In the previous section, we have learnt about the origins of capitalism, however, we paid cursory attention to the racial character of that discourse. In this chapter, we will pay special attention to the ideas of race in the late 19th and 20th centuties which underpineed a number of discourses and practices in society (including capitalism which we studied in the last section). Crucially, race and racism remains a key tool of social classification in society and this is, without a doubt, tied to the history of Eugenics policies and social darwinism which served as an ideological centerpiece to justify white supremacy, historically and in the present. Thus, theories of race and eugenics were prominent in the late 19th  and 20th centuries and were applied in different societies. These unscientific bases in which these theories rested have been largely dismissed by modern scientific reseach, race is now seen as a socio-political construct rather than a biological determinant.[1] However, the danger of eugenics and social darwnist theories especially in the 19th and 20th centuries is that they were accepted as a fact of life without thorough examination of their accuracy. Moreover, they were central in the project of European colonialism and served justify indigenous disposession and genocide on the basis of race in many parts of the colonial world.

It should be acknowelegded that notions of race were applied in different ways in different societies, as the two case studies in this volume will show. We consider whether Australia applied Eugenics policies towards indigenous Australians. Eugenics mainly focusses on ‘breeding the best with the best’. On the one hand, in Australia, there was a policy of assimilation, of ‘breeding out blackness’ in what were then termed ‘half-caste’ children. In Germany, on the other hand, racial laws and eugenics policies were intended to achieve a racially pure German ‘master race’. This article will bring into view these factors which, as we know, underpinned the particular ways in which a ‘nation’ is defined. With this knowledge in mind, we will then outline the technicalities and politics of exclusion; in terms of who is defined as a member in society and who is not and why?

Theories and Practice:

Like many categories in society, ‘race’ has a long and complex history. A number of theorists and scholars in the late 19th and 20th centuries (and earlier) were interested to ‘study’ the relationships and differences between human beings. Megan Gannon, in her account on “race as a political construct”, submits that disciplines like science, antropology and many others have played a critical role in crystalizing racism in the late 19th and 20th centuries.[2] These discplines were premised on the view that there is something fundamental about ‘race’ and this should serve as a basis upon which a society should be organized. For example, in the 1730s, a Sweedish Naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, developed a system to show the relationships between living things. He classified human beings into four groups, namely European, Asiatic, American and African. He believed that there were more similarities than differences among these groups. [3]

Sixty Five years later, a German Naturalist, Johann Blumenbach, developed a system which classified humans into five groups namely; Negro (African), Mongolian (Asian), Malay (Southeast Asia), American Indian (American) and Caucasian (European). [4]He was of the view that Caucasians were most the advanced of the five ‘races’ and that the other races came out of the Caucasian race. A Dutch Scientist, Petrus Camper studied the skeletal remains of humans and animals. He believed that all humans came from a common ancestor but some had drifted away from the Biblical ideal than others. Following this trend, in the mid-1880s an American Antropologist, Stanley Morton, indicated that each race was created differently and separately. In this view, he ranked races according to the size of the brain. Through this, he believed that whites were the superior race and Africans were inferior. [5]

In the mid-1880s, a German Professor, Friedrich Tiedemann ‘studied’ the link between race, intelligence and brain size. His findings did not resonate with Morton’s findings. In 1854, Josia Nott and George Gliddon (both scientists) claimed that each race had developed separately and organized races and into a table showing a hierachical order. Therefore, an English Naturalist, Charles Darwin, follows a long trajectory of ‘scientists’ who were very much interested in ‘studying’ human behavior and differences. He developed a theory of ‘Natural Selection’ and ranked humans as another form of animal.[6] However, this went against the contemporary ideals and beliefs of the Church. He was of the view that plants and animals evolved from a few common ancestors by means of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’. The ‘fittest’ are the species that had adapted to the environment and will therefore pass more of their genes on to future generations.

