Commentary Race

How False Narratives of Margaret Sanger Are Being Used to Shame Black Women

Imani Gandy

Anti-choicers wield misattributed and often outright false quotes about Sanger as weapons to shame Black women for exercising their right to choose, and even more nonsensically, to shame them for supporting Planned Parenthood.

In the wake of the attacks by the Center for Medical Progress, Planned Parenthood’s origins and its founder, Margaret Sanger, have once again become the center of conversations regarding Black women and abortion. And since anti-choice fanatics seem utterly incapable of making an honest argument in support of their position that Black women should be forced into childbirth rather than permitted to make their own decisions about what to do with their bodies, they resort to lies, misinformation, and half-truths about Sanger and the organization she founded.

Anti-choicers wield misattributed and often outright false quotes about Sanger as weapons to shame Black women for exercising their right to choose, and even more nonsensically, to shame them for supporting Planned Parenthood.

“Margaret Sanger was a racist and a eugenicist! She wanted to exterminate the Black race!” Such is the clarion call of these anti-choicers.

At the outset, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that whether or not Planned Parenthood had its roots in anti-Blackness is irrelevant in a discussion of the services that Planned Parenthood provides in 2015, ranging from abortion care to prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, to Pap smears and other forms of cancer screening. The United States is rooted in anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness was built into the U.S. Constitution by this country’s Founding Fathers. Nearly every major corporation that exists today was either founded by racists, employed racists, built their business on anti-Blackness and slavery, or all of the above. Any argument that Black women in America should disavow Planned Parenthood because of some history of anti-Blackness would necessarily require that Black women disavow the very country in which we live.

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But on to the truth about Margaret Sanger.

Sanger was pro-birth control and anti-abortion. This may surprise you, considering that Planned Parenthood opponents frequently accuse Sanger of erecting abortion clinics in Black neighborhoods, a practice they claim the organization continues to this day.

But this is simply not true.

Sanger opposed abortion. She believed it to be a barbaric practice. In her own words, “[a]lthough abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious.” Her views are, ironically, in keeping with the views of many of the anti-choicers who malign and distort her legacy.

In fact, Planned Parenthood did not even begin performing abortions until after 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade legalized the practice. Margaret Sanger had been dead for four years by then. And currently, less than 4 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics that offer abortion services are located in communities where more than one-third of the population is Black, according to a recent analysis conducted by Planned Parenthood that Alencia Johnson, assistant director of constituency communications at Planned Parenthood, shared with me via email. A broader analysis conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2011 based on data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that fewer than one in ten abortion providers overall are located in neighborhoods where more than half of residents are Black. It is simply false that Planned Parenthood is targeting Black women by setting up clinics primarily in Black neighborhoods.

It is true that Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, and pro-choice advocates do themselves no favors by attempting to whitewash this fact and paint Sanger as some infallible feminist hero. Sanger was passionate about contraception—perhaps to a fault—and her fervor about promoting her birth control agenda led her to align herself with eugenicists, along with racists and an assortment of people of questionable character.

But it is simply untrue that Margaret Sanger wanted to exterminate the Black race. This is a flat-out lie. Yet it is one that is repeated ad nauseum, both by anti-choice activists and the politicians who support them, most recently Ben Carson.

In propagating this lie, anti-choicers infantilize Black women and strip them of their agency: They portray Margaret Sanger’s birth control agenda as something that was done to Black women, rather than something in which Black women and much of the Black community as a whole enthusiastically participated.

The Negro Project

In her seminal book Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts points out that leaders in the Black community actually welcomed Sanger’s birth control agenda in the 1930s, and even criticized it for not going far enough to serve Black people.

W. E. B. Du Bois, who was one of the first Black leaders to publicly support birth control and who worked closely with Sanger to advocate for it, even serving on the board of a clinic that Sanger opened up in Harlem, criticized the wider birth control movement because of its failure to address Black people’s needs as well.

It was this failure that gave birth to the sinister-sounding Negro Project.

Due to segregation policies in the South, the birth control clinics that opened in the 1930s were for white women only. Sanger wanted to change that. She sought to open clinics in the South staffed by Black doctors and nurses, and to educate Black women about contraception. In 1939, after she had been named honorary chairman of the board of Birth Control Federation of America (the precursor to Planned Parenthood), Sanger launched the Negro Project. The Federation’s Division of Negro Services, a national advisory council, which included prominent Black leaders like Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, E. Franklin Frazier, Walter White, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, worked to manage the Negro Project.

