Thursday, July 12, 2018

California's Number One Citizen Was A White Supremacist


timeline |  Charles M. Goethe invested a lot of money and philanthropy into Northern California. His environmental work earned him a prestigious park in his name, not to mention a school and some shiny plaques. He did good. He also believed white people were the superior race and needed to biologically quarantine themselves from diseased, delinquent Mexicans. If he could prevent brown people from procreating all together, even better.

At the time, this version of white supremacy didn’t stop politicians, educators, and community leaders from singing his praises. In fact, by mid century, Goethe’s name (pronounced “gay-tee”) was everywhere, enshrined in public parks and schools around the state capital. But after his death, and after decades of sanitizing the past, Goethe’s troubling legacy tumbled out.

American eugenics simmered in the early 20th century, then boiled into the 1920s and 1930s. Goethe was a strong force in advancing the conversation. He feared that Nordic people’s historical “contributions to all mankind” were under threat by “the coming of heterogeneity.” Under a guise of protecting this group, who, in California he interpreted as the state’s earliest pioneers, he founded the Immigration Study Commission in the early 1920s. Its target was “low powers,” otherwise known as Mestizos and Mexicans, that were infecting the nation’s “germ plasm,” according to Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (2015).

In 1927, he wrote to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “The Anglo-Saxon birthrate is low. Peons multiply like rabbits….If race remains absolutely pure, and if an old American-Nordic family averages three children while an incoming Mexican peon family averages seven, by the fifth generation, the proportion of white Nordics to Mexican peons descended from these two families would be as 243 to 16,807.”

Goethe lobbied to close the border and instructed his real-estate brokers not to sell to Mexican people, who he viewed as sub-intelligent criminals.

Eugenics gave “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable,” according to one of its founders, Francis Galton. Eugenicists inferred that heredity proved humans were inherently unequal, and race was the primary marker of not only inferior and superior genes but also of social supremacy. Leaders in the movement claimed brown and black populations suffered from inferior health due primarily to intrinsically flawed biology. But the wealth and social influence enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon populations was proof of a vast intellectual edge, too. To protect whites from “contamination” was considered, by eugenicists, a noble cause in the purification of the human race.

Already a member of several influential eugenics organizations, in 1933 Goethe organized and funded the Eugenics Society of Northern California. Over two decades, he lectured and lobbied with the goal of “reducing biological illiteracy.” During this time, he invested an estimated $1 million to publish pamphlets on racial superiority, family planning, tantrums against racial diversity, and other topics he considered related. In a 1936 presidential address to the national Eugenics Research Association, Goethe publicly defended Nazi Germany’s “honest yearnings for a better population” and proclaimed the country’s sterilization strategy as “administered wisely, and without racial cruelty.” (Two years earlier, Germany had sterilized roughly 5,000 people per month. Hitler praised America’s forced sterilization campaigns, such as Goethe’s, for the idea.) In his speech, Goethe emphasized the duty of Nordic nations to sterilize the “markedly social inadequate, such as those insane, blind, criminal by inheritance.” Between 1907 and 1940, tens of thousands of mostly poor women were involuntarily sterilized in the U.S. At least 20,000 Californians residing in state prisons and hospitals were sterilized before 1964, with laws supported by Goethe.

What made Goethe unique at the time wasn’t necessarily his white supremacist beliefs; it was the fact that he interwove racial pseudoscience with progressive tentpole issues, such as conservation and public education. Throughout his lifetime, he designated several redwood preserves, built playgrounds, financed an orphanage, established ranger programs, contributed to San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences planetarium, and, with his wife Mimi, was considered the founder of the interpretive parks movement. Each of these he considered a step toward the purification of a safer, cleaner, more wholesome, and white America.