Redlining as a Product of the Racist/Classist Pseudoscience of Eugenics

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Image Credit: Andrew Kuchling

Between 1929 and 1974, according to the Associated Press, 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized in a state-sponsored eugenics program. The victims of this governmental action were considered “feebleminded” and deemed “undesirable,” at least in terms of potential reproduction. In 2002, the then-governor of North Carolina, Mike Easley, apologized for the state-sponsored eugenics effort. As of last year, North Carolina became the first state with a history of state-sponsored eugenics to compensate surviving victims, 220 of whom received payments of $20,000 each. In this year’s state budget, each victim will receive an additional $15,000 payment.

The forcibly sterilized victims of this program were typically poor and primarily black. Given the years that have passed, most of them are no longer alive to collect their compensation as victims directly. “They should have already paid the victims,” Elnora Mills of Brunswick County, North Carolina, herself sterilized by an order of the North Carolina Eugenics board, told Raleigh’s WECT. “It bothers me. I will never forgive the state for what they did to me. My heart goes out to all of the other victims.”

Joining former governor Easely, current governor Pat McCrory also expressed contrition for the state’s behavior. WECT reported that McCrory sent a letter along with the first checks in 2014, telling the recipients, “This payment cannot compensate for the suffering you have endured as a result of the North Carolina Eugenics Board Program, but I hope you find some solace that this payment acknowledges that the actions of the eugenics board were wrong.”

State-sponsored eugenics wasn’t and isn’t a partisan political issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. Easely was a Democrat; McCrory is a Republican. In a recent op-ed, North Carolina’s Republican senator Thom Tillis, a prime advocate for the compensation payments, described some of the horror of the state’s forced sterilization policy:

In 1947, 14-year-old Willis Lynch of Littleton was asked by a nurse to sing a song as she placed a mask over his face. Lynch unknowingly inhaled an anesthetic, and then underwent a vasectomy procedure without his consent. The forced sterilization was ordered by the state of North Carolina, which had deemed Lynch “feeble-minded” and unfit to produce children.

Lynch, one of seven children of a widowed mother, was sent to a reform school three years earlier because of his propensity to get into fights with classmates. The state of North Carolina quickly targeted Lynch for sterilization and received his mother’s consent only after indicating his return to the family was contingent on her signature, going so far as to threaten to cut off the welfare payments she needed to care for her children.

Contrary to the declaration of the state, Willis Lynch is far from feeble-minded. As an adult, he would go on to serve our nation in the U.S. Army and become a pillar of his community, where he can often be seen and heard at his local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall showcasing his impressive singing and guitar-playing talents.

In the U.S. Senate, Tillis has been joined by Republican colleague Richard Burr, also of North Carolina, and three Democratic Senators, Tom Carper of Delaware and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both representing Virginia, to introduce legislation to exclude state compensation payments for eugenics from calculating federal benefits eligibility and payment levels.

To North Carolina’s credit, it has apologized and tried to compensate for its eugenics program. Sadly, the major American charities and foundations with histories of supporting the research for eugenics—or even financing eugenics programs—appear to have avoided taking responsibility for their roles in this movement of scientific racism. While it’s debatable how intentionally or unwittingly they were engaged in supporting eugenics programs of quite heinous dimensions, the histories of these institutions are now quite well known.

The Rockefeller Foundation funded German research institutions in the 1930s, some employing well known and future Nazis such as Ernst Rüdin and Josef Mengele, while the Carnegie Institution, founded by Andrew Carnegie, provided support for eugenicists for decades. The Hudson Institute’s William Schambra adds other foundations to the list of general-purpose foundations that granted philanthropic credibility and capital to the eugenics movement, including the Carnegie Corporation. He has noted in several articles that the foundations that provided support to the eugenics movement, spawning state-sponsored sterilization programs from Virginia to California, have never apologized for their actions, much less provided compensation for their roles.

There is another dimension to eugenics, not simply the forced sterilizations imposed on the poor and minorities, which requires consideration of victims beyond individuals like Willis Lynch and Elnora Mills who were subjected to this treatment. The damage of eugenics may have been much broader, more societal, and oddly, still having its effects today.

