“Beyond the Pale”: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization

Hypatia A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (Impact Factor: 0.25). 04/2007; 22(2):162 - 181. DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.2007.tb00987.x


The aim of the eugenics movement in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century was to prevent the degeneration of the white race. A central tactic of the movement was the involuntary sterilization of people labeled as feebleminded. An analysis of the practice of eugenic sterilization provides insight into how the concepts of gender, race, class, and dislability are fundamentally intertwined. I argue that in the early twentieth century, the concept of feeblemindedness came to operate as an umbrella concept that linked off-white ethnicity, poverty, and gendered conceptions of lack of moral character together and that feeblemindedness thus understood functioned as the signifier of tainted whiteness.

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    • "Eugenic discourses also contributed during this era to the cultural work of deviance regulation and the ranking of bodies that targeted the usual suspect ontologies, namely, disability and race (Baker, 2002; Snyder & Mitchell, 2006). Intellectual disabilities were a primary target under the notion of " feeblemindedness [that] came to operate as an umbrella concept that linked offwhite ethnicity, poverty, and gendered conceptions of lack of moral character together and that feeblemindedness thus understood functioned as the signifier of tainted whiteness " (Stubblefield, 2007, p. 162; see also Trent, 1994). The efforts of this movement, for what Baker (2002) described as " population quality control, " had mixed results, although as I explain in the next section, they have transmogrified into new discourses in which the govern-mentality of deviance continues to evolve. "
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