All of this suggests that ‘scientists’ in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries were obsessed with issues of race. In that, they tried to find a ‘scientific’ basis for physical differences between individuals, social classes and races. For example, an English Biologist, famous for his hypothesis of social Darwinism whereby physcal force shapes history, developed the theory that became known as social Darwinism. He was the one who first used the word ‘evolution’ and the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Hence, social Darwinists believed that physical and social differences indicated reletive worth. For them, life was a ‘struggle for existence’. [7]

Industrialization and technological advancement as mechanisms of European domination

The effects of industrialization and technological advancement of America, Britain and Germany were used to justify the notion that white ‘races’were superior and more advanced than other races. European domination of other ‘races’ (through colonialization and empire building) especially in Africa in the late 19th century. These were built on assumptions that Europe had the ‘burdern’ to ‘civilise’ the peoples of ‘darkest Africa’. It was believed non-western peoples were too ‘weak’ to defend their territory, and they deserved to lose it. Exhibitions and fairs held in European cities in the late 19th century to celebrate achievements and to share ‘new’ knowledge. Here, racial hierarchies and rankings from highest to lowest were part of these exhibitions. These entrenched sincerely received notions that white Americans and Europeans were superior to Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. For example, people like (e.g., Saartjie Baartman) were put on show at fairs to encourage debate about racial inferiority.[8]


Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, invented the word eugenics from the Greek word eugenes or well-born. This focussed on the science of the improvement of the human ‘race’ by breeding the ‘best of the best’ and through this, controlling inherited human traits. Galton believed that an enlightened society should ‘weed out’ its unfit and allow them to die off to strengthen the racial stock. The aim was to ensure that only the ‘fittest’ should be encouraged to have children so that there would be an improvement of the ‘human stock’. This provided a ‘scientific’ framework for concepts about race. Eugenicists believed that there were genetic distinctions amongst races and individuals. Wealthy American businessmen financed research and the development of eugenics as a legitimate science. Charles Davenport set up a Eugenics Record Office. He claimed that ‘races’ inherited genetic traits. He published traits related to specific groups of immigrants that he studied.[9]

Positive Eugenics

• In some USA states ‘superior’ couples were encouraged to have more children

• Nationwide contests were held to determine the ‘ Fittest Family’ or ‘Better Babies’

• Many family planning clinics were opened as a result of these ideas

Negative Eugenics

• The belief and practice that discouraging or preventing reproduction of individuals deemed genetically unfit could eradicate many social problems

• In public policy this became sterilisation programmes: 30 US states passed sterilisation laws and about 65 000 persons were involuntarily sterilised

Modern understanding of race

Archaeology, palaeontology, and genetic research currently support the view that all humans are members of the same race. Fossil and genetic records and evidence support the idea of evolution. The Human Genome Project (2008) aimed to sequence and map all the genes (known as the genome) of humans. It showed in 2003 that the idea of ‘race’ is a false one. All humans are 99,9% the same. The idea of race has no scientific foundations supports the view that humans originated in Africa and that only a small group of related people of African origin left Africa and populated the world.

Practices of race and Eugenics in different countries

  • United States of America (USA):

Eugenics influenced laws and public policy in the USA in the early 1900s, e.g., state laws banned marriages if one partner was an alcoholic, feebleminded, insane or suffered from diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis.[10] Eugenicists recommended that budgets should not be ‘wasted’ on those declared ‘feebleminded’ or those too weak to survive. Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests developed to determine intelligence in order to identify those who were feebleminded. Tests were weighted in favour of white, Western culture. Immigration laws favoured northern Europeans and discouraged immigrants and were viewed as biologically inferior. Actions against Native Americans in the early 1900s justified the ‘struggle for existence’ theory.

