Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement

Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement, a Resource Book by Facing History and Ourselves. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, Inc., 2002. 356 pages.

“Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to perpetuate citizens of the wrong type.” Most students would identify the author of this quotation as Josef Goebbels or some other Nazi ideologue. Actually, the author was Theodore Roosevelt who reflected the views of many American intellectuals in 1913 when these words were penned. Few textbooks for United States history survey courses note that eugenics, or “race science,” was a branch of scientific thinking that began in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and one that influenced Nazi racial theoreticians in subsequent decades.

Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movements, addresses the origins of the eugenics movement and its dramatic impact on people in this country and ultimately on victims of the Nazi genocide. Facing History and Ourselves is an educational organization dedicated to informing middle and high school students about the consequences of racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance. Race and Membership in American History is neither a textbook nor a monograph on eugenics. Rather, it is a resource book consisting of poems, short stories, letters, illustrations, and primary source readings that help students connect with their own feelings about race and hereditary. The book contains some seventy-five readings organized in chapters such as “Science Fiction and Social Realities,” “Race, Democracy, and Citizenship,” “Toward Civic Biology,” “Eugenics, Citizenship, and Immigration,” “Eugenics and the Nazi Connection.” Each reading is followed by a section entitled “connections,” consisting of questions intended to promote discussion of the material contained in the readings.

This volume is a welcome resource for any high school or college U.S. history survey course, and is particularly useful for addressing state standards on topics related to citizenship, immigration, racism and genocide. While some of the reading selections are of historical interest, other selections address contemporary issues including recent trends in genetic studies and the moral dimensions of stem cell research. Because so many readings are included, teachers can select those most directly related to their curriculum most appropriate for their students’ reading abilities. The publication contains photographs, diagrams, and other graphics but does not include a glossary, which would be extremely helpful for students who have no familiarity with the subject of eugenics. Teachers will particularly appreciate the “Connections” sections that follow each reading. These contain questions, writing assignments and research projects that are particularly effective in encouraging students to reflect upon what they have read. Teachers can use this material to stimulate class discussion and critical thinking. In summary, this survey of the origins and consequences of “race thinking” will enlighten and inform readers about some of the most distasteful and offensive thinking about race in America. Most important, it will challenge students to think about how prejudice can distort scientific inquiry and about the harmful consequences of the eugenics movement in U.S. and world history. 3
California State University, Long Beach

By: Donald Schwartz