White supremacists and neo-Nazis are marching down U.S. streets propagating hate, but they’re being met by large numbers of counter-protesters who aren’t interested in tolerating their presence. Among them are members of the disability community.
The growing public profile of emboldened white supremacists and Nazis in the United States is of grave concern to disabled people of color, especially the Black disabled community, and to white disabled people working in solidarity with them. As disabled advocate, writer, and consultant Vilissa Thompson told Rewire, “There have always been people with disabilities in every movement.”
But the disability community’s worries also stem from the history of eugenics and its entanglement with race, disability, and class. For all disabled people, worries about white nationalists and Nazi sentiment on the rise take on a highly personal dimension.
Eugenics is the notion that it’s both possible and necessary to “breed” what proponents called a “stronger race.” Much of the coverage on its history—including its origins in England, rapid mainstream adoption in the United States, and spread to a then-emerging German politician named Adolf Hitler—has focused on its horrific anti-Semitic and racist elements, as well as its targeting of low-income people. The forcible sterilization of tens of thousands of people across the nation was among eugenics proponents’ attempts to control bodily autonomy. These numbers encompassed Black, Native, Asian, and Latinx people, as well as poor and working-class people of all races.
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It also included the eradication of the disability community. In fact, this was an important goal of the eugenics movement—which was regrettably sometimes intertwined with the birth control movement—from the start. This shameful part of U.S. history has not been forgotten by the disability community, or by white supremacists.
The infamous U.S. Supreme Court Buck v. Bell decision in 1927 validated forcible sterilization laws, and was never formally struck down. The notion that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it in the majority opinion, was taken to heart in a society that viewed disability as a tragedy, and a negative. The eradication of disabled people from public life was considered a public service—why, after all, would anyone want to “suffer” from a condition that could be prevented by ensuring they were never born? And why should society pay to support disabled people when they were simply drains on society?
In Germany, eugenics rhetoric reached especially sinister heights. It wasn’t enough to eliminate genetic disabilities—or to attempt to do so with bad science and forced sterilization targeting as many as 400,000 Germans under a 1934 law. In 1939, the Nazis began Aktion T4, a “euthanasia” campaign targeting disabled Germans, many of whom were children, rounding them up in vans for removal to “clinics” where they were murdered. At least 200,000 people were killed under the program. It was, in many ways, a test for the massacres at scale that followed. The subsequent Holocaust killed an estimated 6 million Jewish people in the quest for “racial purity,” but it also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, along with many others—including Roma, LGBTQ people, and political prisoners.
White supremacists in the U.S. carry Nazi flags at marches and make Nazi salutes at events, betraying the dark inspirations of their movement. And with their Nazi worship comes a predilection for eugenics as well. Charles Murray, a darling of the white supremacist movement, leans heavily on pseudoscience to advance eugenics arguments, while Richard Spencer sings the praises of abortion for eliminating Black and brown babies. Meanwhile, some active in white supremacist movements are taking advantage of home DNA test kits to prove their racial purity—even though such kits are deeply flawed when it comes to detecting ancestry. White supremacists are obsessed with inheritance and the belief that genes and skin color determine fitness, a legacy of the eugenics movement so heartily endorsed by the Nazis they idolize.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, to learn that white supremacists and their allies also embrace eugenics rhetoric. Their narrative of whiteness as superiority does not include disabled people, regardless of race, though they often cloak their bigotry in arguments about “human biodiversity,” an ideology that asserts genetics determine intelligence, athleticism, and behavior. Meanwhile, white nationalists and the right more broadly revel in disablist rhetoric like the use of “libtards” (a portmanteau of “liberal” and “retard”) and accuse disabled people of “faking it” and sucking government resources. Take, for instance, Steve Bannon asserting “genetic superiority” or Jeff Sessions praising an outdated immigration law that restricted entry on the basis of disability. Disabled people, it is implied, are very much not welcome in these movements.
For the disability community, there’s a lot at stake in resistance to white supremacy, starting with the fact that many disabled people are targets for white supremacist movements because of their race or faith. And the government’s failure to act on, and sometimes its complicity with, a movement with eliminationist tendencies is worrisome to those concerned about their survival in Trump’s United States. Notably, people of color are statistically more likely to be disabled in the first place. A variety of factors contribute to this differential diagnosis of disability, including the interactions of disability and poverty, occupational injuries, and health-care discrimination.
White disabled people have an inherent moral imperative to work in solidarity with their disabled siblings of color, and to be the first to put their bodies and lives on the line. That’s something disabled protesters of all races are well accustomed to—they’ve been doing it for months to resist Republican attacks on health care—but in racialized attacks, white people can and must use their privilege for good. Failure to do so enables and perpetuates white supremacy.
By emboldening white supremacists to become more active, President Donald Trump has effectively promoted the growth of eugenics conversations, which in turn play out in policy conversations like health care. After all, if disabled people, low-income people, and people of color shouldn’t exist in the first place, then they don’t need Medicaid coverage—or Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations, voting rights, or a free public education. At the New Republic, Sarah Jones argues that Trump’s inner circle also actively embraces many eugenics values.
It is also imperative to note that eugenics goes beyond explicitly white supremacist movements. Coercive sterilization in prison populations is still a reality, as are programs that provide cash compensation in exchange for sterilization to low-income people and people struggling with substance abuse disorders, to name just a few examples. So-called progressives, for instance, also uncritically support measures that can have the ultimate effect of eradicating disability—including gene editing and physician-assisted suicide.
“Even in the modern day, we’re trying to get rid of disability,” Thompson pointed out. “Nobody talks about disability unless disabled people are there.”
She said she used her speech at a spontaneous Charlottesville solidarity march held during this year’s Netroots Nation in Atlanta to “reiterate the importance of, particularly to Black activists who are nondisabled, to really pay attention to what’s going on with Black disabled people and other people of color who are disabled. Every issue you care about, we fit into that somehow.” For every issue progressives should be concerned about, she commented, “our statistics are worse”—like the pay gap, homelessness, unemployment, poor health outcomes, and much, much more. For disabled people of color, as Thompson pointed out, these issues are complicated by their experiences of racial oppression.
The seeming absence of that awareness in anti-white supremacy actions and other activism, Thompson said, is the consequence of “lacking the disability lens within [progressive] work, and the failure to see disability outside of medical, pity, charity models, inspiration porn, all those negative identities.”
“People need to see disability as a culture, and an identity,” she said.