- Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America
In this most recently published history of eugenics in California, Alexandra Stern surveys the western landscape of race betterment in the twentieth century. Like Johanna Schoen, author of Choice and Coercion (2005), she begins and ends with states' apologies issued between 2002 and 2004 to victims of their sterilization laws, in order to warn that such public statements can "close rather than open retrospective windows," raising "serious questions about how we remember—and forget—eugenics" (p. 2). Eugenic Nation does indeed open windows and raise new questions about the significance of eugenics in America.
Much of Stern's argument is not new—she is not the first to challenge the East Coast–centrism of earlier scholars, nor is she the first to study California, nor the first to suggest that eugenics in the United States did not decline along with Nazism. But her approach is refreshing; she integrates a number of fascinating stories and characters into her narrative. As one of a number of scholars seeking to "push the bounds of what has been considered eugenics" (p. 18), she includes environmentalists, public health officials, and marriage counselors among those who played a role in shaping attitudes about heredity and progress. Perhaps more [End Page 391] importantly, she approaches eugenics from a number of different fields, including "new western" history; the history of medicine, science, and public health; and gender. She writes with ease and authority in all of these areas, demonstrating her ability to interpret the eugenics movement from multiple perspectives.
This ability is most evident in Stern's second chapter, "Quarantine and Eugenic Gatekeeping on the U.S.-Mexican border." Here, she effectively links eugenic concerns about race betterment with concerns about Mexican immigration. She argues that in the early twentieth century, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Border Patrol shaped the "complicated process of racialization in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands" (p. 80). The USPHS instituted quarantines, delousing, and fumigation along the border, affecting hundreds of immigrants daily and contributing to an anti-Mexican sentiment centered upon dirt and disease. No such policies were instituted along the Canadian border, Stern points out, suggesting the "racialized lens" through which these immigrants were viewed (p. 66). Meanwhile, the Border Patrol, established in 1924 but with roots in centuries-old military patterns, established lines of defense to prevent unauthorized entry into the United States, playing a "critical role in the delimitation of the northern and southern boundaries" (p. 75). These two processes—medicalization and militarization—altered the landscape in the American West and played a crucial role in the development of eugenics. Concerns about race and health shaped both immigration and eugenic policies in twentieth-century California and help to explain why the state performed the highest number of eugenic sterilizations.
At certain moments, however, Stern's attempt to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the movement appears less effective. For example, she is wary of using the terms "positive" and "negative" eugenics to differentiate between the campaigns to encourage greater procreation of the "fit" and those to limit procreation of the "unfit," warning that "such a distinction implies that they can be fairly easily entangled" (p. 9); this is a problem, she argues, because many of those who believed in "positive" eugenics were also the most supportive of "negative" eugenics campaigns (suggesting that she actually means disentangled, rather than entangled). "Rather than accepting such descriptors transparently," she warns, "it is crucial to historicize their rhetorical function and be cognizant of their explanatory limitations" (p. 9). Yet she does little to offer an alternative approach, relying on essentially the same categories to track the development of eugenic thought and policy. "Positive eugenics" in her analysis is replaced by what she calls "family-centric eugenics," and though she disagrees with scholars who note a gradual...