Should Oxy rescind an honorary degree to a racist recipient?

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In his book “Applied Eugenics,” written in 1918, Paul Popenoe wrote: “No matter how much one may admire some of the Negro’s individual traits, one must admit that his development of group traits is primitive, and suggests a mental development which is also primitive.” The Negro race, according to Popenoe, must be “placed very near zero on the scale” of contributions to civilization. Popenoe concluded that “in comparison with some other races the Negro race is germinally lacking in the higher developments of intelligence.”

In 1929, Popenoe co-authored another book, “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” in which he called for “race cleansing” to improve society by encouraging or requiring the sterilization of so-called inferior races and the mentally “defective” so they wouldn’t have children.

That year, Occidental College bestowed on Popenoe an honorary degree “in recognition of his researches and experiments in date growing in California and the field of eugenics,” according to the Los Angeles Times. For the rest of his life, he identified himself as “Dr. Popenoe,” even though he never graduated from college. Almost a half-century later, in 1976, the college presented Popenoe with its Auld Lang Syne Award for “unwavering loyalty to Occidental College and the principle for which it stands.”

It would be easy to dismiss Popenoe as an extremist, a quack or a fringe figure in American science and popular culture. But, in fact, Popenoe was an influential opinion-shaper in the United States and around the world. Although eugenics is now discredited, in the early 1900s many esteemed Americans, including scientists, embraced its ideas. Billionaire philanthropists like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Harriman funded eugenics research. “Eugenics language was everywhere,” explained York University historian Molly Ladd-Taylor, author of “Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century,” in an interview.

Even Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, had a fling with eugenics, although she never embraced Popenoe’s views. “She was primarily advocating for women’s reproductive rights,” Ladd-Taylor said.

Racism is America’s original sin. It pervades every aspect of our history, politics, economy, and culture. No institution — including colleges and universities — is immune from the country’s racist past and contemporary legacy, as Craig Steven Wilder observed in his 2013 book, “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

In recent years, a number of prominent universities – including Brown, Princeton, Georgetown, Yale Columbia, the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary and others — created task forces and programs to excavate their racist history in the context of the wider society. These efforts explore their institutions’ financial ties to slavery, the racist views of some founders, faculty and alumni, their admissions and hiring practices, and their evolving curriculum, including courses that, wittingly or unwittingly, reflected society’s white supremacist values.

In recent weeks, Occidental has been embarrassed by revelations of some racist incidents by students during the 1980s. Last month, Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite ‘84 resigned from Oxy’s board of trustees after a photograph of her and two classmates in blackface was discovered in the 1984 edition of La Encina, the college yearbook. Earlier this month, The Occidental newspaper uncovered a photograph in the 1980 yearbook of Barry Crosthwaite ‘80 captioned “The Aryan Alliance.” Before the controversy erupted, the couple had pledged $1.5 million help fund a new campus pool. Whether their name will adorn the pool is now in question. Both Jennifer and Barry Crosthwaite have apologized.

Some might dismiss such racist incidents in the 1980s as simply offensive acts by unthinking undergraduates. But the honorary degree and the Auld Lang Syne award to Paul Popenoe were official acts by the college, endorsed by the board of trustees in 1929 and again in 1976. Rescinding these awards might be a first step in reckoning with this ugly episode in Oxy’s history.

A brief recounting of Paul Popenoe’s ideas and influence might be a good place to begin understanding how Oxy came to honor an influential racist.

Born in 1888 in Kansas, Popenoe grew up in California, where his father was a pioneer in the avocado industry. He attended Oxy for two years from 1905 to 1907. He transferred to Stanford, where he studied with its president, biologist David Starr Jordon, but he dropped out after one year to take care of his ailing father. He worked for several years as a newspaper editor, then worked briefly as an agricultural explorer collecting date specimens in Asian and Africa for his father’s nursery. In 1913, he published his first book, “Date Growing in the Old World and the New.”

Popenoe soon shifted his focus from plants to human breeding. In 1913, Stanford’s Jordan appointed Popenoe the editor of the “Journal of Heredity,” where he worked until 1917. In that position, he developed an interest in eugenics, a pseudo-science that was gaining popularity among academics, politicians and the general public, claiming that scientists could use their knowledge of biology and heredity to improve society through selective breeding. He wrote “Applied Eugenics” in 1918 to explain “the practical means by which society may encourage the reproduction of superior persons and discourage that of inferiors.” It became a popular college textbook, with several updated editions. The book includes a chapter about the alleged racial inferiority of African Americans and devotes many pages to encouraging people with “good” heredity to marry and have many children.

In 1928, Ezra Gosney, a wealthy Pasadena businessman, created the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), which soon became one of the most influential pro-eugenics organizations in the country. Its members included Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler; Cal Tech professor Robert Millikan, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist; USC President Rufus B. von Klein Smid; Lewis Terman, the Stanford psychologist who developed the IQ test and Stanford president David Jordan.

Gosney (1855-1942), who also founded the Polytechnic School in Pasadena, recruited Popenoe as HBF’s chief researcher and propagandist. Popenoe moved to Pasadena and they became influential figures, particularly as advocates for sterilizing the mentally ill and “inferior” races, including African Americans and Mexicans. (In 2013, concerned about his legacy, Polytechnic School changed Gosney Hall to Founders Hall.) 

In numerous publications, Popenoe warned about the dangers of “race suicide,” fearing that white Americans would soon be outnumbered by people of color and immigrants, and that mentally “unfit” people would have more children than well-off white families.