An image showing racist set of ideas and practices which were prominent in the USA from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century Image Source

This image shows the winning family of a ‘Fitter’ family contesting and standing outside the Eugenics building (where contestants register) at the Kansas Free Fair, in Topeka, KS. Image Source

  • Australia:

Diseases and colonial policies that began in the late 1800s decimated the population of about 1 million Aboriginal Australians. Eugenics influenced colonial practices of social assimilation, extermination and ‘breeding out’ aboriginal blood. European immigration was encouraged to increase the white population.[11]

  • Namibia (German South-West Africa: GSWA)

In 1904 German authorities carried out a campaign to exterminate the Herero from GSWA genocide. The German general, von Trotha, called the genocide a ‘race war’. Dr Eugen Fischer from Germany Eugenics carried out research on the Nama and Herero who were in concentration and labour camps that were established.[12] He studied children called the ‘Rehoboth Bastards’ – children of Rehoboth women and German or Boer fathers. After experiments were carried out on them, he concluded that these children were mentally inferior to their fathers. As a result, mixed marriages were banned in GSWA. [13]His policies, set out in his book The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene, influenced the racial policies of the Nazis in the Third Reich.[14]

South Africa

After World War I eugenics influenced social and public policies. Many believed that cultural differences between whites and blacks in SA could be as a result of physiological differences in the brain. [15] In so doing, eugenicists in SA promoted white racial superiority, racial segregation and anti-miscegenation.[16] The Great Depression and resulting economic competition (e.g. for jobs) between blacks and whites. The encouragement of eugenicist ideas through keeping blacks oppressed and provide whites with jobs. The SA National Maternal and Family Welfare started a system of birth control that was aimed at the maintenance of white supremacy in the early 1930s.[17] In the 1960s, white women were encouraged to have babies in celebration of the founding of the republic. immigration policy encouraged white immigration. Family planning programme was implemented in the 1970s to distribute contraceptives freely to black women. [18]Some black women were threatened with job loss if they fell pregnant. some were sterilised without their knowledge or consent and there was also some sterilisation of the mentally ill.[19]

Case Study: Australia and the Indigenous Australians:

Willem Janszoon (Dutch navigator) was the first European to record first sight of Australia. After 1606 English sailors and explorers began landing on continent. Britain became interested in establishing a colony there. [20]Once Britain lost the American War of Independence and the colonies there shifted attention to Australia. On 26 January 1788 a British colony was established at Botany Bay, the start of New South Wales. 162 000 male and female convicts from England and Ireland were sent to Australia between 1788 to 1867. Many were pardoned and given land. Plan of first governor of New South Wales (Captain Arthur Phillip) was to establish friendly relations with the Australian Aborigines and to try to reform the convicts. Conditions for farming were extremely harsh and difficult. Many convicts lacked the required skills to farm. By 1791 trade was established and conditions showed an improvement. Stonemasons were in high demand. Many female convicts became domestic servants to the free settlers, but some were forced into prostitution. Many men were handed to the free settlers to work on farms and extend infrastructure. [21]Settlers viewed the indigenous people as less than human. First century of colonisation advanced conflict and land dispossession.

The deterioration of colonial relations in Australia as a result of dispossession and oppression burgeoned. For example, in 1790 conflict arose as settlers displaced the Aborigines off their land. Guerrilla attacks were launched against the white settlers. In 1835 two treaties were signed with a clan to ‘buy’ 600 000 acres of land near Melbourne. Later the treaties were overridden as though the land had been ‘empty’ when the British arrived. Aborigines raided farms or attacked sheep and cattle until the late 1880s in an attempt to stop settlers from taking their land. [22]By 1888 only about 80 000 of the 1 million Aborigines survived.

Further developments:

The continent was colonised progressively by the British and new colonies were established: an Diemen’s Land 1803, Western Australia in 1827, South Australia in 1936, Victoria in 1859 and the Northern Territories in 1912. In 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was formed with a federal government. Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January. Aborigines consider this day one of mourning and protest. Attempts by indigenous Australians to have their story and heritage recognised were ignored until 1967 when attitudes began to change.

Race theories in Australia in the early 20th century:

Colonists viewed the indigenous Australians as inferior and scarcely human. Their way of life was seen as ‘primitive and uncivilised’, and colonialists believed that their culture would eventually die out. This view justified colonial conquest of the Aboriginal people. Social anthropologists from universities who ‘studied’ the way of life of the Aborigines reinforced this view: added some ‘scientific’ credibility to observations about this ‘primitive’ society with the lowest level of kinship and the most ‘primitive’ form of religion. It also added to the views of Australian eugenicists without deeply analysing the complexities of Aboriginal life.

