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ICE is accused of sterilizing detainees. That echoes the U.S.’s long history of forced sterilization.

White people who support such forced sterilizations are paternalistic rather than driven by racial animus, my research suggests.

- September 25, 2020

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General received a formal complaint alleging that unnecessary hysterectomies were being performed on immigrants in custody at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention center in Georgia. When systematically targeted toward a particular group, as in the case of China’s reported treatment of Uighur Muslims, forcible sterilization meets the International Criminal Court’s definition of genocide. The United States has a long history of using this practice to prevent women in stigmatized groups from having children. My research finds that many Americans still support sterilizing incarcerated women.

Forced sterilization in the U.S.

Since the early 20th century, thousands of Americans have been forcibly sterilized. Thirty-three states had eugenics boards with the power to order sterilizations. Oregon’s board approved its final sterilization in 1981. These boards targeted disabled people disproportionately, a practice upheld by the Supreme Court in 1927.

Research suggests this is not the only bias that existed in how these sterilizations were applied. North Carolina’s eugenics board targeted Black women at higher rates than White women after World War II. Outside these state-run programs, famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was given an unnecessary and nonconsensual hysterectomy in 1961; she claimed that somewhere around two-thirds of all Black women in Hinds County, Mississippi had had the procedure, colloquially known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Though North Carolina has apologized for and even compensated victims of its eugenics program, forced sterilizations have persisted into this century. For instance, from 2006 to 2010, California prisons sterilized at least 148 women.

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Who supports forced sterilizations?

Those who support such sterilization do not necessarily see the procedures as cruel or violent; nor do they necessarily feel animus toward the group they target. For instance, in 2017, Tennessee judge Sam Benningfield was formally reprimanded in 2017 for offering defendants 30 fewer days in jail in exchange for agreeing to be sterilized. The judge claimed that he was trying to give the people in front of his court “a chance … to make something of themselves.”

I wanted to know whether this attempt to deny agency to someone to help them was a form of paternalism. Even when not motivated by animus, this attitude can still have discriminatory results. That is because such paternalism often targets non-Whites, particularly Black Americans.

I created an original scale to measure this disposition, defined by the pairing of two attitudes: first, a desire to improve Black people’s lives, and second, a belief that the group cannot do so for themselves without aid from a more competent patron. What I call the Black paternalism scale includes a series of questions intended to get at the trade off between wanting to help Black people and allowing them the agency to decide their own fate. I focus specifically on how these attitudes manifest in White Americans relative to Black Americans, but similar dynamics could be found relative to a number of racialized groups.

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How I did my research

In July 2019 I fielded a national survey via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, with 1,756 White American respondents. Each respondent was asked to answer questions from the Black paternalism scale and then asked whether they supported giving judges the option to order sterilization as a punishment for women who, while pregnant, use crack cocaine.

I ask about this specific case for a few reasons. First, crack cocaine is strongly associated with African Americans and is likely to make race-related attitudes more salient when considering the question. Second, the moral indignation over “crack babies”, likely influenced by the racialized nature of the drug, led to a criminalization of these births that does not happen for other harmful prenatal activities. Around 30 percent of respondents favored this policy.

Scoring more highly on the racialized paternalism measure strongly predicts support for this policy, even when controlling for a host of other political and racial attitudes that have been validated by other research, like authoritarianism”, a preference for adherence to a strong central authority, and “racial resentment,” a measure capturing animosity toward Black people. Moving from those who scored at the lowest end of the Black paternalism scale to those who scored the highest, support for sterilization goes up by 30 percent.

Despite the support for forced sterilization, Whites who scored high on Black paternalism do not express animosity toward African Americans. In fact, they are significantly more likely than those who score lower on the scale to express positive feelings about Black people. Similarly, Democrats are actually slightly more likely than Republicans to show high levels of this attitude.

We have no evidence that racism motivated ICE’s sterilization of immigrant women in detention. But those in government custody often appear to be the ones who are targeted. Given racial biases throughout the criminal justice system, people of color will likely be disproportionately affected – as has happened in Georgia.

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Steven Moore (@steventmoor) is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.