For several years now, the religious right has been trying to appropriate the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an audacious strategy, given that Christian conservative politics were forged in the white Southern backlash to school integration. But it’s had some successes, particularly in rousing black churches against the gay rights movement. Now, the anti-abortion movement is making a push to enlist African Americans in their cause by framing abortion as a tool of eugenics and genocide.
The campaign is already having an impact. As the New York Times reported late last month, the overwhelmingly white Georgia Right to Life has spent more than $20,000 erecting 80 billboards around Atlanta that proclaim, “Black children are an endangered species.” The group has created a Web site, Too Many Aborted, with excellent production values, designed to portray legal abortion as a plot against the black community. Meanwhile, according to the Times, the new documentary Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, which purports to “trace connections among slavery, Nazi-style eugenics, birth control and abortion,” is finding an audience among black organizations nationwide. The Times quoted Markita Eddy, a sophomore at the historically black Morris Brown College, who had turned against abortion rights after seeing the film.
As propaganda, Maafa 21 is fairly ingenious, incorporating just enough truth to provide a surface plausibility. The word “Maafa” is a Swahili term to describe the period of black enslavement. In the film, narrator Markus Lloyd argues that the Maafa “did not end when the slaves were freed… a hidden racial agenda is keeping the Maafa alive into the 21st century.” That sounds true enough, though Lloyd isn’t talking about poverty, or educational disparities, or the legacy of Jim Crow—he’s talking about family planning and abortion rights.
What follows is a highly selective, distorted history of the reproductive rights movement. To be sure, that movement has some dark corners, and not everything in Maafa 21, which was directed by the white Texas anti-abortion activist Mark Crutcher, is untrue. Overall, though, it’s an exceedingly dishonest propaganda exercise, one that aims to convince African Americans that both family planning and evolutionary theory are part of a massive conspiracy against them.
There’s no denying that Margaret Sanger, the heroine of the American birth control movement, made alliances with eugenicists and eventually adopted some of their rhetoric; her oeuvre is full of language that sounds shocking to modern ears. Maafa 21 quotes from a letter in which she wrote of the need for a “simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people. I believe that now, immediately there should be national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.”
These words are noxious, but it’s also important to put them in context. As Sanger’s biographer, the historian Ellen Chesler, has written, in the 1920s (when Sanger’s career took off), eugenics “had become a popular craze in this country—promoted in newspapers and magazines as a kind of secular religion… The great majority of American colleges and universities introduced formal courses in the subject, and sociologists who embraced it took on what one historian has called a ‘priestly role.’”
Both supporters and opponents of birth control deployed eugenic arguments, and there were unregenerate racists on both sides. Debating Sanger, one Catholic bishop argued that “the races from northern Europe,” who he called “the finest type of people” needed to have at least four children per family to avoid “extinction.” Maafa 21 includes ugly quotes from the eugenicist Charles Davenport, but doesn’t mention that he opposed birth control. Later, we see an image of Hitler and the words “Natural Allies.” Naturally, the movie doesn’t mention that, upon gaining power, Hitler, eager for more German babies, moved quickly against legal abortion and birth control clinics.
Meanwhile Sanger, for all her flaws, was no racist. Yes, she wanted to curb the reproduction of the mentally “unfit,” a noxious idea. But contrary to what Maafa 21 claims, she didn’t target African Americans—she believed that intelligence and ability varied among individuals rather than among ethnic groups. One of her ardent supporters was W.E.B. DuBois, who echoed her eugenic ideas. As Chesler wrote, DuBois “condemned what he called ‘the fallacy of numbers’ and deemed the ‘quality’ of the black race more important to its survival.” When Sanger opened a clinic in Harlem in 1930, it “was endorsed by the powerful local black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, and by established political and religious leaders in Harlem,” wrote Chesler. Sanger was even invited to address Harlem’s largest Baptist church.
Maafa 21 moves from distortion to outright deception in its treatment of Gunnar Myrdal, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who, with his wife, Alva Myrdal, championed family planning and pioneered Sweden’s social democracy. In the film, Connie Eller, who is identified only as a “St. Louis community organizer,” but who is actually the founder of Missouri Blacks For Life, discusses Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Myrdal, says Eller, “believed that not only could blacks not help themselves, he felt that nobody could help them, and the only solution in his eyes was to get rid of them.”
This is an outrageous distortion. Myrdal was initially commissioned to undertake a large-scale study of race in America by the Carnegie Corporation, whose leaders wanted the fresh eyes of a foreigner. He was horrified by segregation and by the conditions African Americans were forced to endure. He concluded that racism was a “problem in the heart of the American,” one that pitted the American creed of freedom and equality against American reality. An American Dilemma was an anti-racist opus; it was cited in the Brown v. the Board of Education decision; one of Myrdal’s collaborators on the project was Ralph Bunche, who later worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement. Maafa 21 quotes descriptions of the mindsets of white racists in a way that implies that they’re Myrdal’s own views. It’s an ugly trick, and a mendacious one.
There are, of course, very good reasons for minorities to be suspicious of population control. Black people have indeed been subject to involuntary sterilization and reproductive coercion. Maafa 21 recapitulates anti-contraception arguments made by male Black Power leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, African-American militants were behind some of the earliest instances of clinic violence. As Elaine Tyler May writes in her forthcoming book, America and the The Pill (Basic Books, April 27, 2010), one Cleveland family planning center was burned down after accusations of “black genocide,” while in Pittsburgh, the militant leader William “Bouie” Haden threatened to firebomb a clinic.
And yet African-American women have always favored family planning by wide margins. “Many in the Black liberation movement rejected their brother’s charge to them to bear more children,” wrote Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. She quotes Toni Cade’s 1970 essay “The Pill: Birth Control or Liberation?”: “I’ve been made aware of the national call to Sisters to abandon birth control… to picket family-planning centers and abortion-referral groups and to raise revolutionaries,” she wrote. “What plans do you have for the care of me and my child?”
Martin Luther King Jr., it’s important to point out, was a champion of family planning. Indeed, in 1966, King won Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger award. His wife, Coretta Scott King, delivered his acceptance speech on his behalf. “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts,” said King, adding:
She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist—a nonviolent resister… At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions… Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.
Like others trying to turn abortion into a racial wedge issue, Crutcher, the director of Maafa 21, points out that black women have a far higher abortion rate than white women. He’s right that this is a result of discrimination, though not in the way he believes. Thanks in part to the anti-abortion movement, poor women have far inferior access to sex education and reproductive health services than middle class women do. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 69% of pregnancies among African-American women are unplanned, compared to 40% for white women. This is an injustice, because black women deserve the same control over their reproductive lives that white women enjoy.
Opponents of abortion would like to set themselves against the most callous eugenicists, but in fact the two sides have a lot in common: both see women as incapable of making their own choices, and so resort to coercion.