The Department of Justice is about to release a wide-ranging and highly anticipated report on racial discrimination on the Ferguson, Missouri, justice system. In a New York Times article on the report, several city officials are cited making racist remarks in their email, including a joke that Obama won’t finish his first term because,“what black man holds a steady job for four years?”
The email “described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.” Amongst the emails with racist jokes was one on abortion. The email “described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.” As shockingly dehumanizing as this statement is, it’s also representative of the eugenics rhetoric of birth control. From some of its origins in the United States, birth control has been seen as a way of fixing the “negro” problem.
In Linda Gordon’s book, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, she writes about the eugenics aims of birth control in mid-century America:
As the Ferguson email demonstrates, we still have not progressed out of the idea that the problems within the black community can be fixed by controlling and limiting the existence of black bodies.
Most of us can’t imagine a contemporary government eugenics program called the “Negro Project” that worked to reduce the black population because “Negroes” are “least able to rear children properly” and therefore lead to poverty and crime. But it is still socially acceptable to view childbirth as the primary barrier to flourishing in black communities. You might have heard this in the right-wing talk radio form, “If these women would keep their legs closed, our state wouldn’t be in a deficit. We shouldn’t be paying for kids they can’t afford.” Or in the liberal public-radio form,”With access to abortion clinics, black women are able to achieve a higher educational level and are less likely to be on welfare or food stamps.” Or in a number of other framings:
“They have too many kids to be good parents.”
“If their dads aren’t going to stick around they shouldn’t be having kids.”
“We don’t need more kids born into disadvantaged, crime-filled communities.”
“All another kid will do is add to the problem is the black community.”
Each of these statements relies in whole or in part on the assumption that the greatest threat to the black community is the existence of black community, and so the reduction of black bodies is the best strategy to fix society. Although abortion is almost exclusively a liberal cause, the belief that black births are the cause of poverty, crime, and violence is shared across party lines.The belief that black births are the cause of poverty, crime, and violence is shared across party lines. This belief fits nicely with systemic racism and its obsession with controlling, containing, and criticizing black bodies through incarceration, parole, red-lining, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and stigmatizing of black speech and dress. So long as society sees the existence of blacks as the cause of poverty and crime in the black community, we will be socially incapable of ameliorating these ills. You simply cannot desire the best for people if you see them as problems to be done away with.
Of course, family planning is important to human flourishing. It is, in fact, a privilege to be able to decide when to have a child and with whom. Not all communities have the resources, education, freedom, and protection from sexual violence necessary to make wise decisions for when to start a family. Working to enable people in all communities to enter parenthood responsibly is an ethical obligation and a tremendous benefit for the church and society at large. But that work can easily be diverted to pressuring certain communities to prevent parenthood, a racist agenda for the alleged benefit of privileged communities.
Too often, the abortion debate takes place exclusively over the question of individual rights, obscuring the history of eugenics which has shaped the birth control movement and the contemporary rhetoric which continues to see abortion–the destruction of black bodies–as the solution to black crime. The city official’s email from Ferguson is a needed reminder that abortion may “empower” women with choices over the growth of life within their bodies, but that empowerment comes with a trajectory; and historically, as well as contemporarily, it’s an anti-black trajectory.