Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Euphemizing Eugenics

The involvement of the early 20th century Progressive Movement with the racial pseudo-science of eugenics has only recently begun to receive a thorough and appropriately critical historical treatment. The reason for this late treatment likely derives from a polite reluctance to engage an ethical blot on the careers of several celebrated scholars and political figures who more than dabbled in eugenic planning over the years. Leading progressive economists Richard T. Ely (a founder of the American Economic Association), John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross (the primary instigator of the creation of the AAUP) were also devout eugenicists who harbored beliefs in white supremacy, forced sterilization of “lesser” races and the “feeble minded,” and a range of similar political objectives with overtly discriminatory designs.

Other prominent eugenicists included a practical who’s who of the intellectual and political elite of the early 20th century, with a particularly strong representation on the political left. Well known names such as novelist H.G. Wells, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, economist John Maynard Keynes, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt all had connections of varying degrees to the eugenics movement, some of them quite pronounced. And while the racial views of these individuals varied in intensity and severity, even the milder advocates of so-called “positive” eugenics would be rightly classified as bigoted today.

Their beliefs, of course, represented an ugly intellectual infatuation of the time, and overt eugenicism has since been purged from the political mainstream. It is still a subject that warrants a historical reckoning though, and much of the better scholarship on early 20th century eugenics seeks to better understand what led such prominent figures to embrace this movement. One common theme, of course, is a shared affinity for regulating other areas of life, thus progressive eugenicists frequently pointed to similarities between their parallel attacks on the “laissez faire” of the capitalism, as manifested in a turn toward economic planning, and their repudiation of the “laissez faire of nature” through the attempted planning of human reproduction.

Scrutiny of the uglier details of progressive eugenicism is not always welcomed though.

In particular, Thomas Leonard’s 2016 book on the subject, Illiberal Reformers, provoked an angry backlash by economist Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute and historian Bernard Weisberger of the University of Chicago. I’ve written about the historical sloppiness of this pair before, including a lengthy “review of a review” that documents numerous deficiencies of evidence and analysis in one of their published critiques of Leonard.

The error-prone critique of Leonard they produced may not be the most alarming part of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s work though. While mounting a defense of progressive economists such as Ely, Commons, and Ross, this pair’s primary counterargument involves actively burying their progressive subject matters’ eugenics under several layers of historical euphemism.

This pattern can be seen in several of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s published works on the subject, including the title of a 2016 article in the journal Democracy. Struggling to even use the word eugenics, they instead adopt a convention of referring to the policies and beliefs it entails under the comparatively mild label of “exclusionist” or “exclusionary” attitudes.

They begin with a defense of Richard T. Ely, the progressive economist who, among other things, advocated forced sterilization of the “unfit,” strict regulations of marriage to prohibit race-mixing, immigration restrictions to bar certain “lesser” races from entering the United States, and a belief that African-Americans were an “inferior” race of “grownup children, and should be treated as such.” Even among eugenicists, Ely’s views evinced a particularly noxious racial extreme. Yet here is how Steinbaum and Weisberger bury those beliefs in euphemism:

“It’s easy to see where exclusionary attitudes could develop here. By restricting the supply of labor, incumbent workers face less competition for jobs, and employers have fewer outside options, so in turn must compromise with labor’s demands. This was why Ely favored immigration restrictions, collective action to control the birthrate, child-labor bans, and other barriers to entry into the labor market.”

The formula for their defense consists of two components. The first is to add the spin of a partially exonerating motive to otherwise indefensible beliefs. Thus we’re told that – yes – Ely harbored certain ugly beliefs, but he did so for the allegedly commendable purpose of certain “good” progressive goals – of “strengthening [labor’s] hand at the negotiating table” with big business, or to prevent the “exploitative” conditions of a “race to the bottom” of the labor market.

Second, they intentionally obscure the severity of the ugly beliefs being discussed by disguising them with bizarre turns of phrase. The forcible sterilization of black people becomes merely “collective action to control the birthrate.” The racial segregation that Ely fostered and endorsed as a matter of law simply becomes “barriers to entry into the labor market.” The overt racial ideology that Ely espoused isn’t white supremacy or eugenics, it’s “exclusionist ideas.”