Eugenics associations were established in many states, e.g. New South Wales and Victoria. In 1960 the Racial Hygiene Association, based in Sydney, became the Family Planning Association. A prominent eugenicist in Melbourne was Prof Richard Berry who believed the Aborigines to be the most primitive form of humans. Berry studied and measured people’s heads to prove his theory that white, educated people were the smartest, while the poor, criminals and Aboriginal Australian were the least so.[23] Berry proposed a euthanasia chamber for so-called mental defectives. Ideas of racial decay and racial suicide were aimed at strengthening the number of whites in society, especially in the north where Asian populations were expanding. In 1901 the Immigration Restriction Act was passed (known as the White Australia Policy). White racial unity was promoted as a form of racial purity. [24]

 Immigration was encouraged from the UK in 1922 to swell European numbers and thousands of children were sent to keep Australia white. In 1912, white mothers offered £5 childbirth bounty in order to grow the size of wealthy middle-class families, which tended to have fewer children than poorer, pauper families in society. This was partly in response to the debate around ‘racial suicide’. The underlying assumption was that the middle class would die out because they were not having enough children.  Decrease in number of middle-class whites led to notions of ‘racial decay’. It was felt that ‘racial poisons’ (e.g. TB, venereal disease, prostitution, alcoholism and criminality) would decimate whites with good stock (middle class). Plans were made to deal with ‘racially contaminated’ and misfits to keep middle class ‘pure’.[25]

Australia’s immigration policies:

The White Australian policy of 1901 aimed at cohesion among the white population in the country. It enshrined discrimination and white superiority. Between 1920 and 1967 thousands of British children between the ages of 3 and 14 were sent to Australia and Canada to boost the size of the white population.[26] These children came from poor backgrounds and were mostly in social care. Many of these children were cut off from their families and were often told they were orphans. Many of these children stayed in orphanages in Australia or became unpaid cheap labour on farms and in some instances were physically and sexually abused. The children who were forcibly migrated under the system became known as the Lost Generation. Catholic Church established homes to accommodate and assist migrant children.[27] In 1987 the Child Migrant Trust under the leadership of Margaret Humphreys began to publicise the abuse of child migrants.

Who were the Stolen Generation?

Children of mixed race were either viewed as inferior by some or as slightly more superior than other Aborigines.[28] But, at the start of the 20th century, these ‘half-caste’ children were viewed as a threat to the future of the white race in Australia. [29]In 1913, W. Baldwin Spencer set up 13 proposals to manage the ‘half-caste’ populations in and around the towns, mining housing and other sites of contact between ‘races’. These included, for example, segregated living areas in certain towns, limits set on the employment of indigenous population by white Australians, the removal of Aboriginal people to a compound, the construction of a ‘half-caste’ home in one area, a ban on interracial contact and authority given to protectors in some areas to remove ‘half-caste’ children from their families and place them in homes. [30]

By the 1930s the number of part-Aboriginal population increased. Dr Cecil Cook and A.O. Neville believed that the white race was headed for extinction.[31] They were responsible for assimilation programmes for ‘breeding blackness out.’ About 100 000 ‘mixed-race’ children were taken from their parents between 1910 and 1970 to ‘breed out’ Aboriginal blood. [32]Cook encouraged lighter-skinned women to marry white men and in this way ‘breed out their colour’.  In 1951, the new Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, claimed that assimilation would be the new policy to deal with the indigenous people and motivated this on the grounds of looking after the child’s welfare. [33]

Policemen or government officials often took children from their sobbing mothers ? they were raised as orphans. Many of these children experienced abuse and neglect. Labels were used, e.g. quadroon, octaroon, to indicate how much ‘white’ blood they had. This policy only ended in 1971. These children are known today as the Stolen Generation.

Apologies to the stolen and lost generations

The practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families was not spoken about until 1997. An official enquiry revealed consistent abuse, exploitation in the labour market, social dislocation that led to alcoholism, violence, and early death. In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in parliament for the laws and policies that inflicted grief, suffering and loss on them. He particularly mentioned the ‘Stolen Generation’ who had been removed from their families. In 2010 Rudd apologised to the ‘Lost Generation’ of children who were held in orphanages and other institutions between 1930 and 1970.

