What would you expect to pop up on your computer screen if you Googled the words black genocide? Probably several web sites detailing the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide, right? Not quite. Google black genocide and a multitude of web sites indicting Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health service providers for perpetuating genocide on black people fill the computer screen. Most of these web sites claim that service providers are on a racist crusade to kill off black people through abortion and sterilization.
It’s tempting to scoff at such claims as the delusional ranting of the lunatic fringe, but that wouldn’t be wise. The black genocide charge has shown a staying power not unlike the rumor that drinking carbonated soda laced with Pop Rocks killed that kid from the Life cereal commercials. Unchallenged, claims of genocide become accepted as fact and achieve their goal of discouraging women from seek counseling or treatment from legitimate healthcare providers.
I first encountered the black genocide charge when I began volunteering at a women’s shelter that serves homeless pregnant women. My work includes providing information about family planning and reproductive health resources. Almost from the beginning some of my students expressed distrust towards well-known reproductive health service providers. Eventually these students shared that their concerns revolved around rumors that certain service providers aggressively push patients to have abortions or take medicine that results in permanent sterilization. Through family, friends, church and the word on the street these women had been warned that well-known reproductive health service providers in America are organized to perpetrate black genocide.
Motivated more by my student’s response than curiosity over the actual charge of black genocide, I did some research and found information on efforts like the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP). The Genocide Awareness Project, which is sponsored by the anti-choice Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, tours college campuses with photos comparing abortion with recognized images of genocide. GAP attempts to link abortion with genocide through the use of visual images and the manipulation of language, challenging the legitimacy of reproductive choice by comparing it to slavery. In this way, GAP reaches out to black communities through a campaign dressed up to look like a black empowerment movement.
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In many ways supporters of GAP and like organizations are attempting to reap what others sowed years ago. The American eugenics movement of the 1930s and 1940s claimed to better society by preventing carriers of defective genetic traits from reproducing. Family planning was often code for the compulsory sterilization of so-called lesser people, many from poor disenfranchised groups. It is estimated that some 64,000 Americans were sterilized between 1900 and 1970. Forced sterilization of black women reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s. A trip to the hospital to give birth often resulted in sterilization without consent or the patient’s knowledge.
Groups like The Genocide Awareness Project hope to build upon a pre-existing foundation of mistrust. On their web site and through college tours, GAP promotes a Sanctity of Life Curriculum for black churches and encourages the study of the history of eugenics to further “document” their claims of an organized genocide against black people.
Books and articles exploring the potential benefits of abortion in lowering crime rates also fuels mistrust. While critics laud the intellectual “courage” demonstrated by exploring the potential decrease in crime rates through an increase in black abortions, many cringe at the seemingly callous discussion of what is still not-so-distant black history.
That brings me back to my students and rumors that should not be ignored.
Charges that reproductive health service providers are conspiring to commit black genocide are a kind of intellectual mold that flourishes in the absence of the facts. Either by design or circumstance, legislation seeking to restrict access to clinics and end educational outreach programs often acts in concert with campaigns like The Genocide Awareness Project to cultivate fear of abortion providers and resentment. Constant harassment by anti-choice groups and the very real threat of violence also prevent clinics from being visible within the communities they serve, exacerbating the sense that they are not true partners and perpetuating mistrust.
Reproductive health service providers and pro-choice volunteers must continue our outreach into communities of color to prevent such claims from being accepted as the truth. In keeping with that goal, the history of eugenics and sterilization abuse in America requires that claims like those of black genocide made against reproductive service providers not be met with casual disregard. Such claims must be challenged head on even as we acknowledge a tragic history and work to insure that such acts never happen again.