The Negro Project had nothing to do with some nefarious plot to exterminate Black people or to “sterilize unknowing Black women,” as claimed by BlackGenocide.org—which is a widely read website seemingly dedicated to spreading false information about Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Rather, the Negro Project was a concerted effort by Sanger and Black community leaders to bring birth control to the South in a way that would assuage the deep-seated fears of Black birth control opponents like Marcus Garvey, who believed that the use of birth control in the Black community was tantamount to Black genocide.

Many opponents of Planned Parenthood purposefully obfuscate this history in order to paint Sanger, and in turn Planned Parenthood itself, as spearheading a plot to kill off Black people. Anti-choice fanatics typically rely on two quotes as their bread and butter in this claim, even as they use Black women as weapons in their war against abortion. It’s high time to set the record straight.

The first is a Sanger quote in which she defends the Negro Project in seemingly racist language: “The mass of Negroes particularly in the South still breed carelessly.”

The second quote can be found in Sanger’s infamous letter to Clarence J. Gamble: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

The first quote, even when read in full and in context, certainly sounds damning:

The mass of Negroes particularly in the South still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children possibly.

But what anti-choicers either don’t know or willfully obscure is that Sanger borrowed this quote directly from W. E. B. Du Bois.

Du Bois was a passionate advocate of civil rights and a defender of Black women, specifically. He also publicly supported birth control. Nevertheless, as Dorothy Roberts wrote, “Du Bois and other prominent Blacks were not immune from the elitist thinking of their time. As reflected in Du Bois’s statement borrowed by Sanger to promote the Negro Project, they sometimes advocated birth control for poorer segments of their own race in terms painfully similar to eugenic rhetoric.”

Does the fact that Sanger borrowed the quote from Du Bois excuse her actions? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly provides some much-needed context.

The second quote, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” might be Planned Parenthood opponents’ favorite. It is culled from a 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune, and is even more damning than the borrowed Du Bois quote—if you ignore the context in which it was written, that is.

That context wasn’t about hiding the “true exterminatory purpose” of the Negro Project from Black people. Rather, it was about elucidating the true purpose of the project—disseminating birth control in Black communities in the South—and training Black doctors to work within their own communities:

It seems to me from my experience where I have been in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts. They do not do this with the white people and if we can train the Negro doctor at the Clinic he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results among the colored people. His work in my opinion should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.

The minister’s work is also important and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

A related memo written by Dr. Gamble in 1939 clarifies the point:

There is great danger that we [the Negro Project] will fail because the Negroes think it a plan for extermination. Hence let’s appear to let the colored run it.

Sanger’s full quote in context has the exact opposite meaning that anti-choicers like to attribute to it.

Moreover, Sanger also held some rather forward-thinking views about the oppression of Black people, especially for a white feminist in the early 20th century. In an oft-ignored interview with Earl Conrad for the Chicago Defender in 1945, Sanger said:

Discrimination is a world-wide thing. It has to be opposed everywhere. That is why I feel the Negro’s plight here is linked with that of the oppressed around the globe.

The big answer, as I see it, is the education of the white man. The white man is the problem. It is the same as with the Nazis. We must change the white attitudes. That is where it lies.

In that same article, Sanger described an encounter with an “anti-Negro white man”:

When we first started out an anti-Negro white man offered me $10,000 if I started in Harlem first. His idea was simply to cut down the number of Negroes. ‘Spread it as far as you can among them,’ he said. That is, of course, not our idea. I turned him down. But that is an example of how vicious some people can be about this thing.

Not exactly the words of a woman hell-bent on exterminating Black people, are they?

It is undeniable that Sanger espoused some problematic and racist views about Black people. Certainly her paternalistic attitudes about Black people’s ability to disseminate information about birth control in their own community—along with Sanger’s view that, as Dorothy Roberts wrote, “many Blacks were too ignorant and superstitious to use contraceptives on their own”—were indubitably racist. And although you’d be hard-pressed to find any white person at the time who was completely free of racist thinking, and some of her problematic views echoed the views of prominent Black leaders, that still doesn’t absolve her.

