Sometimes students can throw you a curve ball.
I was having a discussion in class yesterday about Margaret Sanger's role in the birth control movement when one of my students observed she was also a proponent of eugenics. That wasn't the curve ball -- I already knew that and we had a discussion about what that meant. However, he then went on to suggest that Sanger was a racist who wanted to use birth control to reduce the African-American population. That stopped me cold -- I had no specific response, other than to say I would look into it.
What I discovered is that this has become a huge right-wing meme on the internet. I was literally overwhelmed with the number of blog posts which vehemently asserted this to be a fact. This has obviously been sparked because of controversies over Planned Parenthood and abortion (although ironically, Sanger herself was opposed to abortion).
It apparently stems from two extremely slender pieces of "evidence":
-She was involved in the "Negro Project" which was organized to help provide birth control to African-American women.. During the debate within the Birth Control Federation of America (which was sponsoring the project) Sanger argued very strongly that there should be African-American leadership in the Project. A single Sanger quote relating to this debate seems to be the basis for almost all the discussion on the internet of Sanger being racist: "we do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members." This has been interpreted by some people (like Angela Davis) as proof that the project was actually a secret conspiracy to exterminate African-Americans (I find it a bit ironic that conservatives are, perhaps unwittingly, agreeing with Davis diagnosis of a white conspiracy). In fact, in the context of the debate Sanger was having with other members of the Birth Control Federation, the real meaning was almost certainly that she believed that black leadership was necessary to prevent the mistaken belief that the purpose of the project was racist. In another quote from this debate Sanger stated: "I do not believe that this project should be directed or run by white medical men. The Federation should direct it with the guidance and assistance of the colored group..." Sanger herself said of the Negro Project (which was supported by prominent African-American civil rights activists like W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Bethune McLeod) that it was designed to help:
"a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a ‘caste' system that operates as an added weight upon their efforts to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation."
Every quote from Sanger that I've been able to find suggests that she was in fact extremely sympathetic to the plight of minority groups like African-Americans.
-The second source of the accusation that Sanger was a racist stems from her putative relationship with the KKK. She did give at least one speech (presumably about eugenics and birth control) to a KKK meeting -- there may have been more. However, the KKK in the 1920s wasn't quite the same as the old KKK of the Reconstruction period. In the North, where they were most active, they were primarily a political and social movement which was agitating for immigration restriction. Sanger herself did support restrictions on the basis of what she called "defect" -- i.e., people with congenital illnesses or retardation should be excluded -- there's no evidence (that I've found) that she supported restriction based upon race or ethnicity. What I have found tends to support the opposite conclusion.
I thought this was a very interesting example of the importance of putting evidence in context (as well as the dangers of believing what you read on the internet). We should have interesting discussion about this next week.