Order of Multitudes

Dismantling Legacies of Race Science: Conversation with Ayah Nuriddin

Ayah Nuriddin is a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow with the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. She has a Ph.D. in the History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University, and also holds an M.A. in History and an M.L.S. from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her current book project, entitled “Seed and Soil: Black Eugenic Thought in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” examines the complex and often paradoxical ways in which African Americans imagined the utility of racial science and eugenics for challenging scientific racism and advocating for racial equality. It will also trace how the ongoing legacies of racial science shape African American articulations of racial formation and health disparities. Dr. Nuriddin is currently teaching a course on the history of anti-Black racism, built from a syllabus she recently co-authored with Antoine Johnson and Elise Mitchell for Black Perspectives. In this interview we discussed Dr. Nuriddin’s research, including the ongoing impacts of the history of eugenics in the era of Covid.

Sarah Pickman: Can you talk about how you developed your current research project? Was there a particular archive or historical episode that jump-started your thinking about the relationship between eugenics and hereditarianism and Black activism in the long nineteenth century?

Ayah Nuriddin: It started when I was an undergrad. My mom works at the Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University, so as a teenager and all through college I worked there during the summer, shelving books. Really, though, I ended up reading the books as I worked—things like Dan Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenicsand Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid. I had to write a history thesis for my undergraduate degree and I knew I wanted to do something on bioethics, because I’d been reading all of these books. In Medical Apartheid Washington used a phrase like “black proponents of eugenics” almost in passing and I thought to myself, There’s no way there are Black proponents of eugenics. My entire career from then on has been spent trying to get to the bottom of what it means to be a Black proponent of eugenics.

Since then, I’ve consistently researched historical Black newspapers. One thing that’s carried through from my undergraduate thesis to my dissertation is an interest in how eugenic ideas—heredity, who is “fit” and who is “unfit”—carry into the Black press and are part of a broader Black popular culture. What do regular people understand the stakes of eugenics to be? My project has evolved from not just looking at discourses around the eugenics movement in its heyday in the early twentieth century, but also some of the afterlives of eugenics and the ways that Black people continue to  talk about race as a biological category. The phrase that I use to describe this is “race without racism.” For the historical Black actors I study, they imagine that even if there is something that exists as biological race, it doesn’t necessitate racism. It’s not really legible in terms of how we think about race now, but it completely made sense to the folks that I look at. Their attitude was that human races are different but that doesn’t mean there should be racism—racial difference doesn’t justify racist laws or one race being forced to sit at the back of the bus, for example.

Sarah Pickman: Can you elaborate on how the Black actors you study engaged with theories of race science and eugenics as part of a struggle for racial justice? I think many readers—including many historians—would be surprised to learn that there were Black eugenicists, when eugenics has been so associated with racist white figures like Charles Davenport or Francis Galton.

Ayah Nuriddin: This is a question that connects very well to conversations about big data because with the actors I look at, there’s a strand of folks, including Black physicians and scientists, especially physical anthropologists, who think that there’s an objective way to do eugenics, and to do it effectively means to do it without racism. And one of the things these folks do is level critiques at white eugenicists like Charles Davenport, saying things like, Well, he’s too ideological, too dogmatic—he can’t do eugenics objectively because he’s so racist. And my actors have this idea of an objective, data-driven eugenics. They believed that if one tried to objectively develop metrics of “unfitness,” without racial bias, then one could address those things effectively.

This is all very different from how people usually imagine eugenics today. There’s a pervasive belief now that eugenics means forced sterilization and Nazi science. But historically, many eugenicists imagined it as a public health tool. They imagined that the right environmental conditions could have a biological effect on people, that they would make future generations “better,” stronger and healthier. So they’re arguing that people need better healthcare, better housing conditions, better sanitation, better education in order to have a biological impact on future generations of people. These actors are also arguing for things like legal control over reproduction, the kinds of things that today we think of as deeply eugenic. But in the early twentieth century, Black eugenicists, like white eugenicists, are also thinking broadly about the kinds of tools that can be used to “improve” their race.

Of course, within the Black community this framing of eugenics is embedded within a particular set of Black politics about classism and racial uplift, which is of course problematic. Rather than viewing entire races as being unfit, Black eugenicists are saying, well, every race has unfit members; just like the white race has unfit members, ours does too, and how can we address this? The Black physicians who are making these arguments aren’t talking about themselves as members of this unfit group, of course. They believe themselves to be uplifted; they’ve gone to medical school and live upper middle-class lives, and they see themselves in opposition to rural poor sharecroppers whom they believe need to be uplifted, not only in a social and moral sense, but also in a biological sense. They really do believe that there’s a right way and a wrong (racist) way to do eugenics, but if the right people are sterilized, then we can use this science in the service of humanity.

Sarah Pickman: Where do you your historical actors tend to cluster—at particular institutions or professional organizations?

Ayah Nuriddin: They tended to cluster around elite Black institutions like Howard University, Tuskegee University, and Meharry Medical College—which are, of course, institutions that exist because of segregation. They also congregate through professional organizations. The American Medical Association didn’t allow black members until the 1960s. Black physicians would meet through a separate organization, the National Medical Association, and eugenics researchers would find each other at their conferences. Or they’d be among the few Black delegates allowed to go to the big eugenic congresses alongside mostly white delegates. One person I’ve been looking at in my work is the physical anthropologist, physician, and anatomist William Montague Cobb, who is in so many major scientific and medical organizations. He’s a very prolific writer and activist based at Howard University, and he trains literally generations of scholars. Even though these actors are confined to certain spaces because of segregation, within these spaces they are incredibly productive.

