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Saturday, February 09, 2019


Voter ID as electoral eugenics

by Tom Sullivan

It's a wonder more voting rights advocates haven't been charged with sedition. It was an accusation leveled at Joseph Mulloy, Alan McSurely and Carl Braden by the state of Kentucky in 1967. It was Braden's second sedition charge. The first was in 1954 for helping an African American couple buy a home in Louisville. Kentucky treated that as an attempt to overthrow the commonwealth. Braden served eighteen months in prison before the Supreme Court in another case ruled state-level sedition charges unconstitutional.

That made the 1967 charges in Pike County, KY illegal, historian Elizabeth Catte writes in "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (2018)." But legal, schmeagal. None of that mattered to the sheriff and local power brokers put out with anti-poverty and anti-coal activists they accused of attempting to "take over Pike County from the power structure and put it in the hands of the poor." That was just over blocking Puritan Coal Company bulldozers. Heaven forbid they helped poor people vote.

Catte's fierce little book rebuts myths perpetuated about “Greater Appalachia” by J.D. Vance ("Hillbilly Elegy") and others. Catte's Appalachia is more than "Trump Country." Her Appalachia includes dogged organizers like Braden, the United Mine Workers of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and communities organized against mountaintop-removal mining. The Knoxville native argues the hollow-eyed, barefoot-and-impoverished, black-and-white images from federally funded photo essays dating from the Depression to the War on Poverty amount to a "willful representation of a community" as backward, violent, and chronically dependent. All the more reason for extractive capitalism imposed from without (and supported by elites within) to retain its monopoly on power.

Selling the 1960s War on Poverty to the rest of the country meant giving white, middle-class Americans images they would find relatable. Photographers sought images of white poverty and portrayed them as representative of an entire region, Catte argues. They eschewed photographs of "more 'modern' residents who owned gas stations and restaurants." Or of African Americans. Or of Native Americans. Vance is simply the most recent popularizer of the hillbilly stereotype that enabled coal barons to spin wholesale destruction of the land, air, water, and the exploitation of a people as modernization.

But something darker, Catte believes, lies beneath the established narrative Vance perpetuates of hillbillies as a genetically distinct (read: inbred), white Scots-Irish monoculture. Catte traces the efforts of outsiders to improve the region's "less-evolved" human stock through relocation or sterilization:

Virginia was already at the forefront of the American eugenics movement thanks to the efforts of the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The New York collective helped Virginia's politicians draft sterilization and racial integrity laws. In 1927 the fruits of their labor blossomed when the infamous Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell effectively legalized compulsory eugenic sterilization nationwide which was practiced in Virginia until 1979.
Seen as unresponsive after years of War on Poverty assistance landed Appalachians among the ranks of the undeserving poor. Conservatives painted them as born into a culture of poverty. The hillbilly myth "allows conservative intellectuals to talk around stale stereotypes of African Americans and other nonwhite individuals while holding up the exaggerated degradations of a white group thought to defy evidence of white privilege." Scots-Irish heritage is there, Catte acknowledges. But exaggerating its influences in Appalachia and blaming Appalachians for their own exploitation provides cover for explaining persistent poverty among nonwhites elsewhere as a function of defective genes rather than entrenched systems of power.

Vance hopes readers will take from "Elegy" an understanding "of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.” Catte counters that race is exactly the point. The National Review's response to "Elegy" was "positively gleeful," Catte writes, telling its readers, "The white working class has followed the black underclass and Native Americans not just into family disintegration, addiction, and other pathologies, but also perhaps into the most important self-sabotage of all, the crippling delusion that they cannot improve their lot by their own effort." Vance proposes bringing in venture capitalists to show hillbillies how it's done.

Catte punches back, arguing the hillbilly narrative "would retroactively vindicate [conservatives] for viciously deploying the same stereotypes against nonwhite people for decades."

Catte tells Guernica, "For those who like to indulge in that brand of self-righteousness, it is always the poor who fail our country, never a country that has failed the poor, and race and class work together in that regard to make poverty seem innate among certain populations."

As for popular depictions of a region populated by hillbillies, Catte writes, "It turns out that if you create and sell a version of Appalachia as a place filled with defective people, eugenicists start paying attention to your work." She introduces readers to Charles Davenport of the Eugenics Records Office, to writer, attorney and eugenicist Henry Caudill, and to Stanford scientist William Shockley's Foundation for Research and Education of Eugenics and Dysgenics.

What is striking in Catte's exploration of their influences in Charles' Murray's "The Bell Curve" and J.D. Vance's account of Greater Appalachia is the matter-of-factness about eugenicists' efforts at improving the gene pool of the undeserving poor. In addition to sterilization, Caudill suggested moving in army camps. Caudill believed soldiers impregnating mountain women would be "to the everlasting benefit of the region as a whole."

More striking for voting rights activists are the parallels Catte does not draw between efforts to improve the Appalachian gene pool and lofty-sounding efforts "to clean up the voter rolls" in the name of election integrity. Purging voter rolls, erecting registration hurdles, denying voting rights to ex-felons, demanding photo IDs for voting — those efforts to purify the voter pool are not about race either(!), but enacted under the public rationale of strengthening American democracy as a whole.

To extend Catte's account of American eugenics, manipulation of voting laws to retain a monopoly on power appears as simply another manifestation of a racial stratagem that resurfaces decade after decade in cunning variations.