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The Public Eye | April 29, 2010
By Kathryn Joyce
This February, a highly provocative series of 65 billboards went up around Atlanta, which featured an African American infant and the proclamation, “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.” The signs directed viewers to a website, TooManyAborted.com, created by the Radiance Foundation—a vaguely defined antiabortion and “personal transformation” nonprofit founded by biracial advertising executive Ryan Bomberger—with funding from Georgia Right to Life.
“The argument has always been there,” says Alex Sanger, Margaret Sanger’s grandson and the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council—echoing other leaders who can’t remember a time when accusations of racism weren’t made against reproductive-rights activists.
Over the years, the name of the early twentieth-century birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger has become toxic. Recently, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received the Margaret Sanger Award, anti-abortion stalwart Senator Chris Smith (R-NJ) raised such a stir that Clinton asked Ellen Chesler, the historian and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992), to submit testimony regarding Sanger’s history to the Congressional Record. Likewise, Gloria Feldt, the author of The War on Choice (2004) and a former president of Planned Parenthood, recalls that when Sanger was nominated for the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame, the debate was so heated that the Arizona legislature de-funded the entire Hall of Fame.
Much of the ire comes from epic misrepresentation of Sanger’s work, especially her ideas about eugenics, or human “selective breeding,” explains Alex Sanger. “Her discussions of eugenics are very complex and nuanced. She said a lot of stuff that nobody at Planned Parenthood agrees with today, but she’s also quoted as saying things she never said.” Among the quotations frequently and incorrectly credited to Sanger is, “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.” It is so widely misattributed to her that it appeared on the wall of an International Center for Photography exhibit on eugenics. Another common offender showed up in a recent fundraising letter from Priests for Life: “Colored people are like human weeds and have to be exterminated.” The historian Esther Katz, director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University, explains that Sanger never said anything of the sort.
According to the “Black genocide” movement, Sanger worked in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis to advance a theory of White supremacy and forced sterilization. The truth is more complicated than this caricature. Sanger did embrace ideas about eugenics that were popular in the 1920s; the eugenics movement offered her legitimacy, says Chesler, adding that
Margaret Sanger had no choice but to engage eugenics. It was a mainstream movement, like public health or the environment today. It was to sanitize birth control and remove it from the taint of immorality and the taint of feminism, which was seen as an individualistic and antisocial group that addressed the needs of women only, and immoral women at that.
This was an era when President Teddy Roosevelt condemned birth control as immoral, fearful that it would lead to the “race suicide” of white Protestants. Like the president, most eugenicists didn’t believe in birth control and were hostile to the idea of women’s bodily autonomy. Sanger, conversely, derided what she called “cradle competition” by leaders angling for higher birthrates among the White upper class and said women’s first procreative duty was not to the state, nor their race, but to themselves. She believed women’s reproductive choices should be voluntary and individualistic. Eugenics is unquestionably at odds with today’s reproductive-rights principles, says Chesler, but Sanger was ahead of her time in an era when the majority of people believed in forced eugenic sterilization.
One of eleven children, Sanger was motivated by her experience of growing up in crowded tenements with high rates of infant and maternal mortality. “She believed women were natural eugenicists,” explains Alex Sanger, “and that birth control, which could limit the number of children and improve their quality of life, was the panacea to accomplish this.”
When Sanger began her work, Black communities were ignored by the medical establishment. So, from early on, Sanger’s clinics in Harlem were welcomed by esteemed black leaders of the day including W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1939 Sanger founded the Negro Project, a birth control campaign for southern Blacks. As soon as it secured funding, the project was wrested from her control by the White men running the Birth Control Federation of America—a merger between Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League—and by Robert Seibels, the chairman of the Committee on Maternal Welfare of the South Carolina Medical Association. The new leadership dismissed Sanger’s plan to introduce the project with a widespread educational campaign that would be run by black experts and leaders. It was in this context that Sanger had written, “We don’t want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Sanger meant that she didn’t want rumors to spread of nefarious intentions behind family planning (a key reason, Alex Sanger adds, why she never allowed herself to profit from her birth control innovations). However, generations of activists have presented Sanger’s remark that she didn’t want word to “go out” as proof that she secretly intended genocide. Sanger had nothing to do with the project’s implementation, and indeed, as the Margaret Sanger Papers Project holds, it was a failure, enacted without regard for Black needs and in terms that today sound blatantly racist. Nevertheless, her early involvement is still cited by the Black genocide movement as evidence that she supported coercive programs.