Sarah Pickman: Why do you think this history of Black involvement in eugenics hasn’t been studied before?

Ayah Nuriddin: I think there’s an archival problem, in the sense that many people aren’t looking for evidence of eugenics in what are usually considered Black archives. There are some historians who think that if someone’s name doesn’t show up in the records of the Eugenics Record Office [a major early twentieth-century American eugenics organization], for example, they just don’t exist in the history of eugenics. Other researchers just assume that what’s mainstream is only what shows up in the archives of white spaces. Fortunately, in the last twenty years historians have realized that eugenics is a global project that exists in many different time periods and places. We’re broadening the kinds of archives we use to study the history of eugenics. We’re also reframing the history of eugenics to not just conceive of it as something enacted on other people who don’t get to respond. To imagine that one white guy like Charles Davenport is the reason all of this eugenics discourse existed is missing a lot! One of the interventions of my work is re-centering some of the other figures who were part of this conversation to say, what would the history of American eugenics look like if we centered Black physicians, and what Black people think eugenics is and isn’t and what it can do, instead.

Sarah Pickman: Your work also looks at how eugenic discourse from earlier eras continues to inform public health, medicine, and the framing of racial disparities by health practitioners today. Can you discuss how you’ve seen some of these discourses echo during the current Covid-19 pandemic?

Ayah Nuriddin: There’s this idea that eugenics is really big in the early twentieth century, then World War II happens, everyone is horrified at what the Nazis have done, and then eugenics is over—it was terrible and let’s never do that again. And then we just move on to genetics. But that’s absolutely not the case. The way I often explain it to my students is that we have gained genetics as a tool, and these new tools give us better precision in studying human bodies; we do have a much clearer biomedical understanding of how genes move, which genes express which traits, for example. But while the tools have changed, we’re still asking the same questions of these tools that eugenicists were asking one hundred years ago. We have so much more knowledge, but the premises that scientists are working from—certain assumptions about race and ethnicity that inform their research questions—have not changed, although we often recast those things in humanitarian terms. Our discourse around eliminating disability is one example. That’s not to say that certain physical conditions don’t cause real pain and suffering, because they do. But the idea that we should devote our efforts to eliminating the genetic causes of disability, rather than reframing how society accommodates disabled people, is something that Davenport would have been interested in. Eugenicists in the early twentieth century argued about whether people with disabilities should be treated medically, because then they would be allowed to live and pass on their traits.

This has become exceptionally visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. We dismiss the virus as only being seriously harmful to people with pre-existing conditions, or certain risk factors. The discourse that the virus is “only” a threat to a certain subset of the population, so the rest of us should just get on with our lives as normal, is seen as totally OK. There are cases where doctors have tried to preemptively get disabled patients to sign Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders, or healthcare resources like ventilators being allocated to people who are seen as most deserving of that care or have the potential for “better quality of life.” That’s a deeply eugenic way of thinking, that certain people should be sacrificed for the good of everyone else. Right in the midst of a global pandemic people are casually making “survival of the fittest” arguments on social media, because eugenics is so deeply baked into our society we don’t even recognize it, even when it’s right there on Twitter. And because we’re in a society where healthcare is a commodity and it’s not a human right, we have a system where people are ranked and doctors can prioritize who gets access to resources according to things like disability.

Sarah Pickman: In the fall, you taught a class on the history of human subject research. Have the phenomena you just described changed how your students understand the history of eugenics?

Ayah Nuriddin: I think living through a pandemic has made things a lot clearer to my students. When students are watching people talk about Covid and how only people with pre-existing conditions are at risk on social media, they react strongly to that. But from my librarian’s brain, I also think there is a problem with information literacy in this country. One of my focus areas as a librarian was on information literacy, and access to information as a right. And many people, even many college students, don’t understand what defines a trustworthy source of information. They think that if someone shared something on Facebook, or if it came up on the first page of a Google search, then it must be true. And I think we’re seeing the consequences of this lack of information literacy play out in discourse around Covid and especially Covid vaccines. I’ve done a library and information literacy session with my students with every class I’ve taught, and I think this ought to be standard in teaching college students, and younger students as well.

Sarah Pickman: What do you see as the role of historians of medicine in fighting for health justice and equity today? How does this thinking inform your teaching and the audiences you write for?

Ayah Nuriddin: I think historians as a profession need to be a lot more public-facing. There are historians out there doing incredible work that is so relevant to the conversations that we’re having and shows us why our world looks the way it does. But so much of the public discourse reflects that people, including people in power, have no idea why certain things are happening. Historians have so much to contribute. Why couldn’t the president have a cabinet position for a historian, for example! As a profession, historians should think of ourselves as public intellectuals. The framing I think with in my own work comes from Barbara Smith and is elaborated byother scholars, and that I was first exposed to by Jessica Marie Johnson, Yomaira Figueroa-Vasquez and others affiliated with the Electric Marronage project: the idea that I’m not accountable to the seminar table, I’m accountable to the kitchen table. If my work isn’t legible to folks outside of the academy, I haven’t fully done my job. But also, universities should recognize and compensate scholars for doing public-facing work, not just for writing books for other academics!