Why North Carolina’s History of Eugenics Matters Today

On June 6, 2017, a Court of Appeals in North Carolina upheld the decision to deny compensation to the surviving estates of three deceased people who were involuntarily sterilized by the state’s eugenics program between 1933 and 1974. The court justified its decision by claiming that the victims passed away prior to the compensation program’s cutoff date for eligibility.

This decision upended the North Carolina Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in March to push back the cutoff date for further review in an appellate court, which initially gave the estates some hope that they would receive a payment from the $10 million fund set aside by the General Assembly as part of a compensation program. It was only in 2013 that the General Assembly finally decided, after long debate, to set aside funds to compensate victims of the eugenics program. The cutoff date to file a claim was June 30, 2013. That year, approximately 1,500 of the 7,600 victims of the eugenics program were living and therefore eligible. However, only about 850 victims filed claims for compensation. As of today, two-time payments have been made to about 200 claimants, totaling to $35,000 per claimant.

The $10 million fund was the result of a process that began in 2011, when The Governor’s Task Force on Eugenics Compensation recommended a compensation package for living victims. In their recommendation, the Task Force explained that the package had a twofold purpose:

No amount of money can adequately pay for the harm done to these citizens, but financial compensation and other services we recommend will nonetheless provide meaningful assistance. Compensation also serves a larger purpose for all of us who live in North Carolina and rely on a government that respects our rights and leaves us free to live the lives we choose. The compensation package we recommend sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are a people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.”

Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin are the attorneys from Center for Civil Rights that represented the estates of the three sterilization victims who passed away in 1996, 2006, and 2010. Because the three people passed away prior to the 2013 deadline, the General Assembly argued that the victims could not be claimants since compensation was aimed towards providing “meaningful assistance.” Haddix and Dorosin argued that this reasoning was “unconstitutional on its face because it arbitrarily denied compensation to the heirs of some victims while allowing compensation to others.” The General Assembly emphasized the difference between the surviving relatives of deceased sterilization victims as “those ‘who were not the subject of any clear and direct harm . . . any harm suffered [by heirs] would be vague and not in nature, but instead a generalized societal harm[,]’” and those “thousands of forced sterilizations victims [who] are still living.”

Three estates may seem like a negligible number in the compensation process, but the impact of the legal decision is harsh and clear — the state’s recognition towards the victims and their families is financially minimal and morally half-hearted. The surviving members of the deceased victims will forever carry the pain that is shared from the victim’s personal experience. Pain stemming from a systematic form of abuse carries on to the victims’ family members and future generations. Part of the pain stems from the fact that, at one point, the state is meant to protect its citizens decidedly marked them as subhuman and unworthy of the rights that ensure a life of dignity and peace.

The state’s intent to maximize payments towards surviving victims is reasonable and fair. However, if the $10 million fund was created to supposedly compensate all 7,600 victims, payments would equate to $1,315 per person. That’s slightly less than the average bi-weekly salary of working millennial who makes $35K a year. But, the actual number of claimants (1,500) is far lower — meaning that the maximum payment would be less than $7,000. In order for the General Assembly to follow on its initial promise to pay out the $50,000 to each of the 1,500 living victims, the fund should contain $75 million, a number much higher than the $10 million allocation. Therefore, the argument that the cutoff date was established to maximize payments for individuals does not hold up considering the gap between the General Assembly’s initial maximum compensation promise and its actual value. A payment of $1,315 does nothing to substantially alleviate the basic financial circumstances of an elderly, likely retired, civilian. The cutoff date was a measure to significantly filter the number of claimants through a bureaucratic process and provide the most cost-efficient solution to hastily close a chapter on a historic tragedy.

The Eugenics Movement in the America began in the early twentieth century and became widespread by the 1930s. In North Carolina, the General Assembly passed its first sterilization law in 1919. However, no sterilizations were performed following its legislation due to ambiguous issues with constitutionality. In 1929, the state passed a second law in which a total of 49 sterilizations were performed until the Supreme Court struck down the law due to its lack of provisions that violated the 14th Amendment. Four years later, a third and upgraded law that removed the unconstitutional provisions was introduced to the House in 1933, the same year that the Third Reich was established. As a result of the law, an official Eugenics Board was created to oversee all sterilizations performed in the state for the next few decades. The board also revised its qualifications in order to target civilians deemed “mentally diseased, epileptic or feeble-minded.”

When World War II ended, most states shut down their eugenics programs, mostly due to the lack of funding for programs due to the Great Depression. However, it was in the next two decades after the war that North Carolina’s Eugenics Board not only continued its practices but expanded them — 79 percent of sterilizations in the state occurred after the war. The involuntary sterilizations continued until 1974 and the Eugenics Board officially shut down in 1977. One of the reasons for the increase in sterilizations was due to the post-Depression economy, in which civilians became more reliant on government assistance. In the eyes of the Eugenics Board, people who relied on programs such as welfare fell under the “feeble-minded” category, thus fueling the expansion of involuntary sterilizations. Of the 7,600 victims, 85 percent were women and 26 percent were minors.

