Race and Ethnicity

Francis Galton embraced the idea that various races could be ranked according to their comparative worth. However, the specific meaning of race varied. Eugenicists sometimes defined a race according to general physical appearance, but just as often they relied on language or region of origin.

Welsh, English, Negro, and Jew were among the "races" Galton coded on fingerprints or photographs of research subjects. Passenger manifests presented at the immigration center at Ellis Island, New York contained as many as 46 "races," including Croatian, Slovenian, Cuban, and both northern and southern Italian. Scandinavian eugenicists distinguished indigenous Lapps from Nordics and Walloons (people of Belgian origin). German eugenicists, following authors such as Madison Grant, separated Alpine from various Mediterranean and Semitic types.

Definitions of race were sometimes accompanied by highly detailed measurements of body parts, taken using calipers or other tools of anthropometry — the science of bodily measurement. The search for ideal physical "types" who best represented the characteristics of a particular race absorbed eugenicists in different countries.

The supposed intellectual and behavioral differences between southern/eastern and northern/western European races were the basis of Harry Laughlin's successful lobbying to restrict immigration to the United States from Italy, the Balkans, Slavic Countries, and Russia. Less successfully, Laughlin worked to create a national system of census cards coded by race and a federal definition of the "American Race."

As was often the case, eugenicists confused differences that were culturally transmitted with differences due to hereditary transmission. Thus, eugenicists ultimately lost much credibility by focusing on race — a concept that had little concordance with developing knowledge of human genetics.


 

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