In years past, says Esther Katz, these arguments spread slowly, as only zealots sought out materials like the lurid 1979 pamphlet, Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society, which paints Sanger as a promiscuous Nazi sympathizer. But starting in the mid-1990s, the internet enabled accusations fly farther and faster, and unsourced, unchecked material built a mountain of false allegations and attributions, with Wikipedia a key battleground. “It fits in with the tendency to use the Big Lie as a tool. You can take the smallest phrase and make a whole industry out of it. It’s a deliberate refusal to address the complexity of our past and its figures,” says Katz.
In fact, Katz says, Sanger was among the few family planning activists who sought to partner with those Black leaders who believed uncontrolled reproduction was harming their communities. Not all of them did. Du Bois envisioned a “talented tenth”—a Black elite made possible by family planning in poor Black communities, but Black separatist figures such as Marcus Garvey opposed birth control. Sanger was also opposed by many mainstream churches, both Black and White. The Catholic Church called Sanger an antisemite when she opened a clinic in a Jewish neighborhood, despite her marriage to a Jew, and alleged she was trying to eliminate the poor during the Depression, despite her own roots in urban poverty.
Of course, serious abuses sprang from the eugenics movement with which Sanger was allied, including forced or coerced sterilizations of tens of thousands of women, mostly Black or Latina. Although Sanger opposed racially based eugenics and generally believed that sterilization should be voluntary, she made an exception in the cases of people she thought were unable to parent their children, such as the mentally ill—a position upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1927, eight-to-one Buck v. Bell decision concerning an allegedly “feebleminded” White woman. But while this is downplayed in biographies of the judges involved, Sanger’s association with eugenics has been so overemphasized it often eclipses her role in promoting birth control.
Reproductive rights advocates have successfully refocused population-control programs from abusive tactics such as sterilization to women’s choices. Yet we’re too close historically to the abuses of eugenics to ignore them—especially since the abuses aren’t all in the past. Most recently, in 2008, John LaBruzzo, a Republican member of the Louisiana House, proposed paying poor women $1,000 to sterilize themselves. Alex Sanger concludes that his grandmother’s attempt “to co-opt eugenics in a bid for respectability” was a resounding failure, with dangerous fallout that continues to this day.
At the unveiling of the billboards, Georgia Right to Life Minority Outreach Director Catherine Davis explained their justification: “Planned Parenthood’s Negro Project,” she said, “is succeeding.” She was referring to a 1939 project begun by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger that has inspired decades of claims that family planning is a racist plan to wipe out populations of color. It’s an old argument, with roots in the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements. But in recent years it has become the province of anti-abortion groups who are selectively co-opting civil rights rhetoric to present abortion and even contraception as eugenicist plots disguised as voluntary reproductive choices, which are leading to a slow “Black genocide.”
Recent studies by the Guttmacher Institute found that abortion rates are indeed higher among women of color. African Americans, in particular, are thirteen percent of the population but account for 37 percent of all abortions. However, Guttmacher determined, this is due to their greater incidence of unwanted pregnancies, resulting from economic inequality and poor access to contraception and education. Nonetheless, the anti-abortion movement holds that Black and brown populations are being targeted – rather than served – by abortion providers who deliberately place clinics in inner-city, low-income neighborhoods.
For the past several years Black History Month has brought an onslaught of antiabortion activities related to this “Black genocide” strategy. This year was no exception. At the same time that the Georgia billboards appeared, White Republicans Representative Barry Loudermilk and Senator Chip Pearson introduced the so-called Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (SB 529 and HB1155) into the state’s legislature. The bill, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports was crafted to pose an immediate challenge to Roe v. Wade before President Obama nominates a replacement for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens would criminalize race- and sex-selective abortions and has been fast-tracked through Georgia’s legislature. The Senate passed it on March 26, and although the original House bill floundered in that chamber’s special judiciary committee, SB529 quickly replaced it.
The bill, which rests on the assertion that many women are coerced into abortions as a result of race or gender bias, goes on to establish “the offense of criminal solicitation of abortion” and requires doctors to prove patients have not been pressured into abortion. On April 15, Georgia Right to Life launched a series of robo-calls that featured 2008 presidential candidate and Fox talk show host Mike Huckabee, stumping for the bill on the grounds of its “powerful implications for the sanctity of human life nationwide.” The Network of Politically Active Christians made a similar pitch and the bill drew national support from groups like Focus on the Family. As the state’s legislative session wound down in the last week of April, Republican House Speaker David Ralston planned a last-minute substitution of the bill that addressed some constitutional issues with the original, but maintained its ban on abortions performed because of the race or gender of the fetus.
