Edwin Black: American Eugenics | 5 Spot | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Edwin Black: American Eugenics

Genetic discrimination is quiet but all too common


Edwin Black
  • Edwin Black

Edwin Black’s work in journalism covers everything from genocide to academic fraud, and there are more than a million copies of his New York Times best-selling books currently in print. Black, the child of two Holocaust survivors, will be speaking at the University of Utah's Eccles Institute of Human Genetics Auditorium (15 N. 2030 East) on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 4 p.m., giving focusing on his 2003 book War Against the Weak. The book, Black says, “speaks for the never-born”—the potential children of those who were forcibly sterilized after the United States began compulsory sterilization in the early 20th century. A full schedule of Black’s speaking events is available at EdwinBlack.com.

What was Utah’s involvement in eugenics?
Utah was one of the earliest adopters of mass sterilization and the eugenics program, beginning in about 1925. And I believe that while it was not one of the major centers of genocidal eugenics, Utah was a tag-along participant; altogether, Utah did sterilize close to 800 people. But it wasn’t just sterilization. You also had marriage prohibition, and much of this was designed to eliminate homosexuals, African-Americans and those of mixed blood. This was especially popular in Utah, because Utah has always been very conscious of genealogy.

What sparked your interest in eugenics?
I think one of my emphases has always been the antecedents of the Nazi Holocaust. In other words, how did they get there? Who financed it? Who helped? And frequently I’ve been saddened to learn that there are so many American corporate, academic and financial ties to the Hitler regime. I’d written a great deal of information about the Holocaust, and I thought I would try a totally different topic, never even thinking that my investigation of American eugenics would lead right to Auschwitz. And that has kind of been my pattern—I seem to find the Holocaust connection, even when I’m writing about the Middle East, about Iraq, about Arabs, about the history of oil and energy.

How is eugenics such a quiet section of American history?
Twenty-seven states had adopted laws mandating compulsory sterilization. This was not done in the dead of night. This was not done in the shadows. This was not done by a couple of guys in Mississippi waving a Confederate flag in a pickup truck. This was done by America’s brightest and best—by our judges, by our doctors, by our legislators. Everything that made America exceptional became corrupted in our quest for a master race. When America reached Nazi-conquered Europe and they went through their concentration camps, they looked around and they saw what eugenics had bequeathed. And they saw, clearly, that it was based on the California Eugenics Act, that it was based on the rulings of the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. And they said, “No, no, this is not us. This could not be based on an American ideal,” even though Hitler in Mein Kampf had explained that it was. So America went into collective amnesia—societal forgetfulness. They changed the word eugenics to genetics, and decided to take a look-the-other-way academic view, and most people aren’t taught that in school.

What does eugenics look like in the present day?
Today, we will see the advent of Newgenics. And it will no longer be about national flags and racial dogma. It will be about corporate worth, and whether or not the corporate powers believe your existence is profitable. In the same way that IBM created the information age for Adolf Hitler, it has now been created for the disciples of big data. Everything we do and see and think and experience is slowly being captured.

There is something called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act; I was instrumental in getting it passed. It’s designed to avoid what they call a genetic ghetto, where people will not be able to get employment, insurance, health care and even an education based on their genetic legacy. This legislation was finally passed over the objections of the insurance industry. Because if people can disqualify you for insurance and employment based on your genetics—not disqualify you based on your individual merit and value and worth, but by judging your ancestors and by using a bigoted and biased measuring stick—then there’s very little hope for society.