This content was originally produced for the SAHO classroom by
Ayabulela Ntwakumba and Thandile Xesi

End Notes

[1] Gannon, Megan. "Race is a social construct, scientists argue." Scientific American 5 (2016).

[2] Gannon, Megan. "Race is a social construct, scientists argue." Scientific American 5 (2016).

[3] Reid, Gordon McGregor. "Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778): His life, philosophy and science and its relationship to modern biology and medicine." Taxon 58, no. 1 (2009): 18-31.

[4] Jahoda, Gustav. "Towards scientific racism." Race and racialization: Essential readings (2007): 24-30.

[5] Jackson, J., Nadine M. Weidman, and Gretchen Rubin. "The origins of scientific racism." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 50 (2005): 66-79.

[6] Darwin, Charles. Charles Darwin's natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[7] Boeckmann, Cathy. A question of character: Scientific racism and the genres of American fiction, 1892-1912. University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[8] Tobias, Phillip V. "Saartje Baartman: her life, her remains, and the negotiations for their repatriation from France to South Africa: news & views." South African Journal of Science 98, no. 3 (2002): 107-110.

[9] Davenport, Charles B. "Research in eugenics." Science 54, no. 1400 (1921): 391-397.

[10] Amy, Jean-Jacques, and Sam Rowlands. "Legalised non-consensual sterilisation–eugenics put into practice before 1945, and the aftermath. Part 1: USA, Japan, Canada and Mexico." The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care 23, no. 2 (2018): 121-129.

[11] Broome, Richard. Aboriginal Australians. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1982.

[12] Bridgman, Jon, and Leslie J. Worley. "Genocide of the Hereros." Totten,. Samuel/Parsons,. S... W illiam/Charny,. W.. Israel.(Hrsg.):.. Century. of. Genocide:. Critical. Essays. and. Eyewithness. Accounts... New. York/Oxon:. Routledge,. S (2004): 15-51.

[13] Gewald, Jan-Bart, G. J. Abbink, M. E. de Bruijn, and K. van Walraven. "Herero genocide in the twentieth century: Politics and memory." African dynamics (2003): 279-304.

[14] Ibid.,

[15] Singh, Jerome Amir. "Project Coast: eugenics in apartheid South Africa." Endeavour 32, no. 1 (2008): 5-9.

[16] Naicker, Linda. "The role of eugenics and religion in the construction of race in South Africa." Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae 38, no. 2 (2012): 1-7.

[17] Ibid.,

[18] Levine, Philippa, and Alison Bashford. "Introduction: Eugenics and the modern world." In The Oxford handbook of the history of eugenics. 2010.

[19] Klausen, Susanne M. "Eugenics and the maintenance of White supremacy in modern South Africa." In Eugenics at the Edges of Empire, pp. 289-309. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018.

[20] O'Donoghue, Tom. "Colonialism, education and social change in the British Empire: The cases of Australia, Papua New Guinea and Ireland." Paedagogica Historica 45, no. 6 (2009): 787-800.

[21] Ibid.,

[22] Docker, John. "A plethora of intentions: genocide, settler colonialism and historical consciousness in Australia and Britain." The International Journal of Human Rights 19, no. 1 (2015): 74-89.

[23] Ibid.,

[24] Ibid.,

[25] Ibid.,

[26] Asch, Michael. "Radcliffe-Brown on colonialism in Australia." Histories of Anthropology Annual 5, no. 1 (2009): 152-165.

[27] Evans, Julie. "Colonialism and the rule of law: the case of South Australia." In Crime and Empire 1840-1940, pp. 71-89. Willan, 2013.

[28] Ibid.,

[29] Ibid.,

[30] Read, Peter. Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[31] Hume, Lynne. "The dreaming in contemporary aboriginal Australia." Indigenous religions: a companion. London: Cassell (2000): 125-138.

[32] Ibid.,

[33] Ibid.,

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