There are periods in American history when a scientifically based frenzy sweeps all other considerations before it. Values like equality, democracy, and freedom give way toward a new theory of how society should be managed to account for some new consideration that trumps all others.
Often, the concern is an issue of public health, with experts telling everyone else what they must do in order to improve the well-being of everyone. The invocation of science in the defense of exceptions to commercial and associational freedom has a long history.
We are living through such a time now with the hyper-concern over Covid, both its existence and spread. We’ve been bludgeoned with stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, school and business closures, mandatory masks, capacity restrictions even in our homes, and every manner of social shaming.
The latest tactic being pushed to deal with Covid is vaccine passports that include or exclude people based on whether one has been fully vaccinated in compliance with government demands. The policy has promoted a divisive split at all levels of society, consistent with precisely what we would expect with any segregationist agenda pushed by scientific elites.
Somehow lost in the debate on this topic has been the enormous racial disparity in vaccine status. The CDC assembles vaccine status by race and finds that among those with at least one dose of the vaccine, nearly two-thirds were White (58%), 10% were Black, 17% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian, 1% were American Indian or Alaska Native. What it means in the state of New York, for example, is that 86.4% percent of African-Americans are excluded from participation in public life, as well as 85.2% of Asians, and 80% of Hispanics.
The policy is not whites-only by design but the disparate impact means that these passports – clearly a Zoom privilege regardless of race – will mean effective segregation and exclusion for the vast majority of minority populations. The disparity here is strong enough for people to use race as a kind of marker, signifying those who are medically protected from and not spreading disease (true or not) vs. those who are not clean and might spread germs.
It’s an easy habit of mind to treat people not part of the ruling class group as the “other” and therefore people to avoid and exclude, and especially easy when science is there to provide a cover for such a bias.
Think of the sudden distinction between essential and nonessential that greeted us in March 2020. The government made a list: you can work if you want to, you must work because we need your services, or you may not work. We were all classified, while never having been consulted about it. People had to comply with the new caste system created in the name of public health.
The working class made society run during lockdowns, exposing themselves to the pathogen and bearing the burden of herd immunity, while the ruling class enjoyed their laptop lives, had their food delivered, and waited for the vaccine. That natural infection (in the US) is not considered applicable for immunity passports is not an accident. The ruling class very easily considers natural immunity to be a generalizable class indicator: if you had the right job and the right financial means, you would have stayed home and stayed safe.
It’s an astonishing thing to happen in 2021 with virtually no debate and with very little recognition of the historical implications here. It’s as if society today is under the impression that because we are so done with the bigotries and biases of the past, there is simply no chance that we would recreate and reinstitutionalize them in any form, particularly not when the mandates are imposed by governing officials with “progressive” identities.
After all, don’t we hear constantly about institutional racism? If this were really an example, surely it would be called out? Not so much.
Unethical inequities and immoral disparities between races and classes are apparently invisible to the generation that imposes and practices them, especially when all respectable opinion is there to give them scientific and political cover.
This was true for the old form of racial segregation that began in the late 19th century and lasted long after the Second World War. The basis of the latter was not merely crude prejudice or bigotry as such; the rhetoric surrounding segregation had a strong overlay of science, in this case public health and, in particular, eugenics. The idea was to keep the majority racially pure by socially distancing people to prevent contamination – not just cultural infection but biological poisoning. The idea that blacks (and many others among the unfit) were a diseased people with whom whites should not mix was not incidental to the case for strict segregation; it was central.
Despite all the study and loathing of the segregationist path, it is surprising how little understood this point is. People think of eugenics as influencing perhaps involuntary sterilizations among the “unfit.” In fact, the word sums up a complete social theory with huge implications for economics, culture, religion, and with an impact on a range of legislation. It’s not possible to imagine a policy in which people are forbidden from interacting without unleashing police power in nearly every area of life.
This is precisely what the supremacist/segregationist agenda was: a complete view of politics stemming from a fanatical concern over the biological destiny of the white race. As Gregory Michael Dorr has argued in Segregation’s Science (University of Virginia Press, 2008): “Eugenic intervention took ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ forms. Positive eugenics encouraged procreation among the ‘best’ stock. Negative eugenics sought to ‘cut off defective germ-plasm’ by curtailing procreation among the so-called ‘worst’ stock. Negative measures ranged from immigration and marriage restriction to institutional segregation during the procreative period, to compulsory sterilization, birth control, and even euthanasia.”
Eugenic theory influenced labor legislation, zoning controls, marriage policy, gender issues, and even business regulation. Indeed, the theory behind keeping the race pure aspired to become a complete social and political worldview. It bled into everything. The more one researches the history of redlining, exclusionary wage legislation, immigration, family policy, or nearly every other innovation in the political management of the social and economic order in the first third of the 20th century, the easier it is to discern a eugenic motivation behind it, pushed by all the “best science” and advocated in the top journals and newspapers of the time.