Reproductive-rights advocates of color have been appalled by these campaigns, with their implicit accusation that women of color are either dupes or agents of genocide against their own people. (Not to mention that the language of the billboards implies a tone-deaf comparison between Black children and animals.)
“We’re calling the bill the OB/GYN criminalization and racial discrimination act,” says the director of the women-of-color organization SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, Paris Hatcher. She notes that the burden of proof the bill puts on doctors would greatly impede health care delivery. In an email campaign that has generated hundreds of complaints about the “endangered species” billboards to the owner of the signs, CBS Outdoors, SPARK tweaked a common refrain in the prochoice community—“trust women”—calling on people to “trust Black women” over those demonizing their decisions. “I think what you have here is tokenized leaders within a White movement floating an agenda,” says Hatcher. “You see White organizations capitalizing off of Black bodies and the shaming and blaming of Black women.”
Civil Rights Rhetoric and "Black Genocide"
The token leaders to whom Hatcher is referring are a small but busy cadre of Black activists working in White-run anti-abortion organizations. For example, in late 2008, Pro-Life Unity hired a Black vice president, Samuel Mosteller, and in January 2009, after years of failed attempts to reach out to African Americans, Georgia Right to Life hired Davis to spread the word that reproductive health care providers such as Planned Parenthood have a “mission to eliminate blacks from America.”
Most visible of these leaders is Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., whose full-time position with Priests for Life was the first funded role for a “Black genocide” activist. Her main strategy—and critics say her sole qualification—has been capitalizing on her uncle’s legacy, often asking, “How can the dream survive if we murder the children?” She takes frequent aim at a speech delivered on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. by his wife, Coretta Scott King, in acceptance of the 1966 Margaret Sanger Award. The speech includes a lament about the number of unwanted children among poor Blacks. Alveda King suggests that Martin Luther King didn’t write the speech—to her ears, it sounds like it was written by a woman—and that his wife’s delivery of it was due to a marital disagreement. On Alveda King’s website, she annotates the speech with quotations from the Rev. King that she believes refute his apparent support for the birth-control movement.
Alveda King and other “Black genocide” spokespeople make ample use of imagery that aligns the anti-abortion cause with the Civil Rights Movement. There is no shortage of emotionally charged analogies. The Rev. Johnny Hunter, the president of the Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN), speaks of “womb lynchings.” The president of LEARN’s Northeast chapter, the Rev. Clenard Childress, who founded the website BlackGenocide.org, frequently partners with the California-based group Genocide Awareness Project, which hosts “photo-mural” demonstrations on university campuses, comparing abortion to the Rwandan genocide. In 2007, 10,000 pamphlets published by the Waco, Texas-based anti-abortion group Life Dynamics Incorporated were mailed to inner-city neighborhoods to publicize an appearance by the Black right-wing radio personality, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson. The pamphlets denounced “Klan Parenthood” and juxtaposed images of lynchings with those of aborted fetuses, under the slogan “lynching is for amateurs.”
Anti-abortion activists have long compared Roe v. Wade to the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which opened the territories to slavery. They have also pointed to the Constitutional mandate to count Blacks as 3/5 of a person to show that the U.S. law has always devalued Black people—and that Roe is no different. Their strategy now includes merging this rhetoric with fetal “personhood” amendment campaigns underway in eight states—and building in dozens more. In January, the American Life League and Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, hosted a meeting about overturning Roe v. Wade, which focused both on recruiting supporters in Black communities and passing fetal personhood bills. “There’s a lot of personhood legislation nationally,” agrees Childress, “and that’s going to remind most African Americans that there was a question about our personhood with Dred Scott.”
In an email interview, Pavone said that the language of the Civil Rights Movement lends itself seamlessly to the anti-abortion cause. After visits to Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church with the King family, Pavone said, “I have thought to myself, the message is exactly right. Nothing has to change except to include one more group of people—the unborn.” Pavone and Alveda King both sample civil rights language in their outreach to Black pastors, explaining that the “beloved community” must include the unborn, and “that nonviolence includes nonviolence to children in the womb”—messages they’ll further this summer through a series of “freedom ride” bus tours kicking off in Birmingham on April 27, led by Alveda King and other “Black genocide” leaders.
The apparent success of such rhetoric has encouraged mainstream anti-abortion groups to ask their donors to support outreach to African Americans, arguing that these converts to the anti-abortion cause have the potential to revive the movement. Last December, Pavone told his donors, “With your help today we will help African Americans take their rightful place in the pro-life movement … men and women who know what it means to be persecuted and treated as ‘non-persons’ … men and women who will re-energize the movement.”
