After the events of Ferguson, Mo., one might ascribe some of the ills of our politics to our legacy of slavery and segregation. It would also be easy to find fault in the stars of the White House, as if the president is fated to bear such burdens. But Barack Obama’s enemies do not hate him just because he is black. Race is not sufficient to explain the constellation of spite surrounding him. Racism is a bright star in that sky, but it does not, by itself, account for climate change denial, contempt for the poor, or mass incarceration that accompany the fear of a black planet. There is one American tradition that does: eugenics.
Eugenics, the attempt to create a stronger society through selective human breeding, is an unfamiliar word in the United States. Eugenics is an ideology of genocide. It was fundamental to the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry. Americans are against that sort of thing now, but eugenics was popular among American elites in the first part of the 20th century. It arose after social Darwinism, which held that the “survival of the fittest” ruled human evolution, a claim Darwin himself rejected. Eugenics calls for better living through reproductive control of “inferior” peoples understood as criminals, idiots, and corruptors of pure blood. These included Jews, the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, and pretty much anyone who wasn’t from Nordic or Anglo-Saxon northern Europe. Non-Europeans—Africans and their descendants, Asians, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas—were inferior by definition. Eugenics, therefore, connects disparate failures of democracy such as the defense of slavery, the conquest of native nations, the denial of reproductive freedom to women, and nativist xenophobia. Slaves, natives, women, and immigrants, as subhuman forces of nature, cry out for a master. In all its forms, eugenics relies on a story of America under siege by degenerate forces bent on destroying the republic. This story justifies the preservation of a white, Protestant elite as a matter of national security. As Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote in his introduction to The Passing of the Great Race (1916), “conservation of that race which has given us the true spirit of Americanism is not a matter either of racial pride or racial prejudice; it is a matter of love of country.”
Eugenics, of course, has fallen out of favor. After World War II, it became impossible to acknowledge that an ideology championed by the Nazis had anything to do with the United States, and anti-eugenic ideology gained cachet. Americans encounter the legacy of eugenics only in the ironic form of the superhero, especially Superman and Captain America. Superman (created in 1933) is the übermensch who defends the weak, an inversion of eugenic logic designed to undermine anti-immigrant bias. Captain America (who debuted in 1941), once a 95-pound weakling, gained his abilities from a “super-soldier serum” created by a rogue Nazi to defeat Hitler. Through figures of virtue whose powers uphold democracy, popular culture acknowledged the misuse of force on behalf of white supremacy. What comics encode, we must decode.
Of course the notion that one race is superior to another hasn’t disappeared at all, as most of the rest of history (especially in the late 20th and 21st centuries) reveals. And to confront the hatred of a black president, we must face the eugenic core of our conflicts. Eugenics reveals the Obama his despisers know: the spirit of brown children swarming at the border. A weakling incapable of destroying our enemies. A perverter of marriage as the forge of generations. A fraud stealing guns from the great race. The betrayer of the petro-state, never a lord of the earth. This is not Obamaphobia, a psychosis, but a consequence of eugenic principles of nationhood.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with ambition. But when we identify heritage with political privilege, we are treading on dangerous ground. Barack Obama is a flawed president, as mortals must be, so criticism is inevitable, but eugenic critique is corrupt. It may be tempting to imagine a nation shaped only by people like ourselves, but we must resist the lure of aristocracy, even an aristocracy of merit. The moment we take difference as a marker of social distinction, we are thinking eugenically. Neither can we be blind to difference, because fantasies of sameness create the need for a scapegoat. Only a politics of alliance, of cooperation across difference, can counter an ideology of natural superiority. Let us begin with ourselves. Let us reject the lies of eugenics in our own lives. We can then repeal its call in public as citizens and activists. Obama was elected on the promise of a government for the people. We can do justice to that promise by harrowing the hell of good breeding.