With that came a sense of medical urgency too, just as with today. In normal times, sure we can have freedom and equality but these are not normal times. A new scientific discovery compels us to give up old-fashioned considerations like freedom and restrictions on government intervention. Something has to change lest disaster befalls us all. One hundred years ago, it was a widespread panic over alleged racial suicide that was threatening due to birthing patterns and too much social integration.
As Dorr comments about the views at the time, “Careless breeding across racial and ethnic lines, and the apparent propensity of poor people to give birth to more children than did wealthy people, convinced eugenicists that the ‘best stocks’ faced extinction. The melting pot was yielding a weak amalgam instead of a strong racial alloy. Eugenicists sought to halt the damage through eugenic education and legislation that would mandate the breeding of a sound American race.” Books on the topic flourished, as did conferences, editorials, public speeches, and institutions dedicated to making segregation the first principle of social organization.
The science of eugenics managed to take away the sting of bigotry surrounding the issue of racial separationism and permitted highly educated elites in states like Virginia to claim that their policies were at the forefront of progressive science. In this way, high-end, highly educated people could imagine that they were not engaged in something tacky or primitive; they were merely following the best science had to offer. They were participating in the great effort to curate the propagation of the human race, the same as the science of animal husbandry had improved ranching and food production. It was merely taking biology seriously, lifting it to a new and higher level of enlightenment, above randomness and passion and toward rationality and planning.
Some of the proof of the above assertions are actually too painful to print. You are welcome to grab a copy of the Dorr volume. But let us consider the seminal address in February 1900 by Dr. Paul Brandon Barringer, chairman of the faculty at the University of Virginia and professor of medicine, at the Tri-State Medical Association of Virginia and the Carolinas. He explained that the South was making a huge error in attempting to integrate. This is because blacks possess a “generic tendency” to “savagery,” making them “primitive” and “barbaric.” “Fifty centuries of historically recorded savagery” cannot be fixed through educated and integration. What seems like a social problem is actually a “biological problem.”
The solution was political disenfranchisement and total separation; this is because “the phylogenies of the two races are so divergent that the results of experience with one are not safely applicable to the problems of the other.” If this is not done, the nightmare presents itself, namely that of the infection and ultimate biological destruction of the white race by the diseases of the inferior race. Dr. Barringer explained:
I am afraid the negro will exterminate the last remaining whites of the black belt, first by political mastery, then degeneration and apathy and then miscegenation. But if miscegenation does ever come, it will be the first time in the history of man that a Teutonic stock has so fallen. The Latin races naturally mingle their blood with any race they touch, but the Teutonic roots never.
There you have it: the voice of science. The speech vaunted Professor Dr. Barringer to the forefront of punditry in the country for the cause of segregation.
Dorr explains the reaction to Barringer’s lecture and paper:
The Tri-State Medical Society unanimously voted to print the paper and send copies to all southern medical societies. The Central Presbyterian ran a laudatory synopsis, commending Barringer’s “scientific acumen.” Letters poured in from professionals and laymen, North and South. Holland Thompson, a professor of political science at Columbia, called Barringer’s address the “best statement of the difficult Southern question that I have ever seen.” The rector of the University of Virginia effused: “what you have said is so luminous, so convincing, so historically, scientifically, and socially exact as to exclude all negation. I wish every politician, philanthropist and negrophile from Massachusetts Bay to San Francisco could read it.” The secretary of the state board of health attempted to raise money to publish the address. Virginia’s secretary of education wrote, “Any man who now contends that the Negroes are making substantial progress in moral, mental, or material development simply shuts his eyes to the actual state of things.” Another supporter wrote, “your biological axiom and structure is expert.”
And so on it goes, through a disgusting litany of praise for what quickly became the settled science that lasted for many decades. I sometimes read this material with a desire to put myself into the mindset of the people who would push and celebrate the recreation of a caste system against every ideal of democracy, equality, and freedom. It’s not easy: it seems as if no one today would dabble in such nonsense today. And yet look around! People very easily slip into such thinking depending on the circumstances of time and place, and the social and professional pressures at the time, which present themselves yet again in ways that are invisible to so many of our contemporaries.
Four years earlier in 1886, the American Economic Association – founded as a “progressive voice” in economics that rejected laissez-faire – published Race Traits of the American Negro by Frederick Hoffman, who later became president of the American Statistical Association. A main argument of the book is that the differences between the races trace not to environmental or economic factors but fundamental biological ones: as compared with whites, blacks should be considered not only inferior but sick to the point that they cannot be treated. He argued that “no northern or European physician could successfully treat a colored person in view of the radical differences existing between the two races and the consequent difference in results from medical treatment, the negro yielding less readily to such treatment than the white man.”