These were not idle ideas. In 1909, California passed a law that gave prisons and asylums the authority to sterilize inmates and patients if doing so would improve their “physical, mental, or moral condition.” Amendments to the law in 1913 and 1917, drawing on eugenics ideas, allowed physicians to sterilize people whom they diagnosed as having a hereditary “mental disease” that could be “transmitted to descendants.” 

Between 1909 and 1929, at least 6,255 people — 45 percent of them women — were sterilized in state hospitals, more than in the entire rest of the country. Many of the women sterilized were classified as “bad girls” and described as “oversexed,” passionate,” or “sexually wayward.” 

In 1929, the same year that Oxy gave Popenoe an honorary degree, he and Gosney published a report called “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” praising California’s program, which by the 1960s had coercively sterilized over 20,000 people. The law wasn’t repealed until 1979 and in 2003 Gov. Gray Davis issued an apology for the program.

“Sterilization for Human Betterment” was one of many books, reports, and pamphlets that Popenoe and the HBF would produce on the benefits of sterilization. He also disseminated model sterilization legislation to encourage laws to limit the reproduction of people they considered to be “unfit.” In its infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization laws were constitutional. (You can learn more about that outrageous ruling in Adam Cohen’s 2017 book, “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.”) By the mid-1930s, 30 states allowed eugenic sterilization and 41 states prohibited marriage among the “feebleminded” and insane. Popenoe estimated that about 10 million Americans — about 10% of the population — should be sterilized.

Although many prominent Americans embraced eugenics, others rejected it as phony science. In the late 1920s, Harvard turned down a $60,000 donation to fund courses in eugenics, refusing “to teach that the treatment of defective and criminal classes by surgical procedures was a sound doctrine,” according to a 2010 New Yorker article by Harvard historian Jill Lepore.

Not surprisingly, Popenoe’s views influenced Adolf Hitler. In his autobiography “Mein Kampf,” published in 1924, Hitler extolled America’s eugenics movement as a model for his own anti-Semitic and racist plans to promote a master race of white Aryans. A German edition of “Sterilization for Human Betterment” was published in 1930.

“These practical experiences are also very valuable for us,” Dr. Fritz Lenz, one of Nazi Germany’s leading eugenicists, wrote to the HBF. By 1934, Germany’s sterilizations exceeded 5,000 per month. Popenoe, in turn, praised the Nazis’ sterilization law. “Hitler himself — though a bachelor — has long been a convinced advocate of race betterment through eugenic measures,” he wrote in the “Journal of Heredity” in 1934.

Popenoe and other eugenicists were also strong advocates of restricting immigration to the U.S. on the grounds that people from Eastern and Southern Europe (mostly Jews and Catholics) as well as from Africa, Asian and Latin America, were mentally and morally inferior and would pollute the white American race. The eugenics movement played a key role in the federal Immigration Act of 1924.

Popenoe’s views were not only racist and nativist, but also sexist. According to historian Ladd-Taylor, Popenoe opposed abortion and birth control, fearing that intelligent whites would use these methods to have fewer children.

“Continued limitation of the offspring in the white race simply invites the black, brown and yellow races to finish the work already done by Birth Control, and reduce the whites to a subject race,” wrote Popenoe in his 1926 book, “Conservation of the Family.”

That was one of many of Popenoe’s best-selling books about marriage. In 1930, with funding from his patron Ezra Gosney, he founded the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR), headquartered in Los Angeles. It claimed it would “bring the resources of modern science to the promotion of successful marriage and family life.” Under Popenoe’s guidance, the AIFR counseled thousands of couples a year and produced many manuals (such as “Divorce — 17 Ways to Avoid It”) used by the growing number of marriage clinics around the country. Many colleges and high schools used its “family life” publications, including a pamphlet called “Are Homosexuals Necessary?” Popenoe’s answer: No.

Popenoe was soon considered America’s leading marriage expert. By the 1950s, he was well-known as the host of a radio program, “Love and Marriage” and the author of a syndicated newspaper column with his byline “Dr. Paul Popenoe.” His regular advice column in the Ladies Home Journal, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” was based, he claimed, on real life cases from AIFR’s clients. He was a frequent guest on Art Linkletter’s popular TV show. To many Americans, he was known as “Mr. Marriage.”  

Popenoe’s work on eugenics and his marriage counseling went hand-in-hand. Popenoe wanted to make sure that the “right kind of people” — meaning affluent white people — got married, stayed married and produced “superior offspring.” This was the other side of the coin of Popenoe’s belief in compulsory sterilization of “defectives” and the “unfit.”   

Before there was “Dr. Phil,” contemporary America’s celebrity therapist, there was “Dr. Popenoe.” Throughout his professional career, until he died in 1979, he used that title as evidence of his academic credentials and expertise, even though it was an honorary degree from Oxy.  

What should Oxy do with this knowledge? It would be unwise to ignore it and hope that Oxy’s association with Popenoe will be forgotten.

It certainly should remove the “Dr.” from Paul Popenoe’s public identity by rescinding his honorary degree.

But that’s not sufficient. Although Oxy doesn’t have any controversial Confederate statues on its campus, it hasn’t fully dealt with its own complicity with racism.  

The college should begin a serious effort to explore its history. The goal isn’t to embarrass the college but to learn from the past.

Just as we find it hard to understand how Oxy could have ignored Popenoe’s ugly views when it honored him in 1929 and again in 1976, we should ask ourselves if there are any aspects of Oxy today that future generations might look back on and wonder how we tolerated or normalized such views or practices. We need to reckon with our past in order to move forward.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics.