Modern Eugenics is Here: Scientific Racism, Evolution of Discrimination, and Our Obsession with Perfection


Introduction

Discrimination is evident today in mainstream news media, and it may persist in the future in the form of genetic discrimination. The present essay interrogates how historical descriptions of the Other are reflective of how racism and discrimination evolved with and contributed to the highly racialized concept of eugenics in the United States. We use Critical Discourse Analysis as a tool to examine language by contextualizing discourse, reviewing broader implications of word choice, and investigating unequal power dynamics. Furthermore, we trace the outline of how the history of the U.S. feeds into current popular culture, as evidenced by talk show host Bill O’Reilly, and how this might be extrapolated to predict the future implications of these practices of discrimination. This contribution, along with the others in the series, analyzes race, gender, and structural inequalities present in transmedia. We were inspired to pursue this topic by our tour of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection, reading primary sources on scientific racism, and a workshop on the semantics of racism with poet Alysia Harris.

Harmful Racialized Discourses in News Media

Proposed new phrase for Black Lives Matter shirts:

“Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones.”1

Over the past several years, Fox 9 News anchorman Bill O’Reilly has explicitly demonstrated racism in his televised broadcasts and on-air interviews. In order to produce fruitful discourse, as suggested by poet Alysia Harris, our disagreements require our agreement on what we are disagreeing about (A. Harris, workshop, April 5, 2017). Therefore, we define racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”2 Through his racist remarks, Bill O’Reilly has projected his definition of human centered upon Whiteness.

For example, in December 17, 2014, O’Reilly reiterates his racist beliefs in an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. III. Martin Luther King Jr. III, who is a human rights activist, proposed his desire that the nation come together to protest the abuse that Black people face with law enforcement officers and in the criminal justice system as a whole. O’Reilly responded to his idea by proposing the phrase for the Black Lives Matter t-shirts mentioned earlier. O’Reilly’s response explicitly reveals his opposition to the movement Black Lives Matter, an organization that calls for action toward anti-Black racism in our society, as he believes the real problem is not the police who abuse their power, but Black people who possess a destructive nature.3

Moreover, O’Reilly’s response, specifically his word choice, exemplifies his deep-rooted racism. For instance, using the word “abandon” invokes the idea that Black people are reckless, heartless, and uncaring towards their children.{^1] Since showing compassion and empathy are traits associated with being human, using the word “abandon” strips these traits from Black people, thus stripping them from their humanity.1 When O’Reilly claims that Black women get pregnant at 14, he suggests Black people are irresponsible and are unable to control their bodies and urges. Furthermore, when O’Reilly blames Black people for allowing their neighborhoods to become “free fire zones,” he is basically characterizing Black people as disconnected, violent, and short-tempered people who destroy their own homes.1 Ultimately, O’Reilly is feeding onto the stereotypes that Black people are aggressive, irresponsible, and uneducated while leaving the white race untouched as a symbol of perfection. O’Reilly imposes and upholds stereotypes of Black people with ease because he has never experienced the struggles a Black person has given his empowered position as an upper middle-class White man. By creating this binary based on stereotypes, O’Reilly creates a power structure in which the White race he identifies with is more empowered for success than other races which he considers to be below his own.

The implication of O’Reilly’s position in media is that he is capable of sharing and contaminating millions of others with his racism. Moreover, the presence of O’Reilly’s behavior on national television concerns people because it demonstrates the voices of our communities. As Cameron stated, “We speak with the voices of our communities… appropriating the words of others to speak a word of our own.”4 Therefore, O’Reilly voices the truths of certain parts of society. As O’Reilly regurgitates what these voices say, he contaminates others who view his news by equipping them with the words necessary to further spread racism. It is this contamination of racism that is concerning since O’Reilly continued being the anchor newsman for Fox 9 without any punishment for his demeaning behavior, making it clear that it’s perfectly fine to devalue people on national television. Racism will never end if we continue to accept the devaluation of people on national television; we need to deconstruct those views so that the regurgitation of words that occurs doesn’t devalue others based on their phenotypic traits.

The Roots of Discrimination

To begin tracing the path where America acquired its collective ideology of discrimination and racism, we must first attend to the arrival of Christopher Columbus who was the first to essentially establish this concept of an other in America. As detailed in The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, the 15th century explorer designated Caribs as cannibals, as the Other, with little evidence besides the word of their captive rivals. 5 Thus, after this event, many indigenous populations had a false reputation of cannibalism. This reputation was the leverage the Europeans needed to establish dominion over the natives. Their culture and their societal power structure was remarkably foreign to the Europeans and was in conflict with their patriarchal Eurocentric ideals. For instance, in her book Red Pedagogy, Sandy Grande brings up the enduring view that Native American women were either “squaw drudges…bowed down with overwork and spousal oppression” or they were “Indian Princesses’ voluptuous and promiscuous objects of…men’s sexual desire.” 6 The American ideal fell more closely to the latter woman, who more closely resembled someone who was “dependent and frail,” not someone who was weathered from working. 6 This contributed to the false belief that the Natives’ culture was backwards. Their cultural dynamic was different, and therefore, they were savage. The Western White Male used their “savagery” as an excuse to pacify and tame their supposed barbaric culture. 5

Following this initial contact, the Native Americans would soon find themselves accompanied in the category of the subjugated Other by the droves of enslaved peoples who were kidnapped and brought to America. White Americans were convinced they were superior to the Others. In an effort to keep their ideals as sovereign, they sought out evidence which would confirm their beliefs whether it was accurate or not. Their attention eventually turned to the studies of Samuel Morton. Morton took the skulls of individuals from a number of races, filled them with mustard seeds (later BB’s), and calculated the volume. The results, published in Crania Americana in 1839, showed that Caucasians had the largest brains; therefore, they must be the most intelligent race. 7 While fallacious both morally and scientifically, it had an immense impact. The enslavement of Africans and their offspring were now justified since they were, according to Morton’s studies, deficient in brain function to the point it would be crueler to not enslave them. White Americans believed they had the most desirable culture and the largest brains, and they sought out other ways to ensure their power. With the Ugly Laws passed in 1867, their physical ideals became the ultimate exemplar of how a person should appear. These laws prevented individuals who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” from appearing in public. 7 Based on simple physical traits which did not fit their ideal, certain humans were exiled from society. Following The Ugly Laws in 1907, Indiana passed the first compulsory eugenic sterilization laws. Prisoners and mentally atypical individuals were stripped of their ability to procreate if there was “no probability of his or her mental improvement.” 7 Due to the opinions a small committee, they were deemed unfit to have children, and their freedom of choice was revoked. They too became the Other because they differed from the norm.

Our Future: New Technology, New Discrimination

Recent Approval of Genetic Engineering

After long global dispute over the use of genetic engineering, a new consensus was made. Just in 2015, many respected scientists called for a ban on genetic modification on future children and were whole-heartedly against any form of designer babies. 7 However, the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine approved the use of genetic engineering on the traits of human embryos that will be passed onto their future offspring. This is predicted by Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, to just be a foot in the door that will open up the use of all genetic engineering. 8 It is very likely that we will see designer babies in the years to come. If genetic engineering broadens to all babies, a new form of discrimination may emerge that stems from humanity’s obsession with perfection. Nathaniel Comfort, the scientist who wrote The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, said that eugenics is an impulse to improve ourselves, eliminate disease, and live longer and healthier; these techniques of improvement are changing due to technological advances. In the early 20th century, Social Darwinists proposed the idea of “good genes”, a notion that became mainstream and supported fears of the rising influx of the immigrant population. Now we are currently what is defined as the “second age of eugenics” since it is now a common practice to abort fetuses with Down syndrome. If this new age of eugenics didn’t already appear problematic due to the unjust use of race-based eugenics in the 19th century, this causes other concerns in terms of our survival as a species. If humans lack genetic variability, then we are less likely to adapt to our changing environment and avoid extinction. 9 We get a taste of this pernicious future in the movie Gattaca.

One Possible Future: Gene-based Discrimination

Gattaca, released in 1997, is a movie that portrays the effects of genetic modification in the unspecified near future. The movie is set in a world of designer babies, which are described as “Valids”, and the people who are not genetically engineered who are the “In-Valids”. Each group has their own predestined future and only those deemed as “Valids” are allowed into upper echelons of society, which holds implications for job opportunities, standards of living, and have the ability to chase their dreams. This is a future form of eugenics and discrimination our societies may possibly succumb to, if discriminatory discourses are allowed to prevail in our media and wider thinking.

One of the beginning scenes of Gattaca features a mother named Maria consulting with a genetic counselor about whether or not to genetically modify her second son Anton. The geneticist tells Maria, “They are not babies, Maria, merely ‘human possibilities’. [Removing the petri dish from beneath the lens of the microscope, he points out the four minuscule specks.] Smaller than a grain of sand.” The geneticist considering the fetuses just possibilities dehumanizes them as he does not define them as human babies. There is also an unequal power dynamic between the mother, Maria, and the geneticist since he has more authority and experience in this situation and uses his power to reassure her what he is persuading her to do is the right choice. His power is used to appease her nerves and uncertainty while disregarding the moral impacts of genetically modifying children. This scene specifically displays the power inequality between the more privileged man over the women. Underlying sexism is shown as the male Geneticist is pushing forward his beliefs as correct and the mother is passively accepting it as fact, and agrees to genetically modify her unborn child.

The discourse of the geneticist in Gattaca additionally constructs a vision of the insignificance of genetic manipulation when he mentions how the cells are smaller than a grain of sand. The message he conveys is reminiscent of problematic treatment of Black patients by White doctors in the 1940s due to the ruling of the Moore v. Regents of the University of California court case (1990): “When you leave tissues in a doctor’s office or a lab, you abandon them as waste, and anyone can take your garbage and sell it.” 10 Henrietta Lack’s ownership of her cells when the doctors took her cells without permission in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks draws a parallel to Gattaca since it shares the same idea that the smaller a body part is, the less it is representative of the person. 10 There is also the situation where, when Lacks’ cells were removed from her body, she essentially lost ownership over her cells. This legally inscribed cellular dispossession draws a discourse that mirrors, in some ways, the rhetoric spouted by talk show host of the 1990s and on, such as Bill O’Reilly. When O’Reilly imposes stereotypes on African Americans, he decreases their ownership over their own identities. Additionally, he disempowers groups who already lack power, in this case minorities, when he devalues the movement of Black Lives Matter. By further creating this power structure of disempowerment, O’Reilly ensures that he remains in his empowered position. Another power dynamic is shown between the “Valids” and “Invalids” in Gattaca.

Later in Gattaca, a scene displays the main character, Jerome, who sees a poor couple who cannot afford to genetically modify their child and his voiceover takes over:

“Those parents who, for moral or, more likely economic reasons, refrain from tampering with their offspring’s genetic makeup or who fail to abort a deprived fetus condemn their children to a life of routine discrimination. Officially they are called In-Valids. Also known as godchildren, men-of-god, faith births, blackjack births, deficients, defectives, genojunk, ge-gnomes, the fucked-up people.”9

It was hard to tell if the epithets for the “In-Valids” were positive or negative with just the first few description such as god-children, men-of-god, and faith births. However, if we put it into context that the movie is science fiction and the fact that science and religion oppose one another, then we could predict that these were negative descriptions with just the first 3 epithets of the “In-Valids” When the other descriptions were mentioned, it became clear that they were insults. Although this seems like a new form of discrimination based on two categories -genetically engineered “Valids” , or the unmodified “In-Valids”- these subcategories stem from the socioeconomic disparity and discrimination currently apart of our society.

Other Possible Future: No Discrimination

The future of society seems to either be heading towards a new form of discrimination with the same type of people discriminated against- people of low socioeconomic status, part of an oppressed race, certain mental capability, or physical appearance- or towards no discrimination. The idea of no discrimination is supported by the book “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”. 11 This book delves into an argument that by 2048 our brain’s content will be able to be uploaded online and form a cloud of a single, immortal consciousness. This argument has plausible points especially since one of its proposed human technologies, genetic engineering, is already a part of our reality. People would be able to download other peoples’ lives to understand them instead of discriminating against them. This may lead to a world with less discrimination as there would only be one consciousness so people would think similarly.

Conclusion

Although a future with no discrimination would be ideal, the idea of a single consciousness does not look very promising. What is the quintessential way of thinking? Who would hold the power to design this system and impose their ideas of perfection? We have the power to prevent technology and our obsession with perfection, a perfection that is heavily biased towards White men who have the most power, from overruling our humanity. With the growing ethical issues of using these new technologies, we should take action and monitor the implementation of these gadgets in society since it can completely change life as we know it.

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  10. Skloot, R. (2017). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books. 2

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