In its heyday, some thought of eugenics as a means to stem crime, prostitution, and other social ills by preventing the feebleminded from having children. At the Maryland Reinvestment Summit in Baltimore on Monday, Morgan State University assistant professor Lawrence Brown pointed out that the federal policy of redlining—that is, the drawing of maps by the Federal Housing Administration and its predecessor, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, to identify areas where loans should not be made by coloring them in red—explicitly drew on the pseudo-science of eugenics. Studies of several cities’ redlining policies and color-coded maps, including Asheville, North Carolina’s and Baltimore’s, point to the explicit eugenics-based thinking behind the redlining theories that deemed some neighborhoods, or rather the inhabitants of some neighborhoods, as undesirables.

Journalist Antero Pietila and others, such as Hamline law school’s Mary Szto, provide detailed discussion of the mutually reinforcing impacts of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and the theories of residential redlining (as well as racially restrictive property covenants) endorsed and implemented by government authorities such as HOLC and the FHA. Governmental support for restrictive covenants and mortgage redlining practices had many links to eugenics. For example, Whet Moser described the overlapping development of real estate finance and eugenics in the real estate economics work of a number of people who influenced Homer Hoyt, who in 1934 became the Federal Housing Administration’s “Principal Housing Economist”:

In 1924, Nathan William MacChesney, chief council of the Chicago-based National Association of Real Estate Boards, enforced residential segregation in the NAREB’s professional code of ethics, which prevented agents from “introducing into a neighborhood…members of any race or nationality…whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

MacChesney had “the halo of scientific endorsement,” as Nightingale writes, from Richard T. Ely, the prominent University of Wisconsin (and later Northwestern) economist, founder of the American Economic Association and director of the Institute for Research on Land Economics and Public Utilities. Both men “flirted openly with Social Darwinism and eugenics.” And both turned Chicago into a hub of legal and economic theories bolstering segregation.

MacChesney wrote the infamous “Standard Form, Restrictive Covenant,” which immediately spread throughout the city. One of Ely’s protégés, Frederick Babcock, a property appraiser in his father’s Chicago firm, wrote The Appraisal of Real Estate for Ely’s institute, blending racial theory into the science of home values. A decade later, in 1934, Babcock became the chief appraiser for the new Federal Housing Administration, introducing the ideas in the NAREB circle to federal lending: “The FHA’s underwriting standards, from their earliest incarnations, were premised on the unshakable belief handed down from the work of Fredrick Babcock and Homer Hoyt [a University of Chicago real-estate economist] that racial integration structurally leads to the decline in housing values.”

Hoyt famously introduced to the FHA the methodology of mapping neighborhoods for their investment desirability, with the red shading for those to be avoided because of racial or other characteristics of the inhabitants. Following Hoyt’s theories, Gregory Squires observes that “until the 1960s the FHA insured the financing of many homes in white suburban areas while providing virtually no mortgage insurance in the urban markets where minorities lived.”

It isn’t hard to see from the official redlining maps of cities used by HOLC and the FHA that the patterns of redlining are not different from many of today’s areas where redlining still persists, despite laws prohibiting redlining. Consider these HOLC maps of Baltimore and Birmingham as two examples of redlining neighborhoods and, in a eugenics sense, redlining people deemed to be undesirables:


Through its own lending, the FHA has been making all kinds of amends for its history of cutting black home-purchasers out of access to government-insured mortgages. It would be difficult to imagine that the progressive administrators and staff of foundations such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others suggest that eugenics as it showed up in American real estate finance has been anything but a crime perpetuated on low-income and minority neighborhoods and their residents. They certainly wouldn’t be likely to believe any of the claptrap of this pernicious form of “scientific racism.”

No one, however, should imagine that the eugenics hasn’t spawned successor ideas that have infiltrated into the public’s consciousness even now. Polls suggest that surprising numbers of whites believe that the explanations behind racial inequity are the personal behaviors and genetic limitations of black people, not structural issues and policies. There are studies that have revived eugenics thinking as applied to immigration reform, that potential immigrants should be selected based on IQ and other more “desirable” characteristics so that they would not be a “burden” on society and on taxpayers, not a big leap from that to the innuendo and more of Donald Trump that Mexican immigrants are infiltrated (a favorite word of eugenicists and redliners) with “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

There may be surviving individuals in North Carolina and other states who deserve compensation for the forced sterilization they suffered in state-sponsored eugenics programs. However, the legacy of eugenics in depriving neighborhoods across the country of needed capital for homeownership and neighborhood improvement affected multitudes and sadly continues with the persistence and upswing of redlining today.—Rick Cohen

  • Diane

    How carefully you avoided mentioning that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and a woman widely credited as being a “hero” to many misguided, was a strong believer in eugenics and founded PP to accomplish that goal; but managed to get in a shot at Rockefeller foundation and Carnegie foundation