In 1999, Childress helped lead 1,500 people, mostly Black activists, on the “Say-So” anti-abortion march from Newark, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., where they laid 1,452 roses—the number of abortions black women were then having daily—on the steps of the Supreme Court. Childress, a 2007 candidate for the New Jersey state assembly who often says that “the most dangerous place for an African American to be is in the womb of their African American mother,” was recruited to the anti-abortion movement by a White Catholic activist who convinced him to attend a 1994 conference featuring the Rev. Johnny Hunter.
While other organizations contribute money or materials, Childress supplies bodies for protests from his 200-member, Montclair, New Jersey, congregation, New Calvary Baptist Church. His young “zealots” frequently volunteer for high-commitment activism, such as a bus trip to Birmingham in 2003, where they crashed a mainstream Civil Rights Movement celebration, and recent trips to NAACP conventions to protest the exclusion of “Black genocide” concerns.
Childress is featured in Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, a 2009 film produced by Mark Crutcher, a White Texan who runs Life Dynamics Incorporated—the producer of the “Klan Parenthood” brochures. Maafa is a Swahili word that refers to the African holocaust of abduction and slavery. The film argues that the maafa didn’t end with slavery but rather continues in a plot to exterminate the black population through ongoing eugenics programs created by “wealthy white elitists.” Its chief villain is Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger.
“In the African American community, if you shout conspiracy, they’ll listen, because of the history they’ve had in this country,” Childress told me. “I come from the conspiracy tone whenever I’m speaking, especially to African Americans, so they understand you’ll have to do some digging, you’ll have to go beneath the veneer.” (Apparently using the same tactic, Alveda King dismisses the studies citing higher rates of unwanted pregnancy among Black women as the cause for high abortion rates by suggesting that Planned Parenthood intentionally distributes faulty contraception to minority teens so they’ll need abortions.) Childress’s loose attitude toward historical accuracy seems representative of the broader “Black genocide” movement. Thus, Maafa 21 sidesteps historical hurdles to suggest that Sanger’s support for sterilization on mental illness grounds (see sidebar) was a coded effort to target Blacks; that a eugenics movement mobilized to legalize abortion to market it to Black women; and that the government “hired Planned Parenthood” to continue eugenics programs.
The film, which received financial support from Priests for Life, premiered at the United States Capitol Visitor Center last year on Juneteenth, an African American holiday marking the day the emancipation proclamation was finally enforced in Texas. The host was the White Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ)—a steadfast ally of the “Black genocide” cause. Later, Alveda King and others held a screening of the film for congressional aides. In early March, Maafa 21 was the feature presentation at the Jubilee Film Festival at the 45th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” attacks outside of Selma. The film has been shown at numerous Black churches and colleges. In April, Childress, hosted by the Christian student group Every Nation Campus Ministries, discussed the film at Florida A&M, the largest historically Black college in the country—an event he predicts will exponentially spread his message into the Black community.
In a March fundraising appeal seeking support to fill requests for the film, Crutcher claimed that 13,000 copies had already been distributed. He triumphantly announced, “Life Dynamics has hit pay dirt” with Maafa 21, as the film rages “like a wildfire” through the Black community. The film, he said, is “the stone our pro-life movement would use to bring the abortion Goliath to his knees.”
"Black Genocide" and Health Care Reform
For close to fifteen years, the “Black genocide” movement has drummed up publicity by capitalizing on discussions of race or Black history in the media and promoted the posturing of White antiabortion activists laying claim to Rosa Parks’s legacy. But from these awkward origins, the movement has grown enormously in size and sophistication over the past year. In January, Lou Engle, the White founder of the anti-abortion group Bound4Life as well as of a group that campaigned to pass California’s Proposition 8 forbidding same-sex marriage, convened a Martin Luther King Day march on a large Planned Parenthood clinic under construction in Houston, calling it an “abortion supercenter that targets the minority community.” The march drew prominent White anti-abortion leaders, including the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land.
The stage had been set earlier in the year, as the abortion debate overwhelmed health care reform. In mid-July, White congressional Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) argued against President Obama’s health care bill on “Black genocide” grounds, suggesting that Obama’s mother might have aborted him if she’d had the option of “taxpayer-funded abortions.” Tiahrt was backed up by a series of five op-ed essays in the conservative Washington Times, written by prominent Black leaders of the “abortion as genocide” cause, which urged Republicans to adopt the issue in their fight against health care reform. At press conferences throughout the summer, Alveda King and her colleagues kept the rhetoric heated, telling the media that “genocide is not health care.” In an open letter to President Obama in August, a writer for the creationist Discovery Institute implied that John Holdren, Obama’s pick to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy, was a eugenicist targeting people of color in developing nations.