If you think something is odd about this choice of language, you’re starting to get the picture.

The pattern continues throughout Steinbaum and Weisberger’s defense of the progressives. Take, for example, their following depiction of economist Edward A. Ross, who was fired from Stanford University in 1900 in a row over one of his eugenically charged speeches. The specific remarks in question (which I blogged about previously here) are simply vile. Ross spewed overt white supremacy. He spoke of the threat of a white “race suicide” in the face of Asian immigration, which threatened to swamp “California, this latest and loveliest seat of the Aryan race.” He also appealed to vicious stereotypes of Chinese workers as unclean and racially inferior, and attempted to incite a mob of labor activists against them in a period when San Francisco politics were frequently marred by race riots.

Here is how Steinbaum and Weisberger soft-peddle that same event:

“Edward A. Ross’s dismissal from Stanford resulted from his outspoken advocacy for closing the door on Chinese and Japanese immigration. Unluckily for him, the Stanford family found these Asian workers useful and the professor’s heresy got him the pink slip.”

Note again the two components of their formula. First, they appeal to a partially exonerating motive. Ross was, after all, standing up to the railroad barons of the Stanford family. Second, they euphemize Ross’s actual words, which were replete with appeals to Aryan supremacy and forebodings about race-mixing between the west and “the Orient,” as simple “advocacy for closing the door on Chinese and Japanese immigration.”

An identical pattern of exoneration and euphemism pervades a longer article on the same subject that Steinbaum and Weisberger contributed to the Journal of Economic Literature in late 2017. They discuss the aforementioned Ross incident in closely guarded language, praising the “measure of self-protection in solidarity” that allegedly spawned the founding of the American Economic Association and crediting the organization’s intervention in the case as an important precedent for “academic freedom.” They offer not the slightest hint to the casual reader of their article that Ross’s troubles stemmed from a white supremacist speech.

In similar fashion they adopt the awkward and euphemized phrasing of “exclusion” or “exclusionary views” to designate racial eugenics no less than 17 times in the article – in fact, it appears far more frequently than the word “eugenics” itself. When the specifics of eugenics are mentioned in the context of progressives, it is almost always an exercise in tu quoque argumentation, followed immediately by a string of qualifiers that attribute similar views to the free-market interlocutors of Ely, Commons, and Ross. Curiously, these alleged free-market eugenicists are never quite specified by name, or they are attached by misattribution to other progressives such as the anti-laissez faire sociologist Franklin Giddings.

The formula of partial exoneration and euphemism continues to accompany every concession that Steinbaum and Weisberger make about progressive eugenicism. We are therefore told:

“They certainly did express their own exclusionary views, but those views were motivated by seeking to increase the bargaining power of a narrowly defined set of workers, eventually taking shape in the hands of Commons and Ross as an elaborate racist typology legitimating exclusion from the labor market.”

Note the positively Orwellian turns of phrase that they deploy to obscure the horrifically racist positions they are downplaying and excusing. For Ely, Commons, and Ross, that “narrowly defined set of workers” actually translates into white people of a northern European hereditary stock. The motive of “seeking to increase the[ir] bargaining power” actually meant qn elaborate legal system meant to advantage the size of the white population by forcibly restricting the reproductive habits of non-white persons. And the “racist typology legitimating exclusion from the labor market” is better known as the vicious system of legally and socially enforced racial apartheid of the segregation-era United States.

In the end, all that Steinbaum and Weisberger can muster in condemnation of their progressive eugenicist forebears is a generic concession that forced sterilization “was not merely misguided, but cruel in its implementation” followed by further tu quoque jabs at unnamed classical liberals and the remarkably tone-deaf qualifier that “no eugenicist with any progressive links realized that the notion of innate inferiority could open the door to the mass murder of living populations.” Apparently that’s the mitigating standard against which we are to judge a formal crusade of forced eugenic sterilization and legalized discrimination against entire disliked races and categories of people. It may have been bad, but at least they didn’t commit genocide! Such ethical posturing, to put it mildly, is entirely underwhelming.

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