Further: “Deaths from inanition, debility and atrophy are largely the result of inferior organisms and constitutional weakness, which as we shall see later on is one of the most pronounced race characteristics of the American negro.”
More than any behavioral or cultural trait, the view that blacks are biologically inferior and more prone to disease – basically a sick and diseased people who cannot and will not improve because this is a foundation race trait – formed the basis of the belief in the physical separation of whites and blacks. “It can be proven,” he writes, “that at the present time the colored race is subject to an inordinate mortality from consumption and respiratory diseases, which will menace the very existence of the race in the not far distant future.” What’s more, the disease prevalence has a moral component, which itself traces to biology as well: “For the root of the evil lies in the fact of an immense amount of immorality, which is a race trait, and of which scrofula, syphilis, and even consumption are the inevitable consequences.”
Incredibly, the complaint that blacks are not getting vaccinated enough also traces to this 1906 monograph. “The great decrease in the mortality” from smallpox “among all civilized peoples who have made vaccination compulsory is well known.” “If, therefore, the colored people would subject themselves to vaccination to the same extent as the whites, there is no reason why the mortality for this disease should not become equally as low.” With other diseases, writes Hoffman, this is not the case: even with the vaccinations that they will not get, they would still die more from measles and other diseases, simply because they are biologically diseased and suffer from inferior protections against pathogens.
Dr. Hoffman concludes:
“It is not in the conditions of life but in the race traits and tendencies that we find the causes of the excessive mortality. So long as these tendencies are persisted in, so long as immorality and vice are a habit of life of the vast majority of the colored population, the effect will be to increase the mortality by hereditary transmission of weak constitutions, and to lower still further the rate of natural increase, until the births fall below the deaths, and gradual extinction results.”
It is sufficient to know, concludes our author, “that in the struggle for race supremacy the black race is not holding its own.”
What is the plan then? The plan is to segregate, leaving the inferior race to its own devices, excluded from public life, and watch as the whole race dies the death – a biological inevitability provided no one interrupts the natural course of human evolution through integration, inclusion, education, and philanthropy.
Natural evolution has favored one race to rule over all others and therefore let no man attempt to interfere: “It is not in the conditions of life, but in race and heredity that we find the explanation of the fact to be observed in all parts of the globe, in all times and among all peoples, namely, the superiority of one race over another, and of the Aryan race overall.”
Again, we see here the emphasis on biological fitness – as discovered by the best science – as the basis for supremacy and segregation. As summed up by the most popular race/eugenics treatise of the entire era – The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant – the principle is as follows: “Man has the choice of two methods of race improvement. He can breed from the best, or he can eliminate the worst by segregation or sterilization.”
The Supreme Court itself was no less blunt in the 1927 decision Buck vs Bell: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination [Jacobson v. Massachusetts] is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The advantage of having recourse to medical science to justify policies of exclusion, segregation, legal privilege for some at the expense of others, in addition to outright violence against the bodily autonomy of the human person, is that this allows the people who practice and promote illiberal policies a higher ground than raw bigotry. Indeed, in the segregationist period in American history, the practitioners of supremacy and exclusion became masters of the craft. Eugenics in particular offers a scientific veneer for precisely the kind of brutality that enlightenment liberalism had long condemned as inconsistent with the kind of society in which we want to live.
Today, you won’t find people in polite society who have kind things to say about the eugenic theory of social organization, at least not in public. But as vaccine passports and their disparate impact reveal, it turns out to be strangely easy to manufacture a public health excuse – drawing on the primal fear of infection and disease – to recreate what amounts to the same structure with an excuse that is different only in its details but not in its impact on the social order.
A serious application of science to the cause of disease mitigation for Covid would consider natural immunities, collateral damage from mandates and lockdowns, demographic gradients in susceptibility, as well as access to therapeutics, and other factors. In addition, one might suppose there would be a general presumption in favor of freedom, equal application of law, and human rights as a generally preferred environment for the rational management of a pandemic. That’s the point of constitutions, so that we aren’t tempted to forgo basic principles for the panic of the moment.
The history of segregation and its underlying rationale has been neglected over the period of disease panic in favor of rule by a scientific elite, crude and brutal generalizations, the stigmatization of the sick, the shaming of the noncompliant, the placing of barriers between classes, and the imposition of strict policies of quarantine, separation, and social division. Dr. Deborah Birx summed up the principle in a March 16, 2020, press conference. “We are encouraging people to separate.”
Yes, we’ve been there before.
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