But as Jay Smooth pointed out in his viral video How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist, there’s a difference between being a racist and making racist remarks. Margaret Sanger, without question, made a lot of racist remarks. But was she a capital-R racist? I don’t think so, and that’s a question on which the answer scholars like Dorothy Roberts, Linda Gordon, Carole McCann, and others have been unable to agree.

The truth about Sanger and her birth control crusade is far more complex, and requires a nuanced discussion of the type that your average anti-choice crusader is either incapable or unwilling to engage.

Sanger and Eugenics

Margaret Sanger held many abhorrent ideas about population control and eugenics, ideas that any decent person today would find horrifying.

Yes, she believed that the “reckless breeding” of the “feebleminded” was “the greatest biological menace to the future of civilization.” Yes, she believed that Americans were “paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” Yes she believed that “morons” should be forcibly sterilized to ensure that they could not breed. She also believed that these “morons” could not be trusted to properly use birth control. Frankly, Sanger was far more ableist than she was racist.

But she was also a product of her time. The terms “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” were all medical classifications back then. And eugenics—the theory that intelligence and other traits are genetically predetermined—was very popular at the turn of the century. The concern that “inferior stock” was reproducing at a faster rate than “superior stock,” was widespread. Inferior stock included anyone not viewed as a descendant of good breeding: Black people, immigrants, mentally and physically disabled people, the poor, criminals, and the “feebleminded.”

This widespread concern gave way to a panic about “race suicide,” which saw white people fretting about the deterioration of the race as a result of immigrants and Black people outbreeding good upstanding white Anglo-Saxon Americans. (Echoes of this fear exist today: white conservatives are still urging red-blooded patriotic Americans—i.e., white Americans—to breed, dammit, breed and the Quiverfull movement is very popular among Christian extremists.)

So strong was the fear of “race suicide” that even President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to shame white women of “superior stock,” also known as wealthy white women, into having more children. In his 1903 State of the Union address, Roosevelt proclaimed that “willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which there is no atonement.”

The flip side of shaming wealthy white women into reproducing more quickly was figuring out a way to keep the “inferior stock” from breeding, so that healthy and wealthy white women could catch up and forestall the deterioration of the race. The answer to that quandary was forced sterilization on a massive nationwide scale in order to keep “undesirable” people from procreating.

The principle targets of the programs included not only women of color (primarily Southern Black women, although California’s sterilization program targeted many Latina women), but also criminals, the poor, and any women—including white women—who were believed to be “feebleminded,” with feeblemindedness often corresponding to sexual promiscuity.

All of this is to say that concerns about population control weighed heavy on the minds of Americans in the early 20th century. Classes on eugenics were taught in colleges nationwide; eugenics was presented as scientific fact in biology textbooks; and the American Eugenics Society held “Fitter Families Contests” at state fairs throughout the 1920s, during which rural American families were encouraged to compete with one another to determine which family had the best “human stock.” Medals that read “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” were awarded to families that were deemed genetically favorable.

It may seem bizarre and Orwellian to us now, but that was the United States in which Sanger lived. And given the enthusiasm with which ordinary Americans embraced eugenics, it is no surprise that Sanger eventually joined up with them.

Sanger didn’t begin her campaign for birth control as a eugenicist, though. She started out as a relatively hardcore feminist. She believed that women had the right to sexual gratification and the right to choose when to become mothers.

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Those are Sanger’s own words.

But feminists at the time disapproved of Sanger’s insistence on women’s rights to sexual gratification. They largely believed that Sanger’s views were unchaste and immoral, and that a woman’s place was in the home, serving her husband and being virtuous. (Not unlike many anti-choicers today who believe that if you are unwilling to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, or as they like to call it “the consequences of sex,” then you should just abstain—forever, if necessary.)

And because Margaret Sanger was passionately committed to her birth control crusade, her fervor led her away from feminism and toward an allyship with racists and eugenicists. This included, as this favored anti-choice meme suggests, giving a speech at a KKK rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey, in 1926.

