Racial Eugenics


North Carolina forcibly sterilized Elaine Riddick after she was raped and became pregnant at 14. (AP Photo/Jim R. Bounds) (110622040209)

In the 1920s, many states authorized forced sterilization of thousands of “undesirable citizens” – people with disabilities, prisoners, and racial minorities – on the theory that, as the U.S. Supreme Court put it in upholding Virginia’s forced sterilization law in 1927, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” American proponents of Eugenics, a scientific movement to “improve” the genetic composition of the human population, soon accelerated sterilization programs, which served as a model for Nazi programs implemented during the Holocaust.

American sterilization laws were also used as a tool of racialized population control. From the 1920s to 1970s, thousands of poor, Southern Black women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent. Most states abandoned eugenics programs after World War II, but sterilization increased in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, coinciding with growing Black political power, mandatory integration, and the civil rights movement. Some states continued to sterilize into the 1970s.

Though this history is largely unknown, compulsory programs sterilized an estimated 65,000 individuals in more than 30 states, and the number is likely much higher. In 2012, North Carolina became one of a handful of states to acknowledge this shameful history when it formally apologized and offered compensation to surviving victims of its 40-year sterilization program, four decades after its end.