Anti-Choice Campaign Aims to Undermine Support for Reproductive Rights by Falsely Claiming 'Black Genocide'
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For several years now, the religious right has been trying to appropriate the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an audacious strategy, given that Christian conservative politics were forged in the white Southern backlash to school integration. But it’s had some successes, particularly in rousing black churches against the gay rights movement. Now, the anti-abortion movement is making a push to enlist African Americans in their cause by framing abortion as a tool of eugenics and genocide.
The campaign is already having an impact. As the New York Times reported late last month, the overwhelmingly white Georgia Right to Life has spent more than $20,000 erecting 80 billboards around Atlanta that proclaim, “Black children are an endangered species.” The group has created a Web site, Too Many Aborted, with excellent production values, designed to portray legal abortion as a plot against the black community. Meanwhile, according to the Times, the new documentary Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, which purports to “trace connections among slavery, Nazi-style eugenics, birth control and abortion,” is finding an audience among black organizations nationwide. The Times quoted Markita Eddy, a sophomore at the historically black Morris Brown College, who had turned against abortion rights after seeing the film.
As propaganda, Maafa 21 is fairly ingenious, incorporating just enough truth to provide a surface plausibility. The word “Maafa” is a Swahili term to describe the period of black enslavement. In the film, narrator Markus Lloyd argues that the Maafa “did not end when the slaves were freed... a hidden racial agenda is keeping the Maafa alive into the 21st century.” That sounds true enough, though Lloyd isn’t talking about poverty, or educational disparities, or the legacy of Jim Crow—he’s talking about family planning and abortion rights.
What follows is a highly selective, distorted history of the reproductive rights movement. To be sure, that movement has some dark corners, and not everything in Maafa 21, which was directed by the white Texas anti-abortion activist Mark Crutcher, is untrue. Overall, though, it’s an exceedingly dishonest propaganda exercise, one that aims to convince African Americans that both family planning and evolutionary theory are part of a massive conspiracy against them.
There’s no denying that Margaret Sanger, the heroine of the American birth control movement, made alliances with eugenicists and eventually adopted some of their rhetoric; her oeuvre is full of language that sounds shocking to modern ears. Maafa 21 quotes from a letter in which she wrote of the need for a “simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people. I believe that now, immediately there should be national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.”
These words are noxious, but it’s also important to put them in context. As Sanger’s biographer, the historian Ellen Chesler, has written, in the 1920s (when Sanger’s career took off), eugenics “had become a popular craze in this country—promoted in newspapers and magazines as a kind of secular religion... The great majority of American colleges and universities introduced formal courses in the subject, and sociologists who embraced it took on what one historian has called a ‘priestly role.’”
Both supporters and opponents of birth control deployed eugenic arguments, and there were unregenerate racists on both sides. Debating Sanger, one Catholic bishop argued that “the races from northern Europe,” who he called “the finest type of people” needed to have at least four children per family to avoid “extinction.” Maafa 21 includes ugly quotes from the eugenicist Charles Davenport, but doesn’t mention that he opposed birth control. Later, we see an image of Hitler and the words “Natural Allies.” Naturally, the movie doesn’t mention that, upon gaining power, Hitler, eager for more German babies, moved quickly against legal abortion and birth control clinics.