But before you recoil in abject horror, remember that the KKK was a powerful political movement at the time—five U.S. presidents were members of the KKK at one point or another—and if Sanger could convince the ladies of the KKK of the benefits of birth control, then it was worth it to her. That certainly doesn’t excuse her turning to this country’s most notorious domestic terrorist group for support (and personally, I find it deplorable) but there was no one whom Sanger wouldn’t talk to about birth control.

Certainly, many of the prominent eugenicists with whom Sanger worked were virulently racist. Their attraction to birth control was that it would lead to “racial betterment” if promoted in immigrant and Black communities, and Sanger was OK with that.

Sanger herself promoted birth control as a way to reduce the birth rate of undesirable classes—“morons” and such—but the fact that many eugenicists viewed Black people as an undesirable class didn’t seem to bother her. In other words, so long as eugenicists continued to disseminate information about birth control, she didn’t appear to care about their reasons for doing so. (Notably, many prominent eugenicists at the time didn’t believe that all Black people were unfit, but rather they believed in “selective migration”—that the intelligent and desirable Black people tended to migrate to the North, leaving the less intelligent Black people behind.)

Some scholars have called her allyship a savvy political move. It enabled her to couch her birth control agenda in terms that the “race suicide” fearmongerers could understand. Other scholars view it as racist.

Whether or not she was a capital-R racist is ultimately of little concern, because as Dorothy Roberts points out, her allyship with eugenicists facilitated the goals of eugenicists, and that is something that the reproductive rights community should never gloss over:

It appears that Sanger was motivated by a genuine concern to improve the health of the poor mothers she served rather than a desire to eliminate their stock. Sanger believed that all their afflictions arose from their unrestrained fertility, not their genes or racial heritage … Sanger nevertheless promoted two of the most perverse tenets of eugenic thinking: that social problems are caused by reproduction of the socially disadvantaged and that their childbearing should therefore be deterred. In a society marked by racial hierarchy, these principles inevitably produced policies designed to reduce Black women’s fertility.

Alas, such nuanced arguments are not suitable for the 140-character soundbite world in which the abortion wars are currently being waged.

Ultimately, Margaret Sanger was a complicated woman living in a complicated time.

But to hear anti-choice zealots tell it, she was the American version of Hitler, proposing a “final solution” to the “Black question.” This is nonsense.

Anti-choicers also like to claim that Sanger was closely associated with the eugenics program in Nazi Germany. While she may be loosely associated with the program, in the same way that every American who promoted eugenics was loosely associated with the Nazis, the Nazis specifically modeled their eugenics laws on California’s sterilization law, not on Sanger’s beliefs or writings. The United States, after all, led the world in compulsory sterilization until Hitler took up the practice.

In 1927, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law was constitutional in Buck v. Bell, a stunningly awful decision in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough.” That decision set the stage for state after state to enact compulsory sterilization laws. By the time the Nazis embarked on their eugenics program, more than 30 states had such laws on their books. It wasn’t Sanger personally who influenced the Nazis. It was the United States as a whole.

In fact, the Nazis were not fans of Sanger. They even burned her books, as Gerald V. O’Brien points out in his article, “Margaret Sanger and the Nazis: How Many Degrees of Separation.” Moreover, as Amita Kelly writing for NPR recently pointed out, “Sanger herself wrote in 1939 that she had joined the Anti-Nazi Committee ‘and gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.’”

Undoubtedly, Sanger held a lot of beliefs that are repugnant to us now.

But that doesn’t mean supporters of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights activists shouldn’t push back on the abject falsehoods that anti-choicers spread about Planned Parenthood and its founder while at the same time reckoning with Sanger’s more deplorable beliefs.

We can do both. We must do both.

CORRECTION: The article has been updated to clarify the number of years between Margaret Sanger’s death and when the first Planned Parenthood had begun offering abortions.

Q & A Sexuality

White Southern Girlhood and Eugenics: A Talk With Historian Karin Zipf

Tina Vasquez

The same white supremacy that declared Black men and women to be hypersexual also subjected troubled or abused white girls to incarceration and state-sponsored sterilizations to make sure the teens did not pass on "bad" genes and "ruin the race."

From 1929 to the mid-1970s, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people in the nation’s most aggressive program of its kind. It was all in the name of eugenics, a coin termed by Francis Galton to describe efforts to “improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” The program stopped as opinions began to shift surrounding eugenics—and lawsuits were filed against North Carolina’s Eugenics Board on behalf of those who had been sterilized—but 30 states participated in similar ones targeting a wide range of people, including people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.

