Purdue University Calumet Campus Eugenics Managing Heredity Discussion

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During the 1920s many white Americans were uneasy about demographic change in the United States. Large waves of immigration and migration in the early twentieth century had changed the racial, ethnic and religious make-up of the country. White Americans believed many negative stereotypes about minorities, which where then legitimized through scientific racism – “theories” about racial difference and white superiority that we know today to be false and ridiculous. Yet in the 1920s, these ideas about race, and the impact of “inferior” races on American society, were widely accepted and generated various efforts to control minority populations and protect American society from their negative influence. This week’s discussion examines the Eugenics Movement and efforts to control immigrants and immigration – these were intertwined approaches to this perceived “race” problem (as seen in the newspaper headline included below) . Please make sure you have reviewed the section of the lecture Protecting American Civilization, and sections three and four of Chapter 4 in Building the American Republic before posting. This background information is required – you will have trouble fully understanding and analyzing the documents without this information.

newspaper headline saying that immigration restriction is partly motivated by fear of inferior aliens, and that the melting pot theory of americanization is false

The New York Times, Sept. 25, 1921 (Links to an external site.)

Before we dive into the primary sources for this week, it is important to note that the authors below held different ideas about race than we do today. All of these documents proceed from the basic “scientific” assumption of the time that there were many different human races or “types.” For instance, in the 1911 Dictionary of Races or Peoples, the United States government identified 36 different “races” coming from Europe to America (U.S. Immigration Commission 1911, 2) (Links to an external site.). Also taken for granted was the idea that each race had inborn characteristics (many of which we would today call stereotypes), and that there was a hierarchy among these races, with some being superior and other inferiors.

The first three documents address the Eugenics Movement. As you will notice, the first two documents were actually written before the 1920s, and show the ideas that formed the foundation of the Eugenics Movement’s popularity in the “modern era.” Franz Boas was an anthropologist who helped pioneer the modern-day idea of cultural relativism (recognizing how our own culture and values shape our interpretation of others), and was among the first to question the belief that immutable in-born racial characteristics determined the inferiority/superiority of different races. Yet as you can see from Boas’s speech, his ideas about race and science still differ greatly from our understanding today. Charles B. Davenport was a biologist and prominent proponent of Eugenics as a science and guiding force for social policy. Excerpted below is a sample of Davenport’s “scientific” perspective on marriage and children, and what the goals of the Eugenics Movement should be. The third document is an example of Eugenics philosophy in action. In effort to prevent the birth of children who might become blind, the newspaper article describes an attempt to hold married couples fiscally and socially responsible for the health of their children.

The remaining documents address the topic of immigration. During the 1920s many Americans supported legislation restricting immigration. This sentiment largely stemmed from the belief that the country was being overrun by “inferior” peoples who would corrupt American society. Charlotee Perkins Gilman, a writer, reformer and advocate for women’s rights (who also resided in Pasadena) expressed concern that the United States was being too welcoming towards immigrants. She called into question longstanding notions that immigration was a net-benefit to American society. Likewise, Hiram Evans, an Imperial Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, argued that Americans were by definition white, protestant and native born – immigrants could never truly become “American,” and the country needed to be protected from their influence.

But what about the immigrants who were already here? Could they become “American”? Some thought yes – immigrants could be “Americanized” and transformed into productive citizens ( though some Americans, like those who supported the KKK, would never accept immigrants no matter what they did). This meant teaching immigrants how to speak, eat, dress etc. like “Americans,” and demanding that immigrant culture be abandoned. The last document shows this philosophy in action in a guide for Americanizing immigrants through “homemaking.” Specifically addressing Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in California, the excerpt from the pamphlet shows efforts to target both women and young people in a campaign to Americanize immigrants and make them “fit” for American society.


For this assignment students must choose one document from the list below and write an Initial Post describing and analyzing the document. Please read all the documents before choosing which one you want to write about! Your initial post must be submitted by Thursday at 11:59pm.

    • Each initial post must be at least 300 words.
    • Each initial post must have a topic sentence typed at the top of the response. This topic sentence should give your classmates the “thesis” of your response, indicating which topic/document you are writing about and the main idea of your post. This is not a title for your response, and should not repeat the title of the textbook section/document. The words in the topic sentence do not count toward the 300 word total.
    • Each initial post should introduce your topic and discuss your analysis of historical significance. You should use the questions listed under each document to guide your analysis, but you are not required to answer all questions in your response.
    • Do not repeat information your peers have already posted on or discussed! Please pick a document no one has written about yet (unless all documents have already been chosen), and add something new to the conversation.
    • Citations showing where you are gathering your information from are optional. But posts without proper citations will not receive top scores, and you may only use sources provided in the course. For a refresher on how to cite sources for this course, please visit the citation page in the Orientation Module.
    • You may submit your initial post after the Thursday deadline – but 10 points will automatically be deducted for late submission (see rubric below).

Two responses to the Discussion Board are due by Sunday at 11:59pm. Please review the instructions for Document Discussion Boards and the rubric for the assignment for more information.

General Rules and Tips for the Textbook/Document Discussions:

    1. Rules for academic integrity and plagiarism apply to all posts.
    2. Remember, the goal of this assignment is historical discussion. Connections to present day are great, but they should not make up the majority of your response.
    3. You may incorporate quotes from the documents as evidence, but the majority of your posts should be in your own words.
    4. Remember the rules of Nettiquette!
    5. Any technical difficulty experienced by a student will not be an accepted excuse for late or incomplete work, unless PCC/Canvas is responsible. The Canvas time stamp is the official measure of all due dates and times and not a student’s computer. Keep that in mind!


Franz Boas, “The Instability of Human Types” (1911) (Links to an external site.)

    • What problematic assumptions does Boas see in studies of race-types?
    • How does environment shape human development? What are some of the examples Boas gives, and why does he think they are important to discuss?
    • What is Boas’s conclusion and/or remaining question about human development?

Charles Davenport, Excerpt from Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1915)Preview the document

    • How does Davenport describe the Eugenics Movement and its goals? How might these goals be achieved?
    • How does he describe marriage and its goals in the context of Eugenics?
    • What does Davenport reveal about his views of gender?
    • How does Davenport see children and their role in society and the country’s future?

Sam Smith, “Harvard Scientist Wants Married Couples Bonded” (1928) (Links to an external site.)

    • What is Dr. Howe advocating and why?
    • How does Dr. Howe’s resolution reflect the Eugenics Movement’s philosophy and goals?
    • Why did Dr. Howe see his new law as beneficial and not radical?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Is America Too Hospitable?” (1923)Preview the document

    • Why does Gilman think immigrants come to the United States?
    • What does Gilman think of the Founder’s idea that the United States should be “an asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations”? And why?
    • What arguments does Gilman identify in favor of unlimited immigration, and why does she dismiss those arguments?

Hiram Evans, “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism” (1926) (Links to an external site.)

    • According to Evans, what are the three “racial instincts” of white Americans?
    • What does Americanism mean to Evans? Who is a “true” American?
    • Why were immigrants so problematic for American society and the white race?

Pearl Idelia Ellis, Excerpt from Americanization Through Homemaking (1929)Preview the document

    • Where and to whom should Americanization efforts be targeted? Why?
    • How does the pamphlet portray Mexican immigrants?
    • How does Ellis see the role of women and the family in fostering citizenship?

Prof. Angela


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