By the 1960s, the program became racially motivated, with 60 percent of its total victims being black even though they constituted about a quarter of the states population. This was partially a result of legislature in the 1950s that included African Americans to qualify for government assistance. With the tense intersection of more inclusive legislature and segregation, the risk of sterilization for black women and children increased. It’s one of the most inhumane forms of discrimination that illustrates the range of institutional oppression and violation of rights.

One of the many reasons why the eugenics compensation denial is unsettling is the timing of the decision itself and how it will influence North Carolinian politics today. Although the news of the compensation denial recalls a more regressive and seemingly distant time, it also aligns with North Carolina’s continual pattern racial discrimination. To this day, the state continues to marginalize its African American population. The most recent case being the Republican-led legislature’s attempt to disenfranchise black voters. In May, the Supreme Court struck down North Carolina’s congressional redistricting practices, citing it as unconstitutional and motivated by racial bias in an effort to diminish African American voting power. The state’s Republican-led legislature claimed that the redistricting practices were based on the need to comply with Voting Rights Act of 1965, which then-Governor Pat McCrory reintroduced in a voting reforms package in 2013. The Voting Rights Act was specifically reinstated to eliminate alternative forms of ID, early voting, and same-day registration — processes that African Americans frequently used. These eliminations came during a time when “African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with white registration and turnout rates.” When the law was reviewed in an appeals court in 2016, the panel struck it down, concluding that Voting Rights Act was reintroduced to target African American voters “with surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist. This decision was made with the November elections right around the corner and McCrory requested that the law be reinstated by the Supreme Court, a request they declined to review.

The Voting Rights Act gave the Republican-led General Assembly the ability to redraw the lines of two congressional districts that held a black voter majority. While the state defended its actions to prevent “voter dilution,” the Supreme Court found that “racial considerations predominated” the state’s gerrymandering process. In the ruling, the court undressed the encoded racial bias that was hidden in the wording of the legislature yet was clear in its data and implementation. It was a decision that further validated the fact that institutional racism is alive and well.

The news brought the state’s legislature to the national spotlight and demonstrated how race relations in America continue to echo historically regressive policies to this day. So while the connection between the eugenics compensation program and the recent practice of gerrymandering may seem tenuous, the causes of both practices are based on the same arbitrary and discriminatory qualifier of race. It’s only in retrospect that people are able to identify the motivations behind the evolution of the state’s eugenics movement. But there is significant dissent that those practices exist today because of Post-Racial American Myth. Today, North Carolina’s legislature is adamant that its gerrymandering is not discriminatory — McCrory claimed it was a preventative measure against voter fraud. In an April 2016 federal ruling that initially upheld the voter mandates, Judge Thomas Schroeder reasoned that “[t]here is significant, shameful past discrimination. In North Carolina’s recent history, however, certainly for the last quarter century, there is little official discrimination to consider.” However, the states’ eugenics program, one of the most egregious forms of discrimination, ended in 1974 — just outside of that quarter-century time frame. Additionally, the absence of apology or reparation for the victims for another three decades signified an effort to quietly hide an ugly and prolonged history that should never have happened. Judge Schroeder’s statement echoes a higher level attempt to quietly disguise both the subtle and aggressive forms of discrimination that occurred between the 1970s to present day.

In the 2011 Recommendation Letter from the Governor’s Task Force, they write that “[i]t’s clear to us that they deserve compensation and that no value or amount can provide complete closure.” And that part is true. Money neither equates to nor replaces closure. But the compensation denial has a harsh impact, whether intended or not — the pain felt by the three estates of the deceased victims should expire upon the ending of the victims’ lives. Closure is one-sided and, in this case, made on the state’s terms completely. While the compensation program is a legitimate step towards social betterment, its much-delayed establishment and convoluted bureaucratic process prevent true healing and progress.

The connection between the compensation program and gerrymandering demonstrates how North Carolina’s lack of closure in one chapter perpetuates consistent discrimination in another. In order for North Carolina to correct the unconstitutional and dangerous practices that threaten its democracy it must first confront its past, no matter how ugly or shameful. The state’s history of eugenics can appear distant and unrelated in circumstance, but its racially motivated practices have not only trickled into legal practices like the voter ID law and gerrymandering but will only continue to morph itself into sneakier forms of current and future legislature. The recent Supreme Court ruling is a significant moment that will hopefully bring the state’s General Assembly under higher monitoring but it is important to consider how its historic practices inform the present day legislative processes. If the state takes a greater measure to responsibility for the marginalized victims from the past, whether living or surviving estates, it would allow for closure and a tangible promise of social progress.