Nell Irvin Painter: When Poverty Was White

March 24th, 2012

The New York Times
By Nell Irvin Painter
March 24, 2012

CARRIE BUCK, or rather her last name, appears just once in the books of Charles Murray, the conservative sociologist and author of the recent work “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” his portrait of the decline of poor white Americans. To find it, you have to look through the endnotes for the introduction to his most famous book, “The Bell Curve,” in which he cites Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court case that approved Ms. Buck’s involuntary sterilization.

It’s a striking omission, because her case highlights the historical blindness of Mr. Murray’s narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty, as Ms. Buck’s story illustrates, is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realize or want to admit.

In 1924 Virginia ordered Ms. Buck, 18 years old, unmarried and pregnant, to be forcibly sterilized. Her legal guardian appealed, and the case made it to the Supreme Court. The winning argument blamed her pregnancy on hereditary weaknesses — in particular, her presumed feeblemindedness. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s majority opinion entered history: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Involuntary sterilization was the early 20th century’s remedy for what Mr. Murray blames on changes in the 1960s. But it was precisely the changes of that era — for black civil rights, women’s rights, poor people’s rights — and socially committed Catholicism that ended this inhumane practice.

Along the way, though, something got lost. Ms. Buck, sterilization, white poverty — this older history disappeared in the mid-20th century, when prosperity isolated the stigmata of poverty in black Americans. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” laid blame on a black “tangle of pathology” of ghetto culture. Mr. Moynihan voiced a logic widespread at the time, translating the disarray associated with poverty into a racial trait.

And so when Mr. Murray faults poor whites’ morals today, he unwittingly joins an earlier tradition of blaming the poor for their condition, whether they be black in the 1960s or white at the turn of the 20th century.

The roots of the movement for the involuntary sterilization of poor whites — the policy that Ms. Buck embodied — reach back into 19th-century social-betterment circles and an abundant social science literature on poor families.

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