"This was genocide."
The writer Edwin Black, speaking of North Carolina's forced-sterilization program, dropped that bomb soon after he arrived in Winston-Salem to speak last week.
The author of "The War Against the Weak" and other bestsellers, who is white and Jewish, was using a word once used almost solely to refer to the extermination of millions of Jews by Hitler's forces during World War II. He was using it to refer to the forced sterilization of more than 7,600 North Carolinians from 1929 through 1974 through a state program that was supported in part by prominent families and doctors in Winston-Salem, a program that spent its last years targeting black women of modest means.
I had always cringed when I heard people refer to our state's program as genocide. Having been part of the Journal team that revealed the program's inner workings in the 2001 series "Against Their Will," I knew the program was terrible. I have pushed, and keep pushing, for compensation for hurting victims whom I have gotten to know.
That's when you exterminate masses of people, whether it be in Germany, Rwanda or the latest hell on Earth, right?
Mass extermination is the first definition of the word. But another that Edwin Black explained when he spoke at Winston-Salem State University was a definition from the United Nations' original Nazi-era Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He noted that Article 2, section D of that definition says that genocide is "imposing measures intended to prevent births within that group."
"That's what they did to us," said Nial Ramirez, who was sterilized in 1965 in Washington County after giving birth to the only child the state allowed her to have. "If you were poor, black and had nothing, they wanted to get rid of you. They wanted to get rid of your kids. Just like Hitler did the Jews."
North Carolina's program was one of the most aggressive in the country. Whether the "group" in question was white or black, whether the people were deaf, blind, epileptic, black, allegedly promiscuous or allegedly "feeble-minded," social workers pushed and sometimes bullied them into operations that many of them didn't understand. Almost all were poor. And many of them found out only years later that the state had rendered them barren.
The state wanted them to "disappear," as Black said at a lunch with some area leaders before his speech at WSSU.
North Carolina's program was part of a nationwide movement aimed at "bettering society" that grew in the first years of the 20th century and eventually spread to Nazi Germany. That's right, our crackpots taught theirs. Black explains that Hitler's hoodlums learned the eugenics game from American weirdoes, ones often backed by big money in this country. Black says that their strategy for "improving society" was removing 90 percent of humanity.
When I first heard whispers about North Caronia's sterilization program, I thought somebody was lying. After all, this was my North Carolina, the state that Gov. Terry Sanford, whom my father counted as a friend, had led in an integration that was for the most part peaceful, at least compared to other Southern states. But the whole time that was happening in the early 1960s, the state sterilization program, which largely operated under the radar, had shifted its grimy focus to black women.
I quickly learned that we did indeed have a very bad program. I used to wrestle with how intentional it was. But not any more. It was very intentional, and it was clearly part of the national movement. Progressives were among those there at the creation, but, as the junk science of eugenics that the program was based upon crumbled, the program slid from paternalism to prejudice to rank racism, its target being to thin out the numbers of blacks on the welfare rolls. The program slid on year after year like a grimy glacier, unnoticed by all but the victims and families it ran over.
Some of eugenics' early advocates were well-meaning progressives, such as Willam Poteat, a legendary president of what is now Wake Forest University. But the good folks fell away, and wackjobs and racists took over. Some involved were leaders in social work, folks I used to think of as misguided. But no more. The folks who led our state's forced-sterilization program in its last 20 years, as other states realized their error and folded theirs, were about as "misguided" as a man who drinks a case of beer, hops in a car and speeds down the interstate.
Most of it was done with tax dollars. And as many of a third of the victims are still alive, though they're hurting and dying fast.
For years now, I've been pushing Gov. Bev Perdue and the legislature to provide them compensation. Black rightly notes that you can't compensate the most important victims, all those who were never born. It's impossible to comprehend how those victims might have changed lives, whether by discovering a cure for cancer or just saving a life at an accident scene.
The state can and should quickly compensate the living victims. They should get money. And they should get free medical care through the state university hospitals.
Measures were imposed on them "intended to prevent births within that group."
By that definition, the state program was genocide.