrew Cuomo responded to price gouging and shortages of hand sanitizer by creating a line of hand sanitizer using prison labor. It is no accident that prisoners, who suffer among the worst COVID-19 infection rates in the country, are both expendable and essential to the state’s pandemic response. Such is the logic of eugenic capitalism.
This capitalist incorporation of eugenics laid the foundation of the insurance industry, which created a profit model based on assessing the biological and inherited risks in the bodies of policy holders. Upon these bodies, mapped and assessed as potential losses, companies imagined a stream of revenue. The eugenic logic embedded in the insurance industry was premised, not on delivering care, but upon sorting out deserving and undeserving groups to achieve optimal profits for shareholders.
The eugenic profit model of the insurance industry remains largely intact in the form of the pre-existing condition and the premise that capital, not care, should shape the medical response to illness. Some patients deserve treatment, the industry asserts, while others do not.
Medical and social scientists pitched eugenics as a science of possibility, promising a better, healthier, and smarter future immune to the problems of the day by carefully controlled breeding and sterilization efforts. Even prominent African American leaders and intellectuals who suffered at the hands of racial science found the possibility that eugenics could improve Black Americans’ social standing alluring. The legacy of eugenic programs of forced sterilization, institutionalization, and incarceration, however, showed these hopes of “racial uplift” to be fleeting. Eugenics and racial science worked in tandem to rationalize the world as it existed and failed to imagine the way forward towards an equitable future outside of self-serving claims about biological difference and ability.
Republicans are not rushing forward with masks, ventilators, and supplies for “essential” workers unable to shelter in place. They have had months find protections for working people, and at this point, clearly have no intention of doing so. Instead, they engage in victim blaming. Those most vulnerable, Republicans suggest, deserve their fate under the imagined eugenic meritocracy that forces grocery, food service, and delivery drivers to work at great personal risk to promote the well-being of wealthier, Whiter Americans who can stay home. That members of these groups also disproportionately oppose Republicans’ eugenic vision of America is no accident. It is the expression of the eugenic logic embedded in American capitalism.
The eugenic vision adopted by the Trump administration makes it clear that some lives matter more than others, that profit is more important than people, and that the largely Black and Brown “essential” workers most at risk under the pandemic are expendable.
Ayah Nuriddin is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Medicine, and Graduate Fellow in the Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. In the 2018-2019 academic year, she was a Dissertation Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM). She holds a Masters in History and Masters of Library Science (MLS) from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her dissertation, entitled “Liberation Eugenics: African Americans and the Science of Black Freedom Struggles, 1890-1970,” analyzes African American engagement with eugenics, hereditarian thought, and racial science as part of a broader strategy of racial improvement and black liberation. Her research interests also include the histories of scientific racism, public health, psychiatry, and disability. Her work has been published in the Journal for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Nursing Clio, and Somatosphere, and she has appeared on the Disability History Association podcast and American History TV on C-Span.
Kathleen Brian teaches in the University Honors Program and Department of Global Humanities and Religions at Western Washington University. She specializes in U.S. histories of disability, medicine, and public heath, as well as in critical race and crip theory. Her recent work, which has been supported by fellowships with the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, appears in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine and the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, among others. Her co-edited collection, Phallacies: Historical Intersections of Disability and Masculinity was published by Oxford University Press (2017). Meanwhile, she is at work on a manuscript that charts the emergence of “suicide risk” amidst nineteenth-century medico-legal and bureaucratic formations, normative expectations for affect, and the emergence of the for-profit life insurance industry. She holds a PhD in American Studies from The George Washington University.
William Horne is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His book manuscript, “The Birth of Mass Incarceration: Reconstructing the Carceral State in Civil War Era Louisiana” argues that white elites repurposed antebellum systems of plunder that had been applied broadly to poor and working-class folk to exclusively target African Americans. He holds a PhD in history from The George Washington University and is co-founder and Editor of The Activist History Review.