Seventy-seven percent of all those sterilized in North Carolina were women; about 2,000 were people 18 and younger. Before the 1960s—when Black people became the majority of those sterilized—poor, rural white girls were the primary targets of authorities and women reformers. Girls were punished for engaging in so-called “deviant” behaviors, such as sexual activity or crossing racial lines in their romantic interests. Poor white girls who were sexually abused were also criminalized, labeled “feeble-minded,” and institutionalized.

This is the history explored by East Carolina University professor Karin Zipf in her new book, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory. Samarcand Manor, North Carolina’s “industrial school” for girls, was a juvenile facility designed to keep troubled girls “in line.” In reality, this whites-only institution in the town of Eagle Springs was a violent place where courts, social workers, and parents committed young white girls for not adhering to social norms or the rules of white supremacy.

Founded in 1918, the institution began sterilizing girls after 16 girls set fire to two Samarcand dormitories in 1931. Officials believed that sterilizing the girls by tubal ligation would stop them from passing on “defective” genes. Though the justifications for the so-called treatments varied among groups in power, the prescription remained the same. Hundreds of girls and young women suffered forced sterilizations before the state sterilization program ended. Samarcand closed in 2011, but it was reborn as a new law enforcement training facility in 2015.

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Author Zipf spoke to Rewire about early 20th-century eugenics beliefs, the dangers of Southern white womanhood, and Samarcand Manor’s legacy.

Rewire: How do you remember first hearing about Samarcand Manor?

Karin Zipf: There were about two or three articles that came out in the late ’90s on institutions, [which] referenced the arson case at Samarcand where the girls burned down their dormitories. The girls at Samarcand were arrested on arson, which at the time could result in a death penalty charge. [The charges were reduced, and some of the girls were incarcerated.] So, historians knew of this case, but few had written on it. One book that was particularly interesting to me is by a historian named Susan Cahn—I have to shout out to her. Her book, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age, was really inspiring. She wrote one chapter on the fire.

Rewire: What were some of the challenges of tackling Samarcand’s history?

KZ: The research was challenging. I didn’t have any oral history to rely on because everyone I might have interviewed was deceased. State restrictions were hard to get around because we’re dealing with sensitive information here and generally, health records are closed to the public too. It’s a double-edged sword because obviously, policies are put in place to protect people’s privacy. But on the other hand, it makes it very difficult for researchers to go in and see how the state treats children.

Rewire: Often when we talk about white supremacy, the focus is how it affects people of color. But it was very interesting to explore how white supremacy affects white girls and women in particular. In some ways, is Samarcand is a direct result of white supremacy and wanting young girls to conform to feminine representations of it?

KZ: This is what I find to be the real topic here. I teach and research U.S. Southern history, so race is obviously a very important part of that. When I learned this was an institution only for white girls, I knew white supremacy was central to the story, especially because I knew that African-American girls in need at the same time were literally left on the street.

The state and upper-class women reformers believed these young white girls to have fallen from some sort of grace by becoming [sex workers] or choosing sexually active lifestyles. Reformers—those who pushed for the [initial] creation of Samarcand—believed that when [a white girl] falls from grace, she can get back up again. If you were a white girl, it was their job to help you get back up again.

At this same time, there was a white supremacy movement that was impacting how eugenics was viewed. … This wasn’t just in North Carolina, of course, but here eugenics beliefs were on the upswing, especially this idea that there were genetic defects that caused differences in society. Eugenicists believed genetic defects caused poverty, promiscuity, delinquency, etc.

There were people at the time who called themselves mental hygienists, who had a different understanding of womanhood than the Victorian reformers who saw “fallen” girls as disgraced. For example, they saw sexuality as a positive thing, provided it occurred within the confines of marriage. They believed women had sexual desires, that they were sexual beings, but that girls who were “mentally defective”—as they called it—gravitated to promiscuity or delinquency.

Victorian reformers and mental hygienists expressed two different attitudes about womanhood, but both were informed by constructions of whiteness and how that should look or be defined. Mental hygienists believed these girls had become so impoverished, they could not be saved. [Their behavior] was believed to be a genetic impurity that was going to spoil the white race, so they needed to be institutionalized and segregated from society at places like Samarcand—and this often also meant being sterilized.

