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Dismantling Eugenics: Legacies/Reckonings and Futures

- Anti-Centennial of the Second International Eugenics Congress

Part of the Anti-Eugenics Project

Project Co-Directors - Jack Tchen, Price Institute, Rutgers and Benedict Ipgrave

– 26th September to the 2nd October



Please Register for Dismantling Eugenics, and watch retrospectively at the following link.

The Second International Eugenics Congress, took place at the American Museum of Natural History in 1921. It was a dark, anti-democratic moment in the history of humanity. To mark this event, we will be holding a week of activities focused on de-eugenicising our current world. It’s a time when NYC & the Eugenics Record Office (Carnegie Institute and Harriman Foundation) on the North Shore of Long Island became central to the internationalizing eugenics movement. This was a time in which Madison Grant, descendant of Puritan Robert Treat, conservationist, a founder of the NY Zoological Society, friend to Teddy Roosevelt, and Secretary at the AMNH wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1918) which Hitler later cited as his “bible” and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby (1925) challenging the racial superiority of the gentry of the Long Island Sound.


For the Second Congress, the Anglo-American Protestant-driven Eugenics Movement adopted as its logo a Eugenics tree, with roots reaching out like tentacles into multiple fields, communities and ways of life. The American roots emerged from dispossession and enslavement and was informed by systems of racialised classifications systems, aggravated by the Civil War, and by the 1920s defined what scholars have analysed as a “White Republic”--heavily influencing US segregation policies, exclusionary immigration, mass forced sterilization, the institutionalization of othered-abled and “mentally” unfit persons, and regimes of measuring and testing to sort out populations from the emerging social institutions of US Progressivism and Conservatism.


After the Nazi death camps, the founding tree has been largely forgotten or erased, the science of eugenics has in name been largely debunked and consigned to history, and with it the connective tissue behind all of these intrusions has faded from view. And yet a century later we are facing a resurgent eugenics everywhere. The extent to which these ideologies have continued unconsciously to infiltrate our social and cultural fabric has become painfully clear. The crudity, for example, of a Confederate flag, accompanied by another man dressed as a Viking (the embodiment of Nordic-blood) roaming the corridors of the Capitol, is stark.


Undergirding the arguments in support of racism, ableism, sexism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, homophobia, etc., we can identify eugenic, white nationalist “logics” underscoring much of the inequality and challenges we experience today. The branches of the tree as manifested in death camps, or state-wide sterilization programmes have been pruned somewhat in the past decades, but the supremacist root system, whilst perhaps hidden from polite, mainstream culture, is still alive and well. Whilst efforts have been made that are to be applauded and are ground-breaking in so many ways, it is clear that work to address eugenics has sadly collectively fallen short. At this global pandemic moment when the forces of white supremacy and nationalist exclusionism have gained momentum, the urgency of progressive public reconstruction is critical.

Overall goals of marking this anti-centennial:


  • We aim to re-evaluate how we address eugenics and how we engage a broader public around this issue and this moment.

  • We aim to build on (and incorporate) the discussions and momentum generated out of the prior large international programme of events across the summer, reflecting upon this global moment and how we address the legacies of eugenics within respective national/regional contexts.

  • We aim to unpack the connections between a resurging extreme nationalism and supremacy, with the expression of hard-right laissez faire “free market” ideologies.

  • We aim to surface the assumptions of data collecting and social management nationally and internationally in the formation of invidious structured differential sorting of those deemed fit and unfit as it still impacts different national political and social cultures.

  • Those groups who have been overtly targeted for eugenics segregation, exclusion, sterilization, institutionalization by modernist management norms will be first and foremost at the center of the work ahead. We aim to explore how we empower and learn from the voice of those targeted by eugenics.

  • We aim to consider what practical steps we can immediately take to help conquer this eugenics enemy, and how we uncover its invidious influences by repainting the forgotten tree that connects so much of what is wrong in the world today. The Second Congress helped to foster and disseminate eugenics on a truly global scale. A century later, we hope this programme and what comes out of it, will act as a pivotal moment in our collective struggle of de-eugenisation.


Programme for marking this anti-centennial:


Overall, this programme of centennial events will be held between the 25th September and 4th October. It will consist of:

  • A virtual conference hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, which will explore ways of addressing the eugenics in our shifting landscape.

  • A People’s Congress, held in different locations across New York, taking these discussions out of the institutions to the communities that have been targeted by eugenic measures.

  • A Citizen’s Assembly programme held in London, looking at a series of public engagement events initiating discussions through working groups with representatives from different targeted groups, all with the set aim of producing a shared statement of intent in the battle against eugenics.

  • A link to the virtual exhibitions Haunted Files and We Are Not Alone, poems, performances, and documentaries, a recreation of the Second Congress. And linking to and building on the international programme of events From Small Beginnings… and the publication of a new journal. As significant as the papers discussed at the Second Congress, were, even more powerful were the structures for dissemination and implementation of eugenics ideologies and practices that the gathering spawned. Anti-eugenics academic and public have to set a new standard of rigor.

  • The final day and conclusion of this centennial programme then will be devoted to looking at how we take these discussions forward and initiate a continuing transnational de-eugenisising movement.

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