By Prof. Ali A. Mazrui
August 29, 2009
That the United States’ President Barack Obama is a brilliant man is indisputable. Whether that brilliance is attributable to accidental inter-racial mating of two gifted parents may not be so clear. What is certain is that Obama comes from an American society that earlier in the 20th century still believed in ‘eugenics,’ purposeful selective breeding process to produce quality offspring.
Obama’s parents were not part of the history of selective breeding. However, his version of the American dream (post-racial America) comes with a historical baggage that once believed in ‘eugenics.’ We here explore that earlier phase of American history, not to illuminate Obama’s own family history, but to trace the distance that the American racial history has traversed in a single century. The baggage of eugenics is part and parcel of that earlier history.
Eugenics was embraced by Christians into the 20th century as a form of sexual aberration, special breeding for human physical improvement. The idea of eugenics in the European civilisation actually began with Plato’s Republic, where an ideal society was portrayed as one having an agenda for improving human beings through selective breeding. But it was not until 1883 that the word eugenics itself was coined by the British scientist, Francis Galton, who had earlier recommended arranged marriages between brilliant men and rich women as a strategy of producing a talented race.
In the history of trans-Atlantic slavery, eugenics was used not to create a better endowed ruling class mentally but to develop a better endowed labouring class physically. Selective breeding of slaves was sometimes invoked as a method of producing either strong specimens or physically better looking ones. Black domination of some physical sports in the US in the 20th century can, in part, be traced to special breeding under slavery in combination with other factors.
Black fighters dominated the boxing ring through much of the 20th century. And tall and powerful Black players have continued to show dazzling physical prowess and mental calculation in American football and basketball.
In spite of poverty and undernourishment, the African-American population since the early 20th century has produced a remarkable proportion of salient and impressive physiques. How much of that physical Black heritage was, in part, due to selective breeding under slavery? The horrors of eugenic experiments under slavery included special inter-racial mating in order to produce lighter-skinned blacks.
But who were the white mates who engaged in cross-breeding with slaves in order to produce light-skinned human merchandise? Sometimes it was white members of the slave-owning family themselves who mated with their bonded victims and then sold their own ‘half-cast’ offspring. This is the chicken George syndrome.
In the inter-world war period the work and research of the American Eugenic Society was seriously discredited by the experimental horrors perpetrated in Germany by the Nazis, resulting in the extermination of Jews, Blacks, Gypsies and such sexual minorities as male homosexuals. George’s lighter skin was apparently an asset to his marketability. Under Islamic law the chicken-George syndrome was inconceivable. A child of a Master with one of his slaves was legally free. Eugenics in the United States persisted in other forms long after slavery was abolished. The American Eugenics Society was established in 1926. It was committed to the proposition that the privileges of the upper class were justified by the superior genetic endowment.
The American eugenic culture had thus moved from the task of breeding better looking and stronger slaves to the mission of breeding more intelligent rulers. Sterilising even retarded white citizens, or white epileptics, or the insane, continued in parts of the US into the 1970s.
Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New York