Rewire: Some of the most interesting areas of your book delved into the historical meaning of Southern white womanhood and how this particular racist brand of womanhood deeply influenced eugenic science, especially in North Carolina. Talk to me about that.

KZ: The concept of Southern white womanhood is very much a multitiered system defined by race and sexuality. White men are at the top, they’re the top tier. They are seen as the protectors, and they are seen as the breadwinners. They believe themselves to be providing law and order, especially when it comes to race.

Next are white women, who are seen as chaste, virtuous, passive, obedient, domestic, and motherly. If they do enter into the public arena, it’s for the purpose of “public housekeeping,” [such as social work and advocacy for children].

Southern white womanhood rests on this ideal these young girls could not really meet. These were girls from the very bottom of the white social ladder; they were in abject poverty. These girls were out in the street hanging out with all kinds of people; they weren’t at home doing domestic chores. The big fear was that these girls were going to have children with Black men. White supremacists saw these girls’ lifestyles as the worst-case scenario for white supremacy; they believed these white girls were going to spoil the race by having children with men of color. This is why these girls were so strictly policed, perhaps more than other demographic group.

African-American men occupy the third tier. According to white supremacist beliefs, African-American men are aggressive. If you look at images from this time, they’re really horrible. Black men are portrayed as beastly, as predators, and what they want is access to white women. I strongly believe that so much of what Jim Crow was about was to separate Black men from white women.

In this system, Black women are at the bottom. They are seen as the opposite of pure, virtuous white women. The word often used at the time was “lascivious,” and African-American women were often referred to as “Jezebels.” The reason why reform efforts were focused on white girls is because white reformers assumed that Black girls and girls of color couldn’t be saved.

Rewire: I assumed that the way we put white womanhood on a pedestal protects all white women, but your book is an example of how that’s not always the case. Upholding Southern white womanhood in particular is also harmful to certain kinds of white women. How much is class responsible for this?

KZ: Around the same time as the early days of Samarcand, there were a number of textile strikes, which [often] involved young women. Some of the girls at Samarcand were cotton mill workers or the children of cotton mill workers. Affluent whites already had negative associations with textile workers because of the strikes, so there’s already a sort of demonization of the working class—and this is part of our history we don’t talk about enough. There were strikes all over the South, but it’s a part of North Carolina history that’s almost been lost.

You have these girls who are wearing overalls with caps twisted backwards, and they’re protesting and yelling in the streets. Today, society views protesters as socially disruptive at best, but back then these young girls were seen as ruining the race.

Rewire: Your book has an entire chapter on Kate Burr Johnson, who is written about rather favorably in North Carolina history, even while promoting eugenics and white supremacist ideals as the first woman state commissioner of public welfare from 1921 to 1930. She emphasized the interplay of culture and biology, which was, at the time, a pretty common stance in the South among intellectuals. Why was this such a popular idea?

KZ: Eugenicists generally agreed with the idea that “cultural” characteristics like juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and poverty were passed through genes. The belief was that once those genes get into the line, there is no getting them out—and it didn’t matter what race you were.

But Southern eugenicists, such as Kate Burr Johnson, formulated a different theory to protect their belief in “white purity.” Southern eugenicists didn’t want to say that there was something in white people’s genetics that made them defective; that meant whites couldn’t be inherently superior. They had to get around that idea somehow, so Southern white eugenicists adopted a theory from a biologist named [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck, which said that genes can mutate based on the environment and then those mutated genes can be passed on and introduced into the DNA of offspring.

The way that Southern eugenicists were able to sidestep any contradictions poor whites posed to white supremacy was by explaining that some white people became impoverished, for example, and when their poverty continued for generation after generation, then that environment of poverty affected their genetic makeup. Kate Burr Johnson really believed that poor whites’ DNA became disfigured to the point that they lost their whiteness. Other eugenicists weren’t buying it, but the Southern eugenicists were trying to figure out a way to modify the eugenics argument in order to meet their need of carrying on this idea of the “purity” of the white race.

Rewire: The ableism of the time was also pretty extreme. Young girls who were sexually assaulted were deemed “mentally defective” or “feeble-minded.” How was ableism used to further stigmatize these girls?

KZ: That was a really hard part of this research, honestly. In some instances, we’re talking about girls as young as 10 years old, raped by their own fathers, yet they’re being labeled as “mentally defective.” These girls were forced to take IQ tests designed for 19-year-old World War I-era soldiers. When these girls failed the tests—especially those already labeled as promiscuous—they were classified as “feeble-minded.”

In my reading of these records, so many girls were clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after repeated sexual assaults—and no one thought to question what they’d been through. It created this added layer of discrimination against these girls. The injustice was so deep, and no one called what happened rape or incest or sexual assault. If it was acknowledged that there was a problem at home, rather than address the perpetrator, Samarcand became a place to send the girls who were victims of assault, effectively punishing them for something horrible that happened to them.

Rewire: Was Samarcand an example of how white womanhood is placed on a pedestal and the lengths people will go to uphold and protect this idealized version of white Southern womanhood, or is it more of an example of what happens to young women who don’t conform to very particular ideas of what womanhood should look like?

KZ: I think it’s both. White Southern womanhood is this ideal that so many were desperate to meet because it had huge implications for the preservation of the white race. They would do anything—including isolate, segregate, quarantine, and sterilize young white girls—just to uphold the ideal.

But ultimately what I’m really trying to talk about here is the fluidity of white supremacy. In the effort to defend the “purity of whiteness,” white supremacists often disagreed with one another about the mechanisms for doing so. “Whiteness” appeared to be a fixed category, but Victorian reformers and mental hygienists disagreed sharply on the treatment of poor white girls who did not meet the purity ideals. I hope this encourages more dialogue about the construction of whiteness and the dangers of it.

Rewire: Do you think any of the themes surrounding your book or any themes around Samarcand are present in today’s culture and how we view womanhood?

KZ: I think that our concerns today really revolve around the control of women’s reproductive choices. I hope we can think about the ways white supremacists in the past justified the control of women’s bodies. What we see today is another iteration of that.

Why do states invest so much in attempting to control women’s bodies, and for what reasons? What populations of women are most impacted? These are important questions. Why does the state enforce laws to control women’s sexuality? We see it all the time. We should know the motivations and justifications that people have used in the past to restrict women’s sexuality. The lessons of Samarcand hopefully will empower us to better understand our world today.

This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Campaign Says Glitch Led to Selection of White Nationalist Leader As Delegate

Ally Boguhn

The prominent white supremacist has since resigned. And on the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders registered their objections to the Obama administration's immigration raids.

A “database error” this week supposedly led Donald Trump’s campaign to select a white nationalist leader to its California delegate list, and the Democratic presidential candidates are speaking out about the Obama administration’s planned immigration raids.

Trump Campaign: Picking White Nationalist Who Wrote Book Calling For Deportation of All People of Color as Delegate was a “Database Error”

Trump’s campaign added William Johnson, leader of white nationalist group the American Freedom Party, to his California delegate list after a supposed computer glitch.

Johnson applied to the Trump campaign and was chosen from a list of the presumptive Republican nominee’s delegates submitted to the California secretary of state’s office. In California, presidential candidates choose Republican delegatesnot the party.

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Johnson, in an email to Mother Jones on Tuesday, confirmed that he had been chosen by the Trump campaign, expressing excitement about the opportunity. “I just hope to show how I can be mainstream and have these views,” Johnson told the publication. “I can be a white nationalist and be a strong supporter of Donald Trump and be a good example to everybody.”

Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks claimed that the inclusion of Williams was no more than a glitch after the campaign had rejected the white nationalist leader. “Yesterday the Trump campaign submitted its list of California delegates to be certified by the Secretary of State of California,” Hicks said in a statement to the Washington Post. “A database error led to the inclusion of a potential delegate that had been rejected and removed from the campaign’s list in February 2016.”

Johnson on Wednesday told the Associated Press he had resigned from his role as a delegate. “I was naive,” Johnson told AP about his application. “I thought people wouldn’t notice, and if they did notice I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

He noted that Trump’s policy positions lined up with those he supported.

“[Trump] wants to build the wall [along the border with Mexico]. He wants to cut off illegal immigration, and he wants to cut back on foreign trade, bring jobs back to America,” Johnson said. “We believe Donald Trump will help lead the country in a proper direction.”

Johnson gained notoriety as a self-identified “white nationalist” whose PAC, American National Super PAC, was responsible for robocalls this year in Iowa featuring another white nationalist, Jared Taylor. “I urge you to vote for Donald Trump because he is the one candidate who points out that we should accept immigrants who are good for America,” Taylor said in the robocall according to Talking Points Memo. “We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.”

Johnson wrote a book in 1985, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, calling “to deport all nonwhites as soon as possible” from the the United States:

In 1985, under the pseudonym James O. Pace, Johnson wrote the book Amendment to the Constitution: Averting the Decline and Fall of America. In it, he advocates the repeal of the 14th and 15th amendments and the deportation of almost all nonwhite citizens to other countries. Johnson further claimed that racial mixing and diversity caused social and cultural degeneration in the United States. He wrote: “We lose our effectiveness as leaders when no one relies on us or can trust us because of our nonwhite and fractionalized nature. … [R]acial diversity has given us strife and conflict and is enormously counterproductive.”

Johnson’s solution to this problem was to deport all nonwhites as soon as possible. Anybody with any “ascertainable trace of Negro blood” or more than one-eighth “Mongolian, Asian, Asia Minor, Middle Eastern, Semitic, Near Eastern, American Indian, Malay or other non-European or non-white blood” would be deported under the Pace Amendment.

As late as Monday, Trump’s campaign had expressed confidence about their delegate selection before controversy broke out over the addition of Williams. “We believe that our delegation represents the economic and grassroots community diversity of California. We feel very good about it,” Tim Clark, Trump’s California strategist, told the Sacramento Bee that day.

The campaign reportedly corresponded with Johnson on Monday.

Other notable figures selected as delegates for Trump include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal.   

Democratic Presidential Candidates Speak Out Against Obama Administration’s Immigration Raids

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), condemned the Obama administration’s coming immigration raids after news broke this week of an upcoming sweep.

U.S. immigration officials will conduct a monthlong series of deportation raids targeting undocumented families from Central America, Reuters reported on Thursday, in what will likely be “the largest deportation sweep targeting immigrant families” by the Obama administration this year.

“I oppose the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families who have fled horrendous violence in Central America and other countries. Sending these people back into harm’s way is wrong,” Sanders said in a statement posted to his campaign’s website Thursday. “I urge President Obama to use his executive authority to protect families by extending Temporary Protective Status for those who fled from Central America.”

Clinton said she was “against large scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities” and that “we should not be taking kids and families from their homes in the middle of the night.”

The candidates have spoken out against the Obama administration’s ongoing raids, showing particular concern for the deportation of children. Advocates, however, say that the presidential candidates have not done enough to tackle the issue.

What Else We’re Reading

Priests for Life President Frank Pavone compared the presidential election to a choice between killing ten people and killing 100 people. 

Clinton proposed allowing “people 55 or 50 and up” buy in to Medicare.

Trump supporter Sarah Palin spoke out against Trump’s assertion that he would change the GOP’s abortion platform while speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “I don’t want the platform to change,” said Palin, adding that she “respect[s] the “culture of life that will be built upon the pro-life views the majority of Republicans hold.” 

The Nation’s Ari Berman wrote that “voter suppression is the only way Donald Trump can win” the White House.

Leaders from extremist groups such as the Family Research Council, National Right to Life, and the National Organization for Marriage are reportedly still unsure about whether they will back Trump now that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has left the race for the Republican nomination.

The Washington Post examined how the rise of Donald Trump may jeopardize the Congressional seats of other Republicans running down the ballot. One of those legislators could be Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) who notoriously introduced the failed “Blunt Amendment” to exempt any employer with a moral objection from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Former KKK leader David Duke tweeted that Donald Trump should ask him to join his ticket as vice president, claiming the move would be good “life insurance.”

Minnesota Republicans endorsed a candidate for the state’s 2nd congressional district seat who once claimed that women are “simply ignorant … of the important issues in life” because they are concerned about their reproductive health.

Don’t miss The Black Belt, a short film from the Intercept. It highlights voting rights in Alabama—which requires a photo ID at the polls—after the state closed 31 DMV locations that were primarily located in communities with large Black populations.