Sex- and Race-Selective Abortion
At the end of February, Representative Franks upped the ante in the “Black genocide” debate, telling a blogger that with “half of all black children” being aborted, “Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the politics of today than were devastated by the policies of slavery.” After his statement, a lineup of leaders from the “Black genocide” movement came to his defense. Alveda King declared that any critics of Franks shared “the slave owner’s mindset.” Day Garder of the National Black Pro-Life Union said Franks “should be revered as a great modern day abolitionist.”
In 2008, Franks said, a “Black genocide” protest in Washington, D.C., inspired him to sponsor a bipartisan House bill that would prohibit “discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race, and for other purposes.” The bill, which benefited from the collaboration of “Black genocide” leaders like King and Childress, was reintroduced by Franks last spring as the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009. It has 42 sponsors.
Intellectuals in the anti-abortion movement have long counseled linking abortion with female infanticide and sex-selective abortion, as a method of converting moderates who would recoil at the thought of reproductive choice being used as a weapon of gender inequality. This argument is making the rounds in states as well. Oklahoma passed a law banning sex-selective abortion in 2009 (it was struck down this February on technical grounds). Expanding the strategy to race may be even more potent. In addition to Georgia, with its Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, Arizona, Mississippi, and New Jersey have proposed bans on race- and sex-selective abortions.
When Franks first introduced his bill in 2008, the Catholic anti-abortion and anti-contraception group, Population Research Institute, mused that the bill’s premise—that there is discrimination through abortion—could be as powerful as the campaign against so-called partial-birth abortion. “Even those who believe in the absolute right to destroy a child under any and all circumstances, it is safe to predict, will be uncomfortable defending such an extreme position,” PRI President Steve Mosher suggested.
There’s a clear sense among abortion-rights activists in Georgia that the campaigns there are deliberate efforts to splinter alliances between reproductive-rights and racial-justice organizations and individual supporters, as well as to lay the groundwork for a national push. During a March press call organized by the blog Reproductive Health Reality Check, Loretta Ross, the national coordinator of Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explains that because Georgia has the highest number of Black elected officials in the country, the anti-abortion movement is using the state as test case for enshrining the “Black genocide” argument into law. The issue has been deployed, she says, in classic wedge-politics fashion, to draw Blacks and South Asians—who are allegedly the targets of providers promoting sex-selective abortions—into the conservative base.
“I actually see this as an opening salvo,” says Ross, “because if the Right can deliver this bill in the state of Georgia as a successful trial balloon, I think it will embolden them to believe that around the country they can drive a wedge into the African American community and into other communities of color.” In fact, Sister Song has heard reports that a Republican legislator in Arizona may soon introduce a bill on race- and sex-selective abortion aimed at finding support among the Latino community.
SPARK’s Paris Hatcher agrees:
We know Georgia is a testing ground for harmful legislation. It started with the “personhood” amendment in 2008. We know that if it happens here in Georgia, it will happen in other places, and if there is a victory here in Georgia, it will increase the momentum in other states where bills are located.
Anti-Abortion Movement Cynicism
On the basis of their past votes on issues of concern to Black voters, says Ross, the Georgia bill’s sponsors are not convincing advocates for civil rights. She notes that
It’s really hard to persuade African American women in the city of Atlanta [that this bill], headlined by rural White Republicans, is truly about saving Black or South Asian children. These are the same legislators who, when we look at their voting records, when it comes to improving schools or getting guns off the streets, are not people whose votes indicate that they care about children of color once they’re here.
Indeed, during the three hours of debate preceding the passage of SB 529 in Georgia’s Senate, Black Democratic Senator Vincent Fort indicated his skepticism by introducing an amendment to it addressing racial profiling—an issue tackled in an earlier Senate bill that never made it out of committee. His amendment was ruled unconstitutional.
While in recent years conservative Christian groups have made efforts, both calculated and sincere, to address racism, the Religious Right has an undeniable history of antipathy to civil rights concerns. The pseudoprogressive nature of the “Black genocide” frame becomes more evident when politicians such as Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), a Confederate flag defender, signs on to Franks’s bill; when Tony Perkins, who managed the Louisiana Senate campaign that famously bought White supremacist David Duke’s mailing list, protests Houston’s Planned Parenthood on antiracist grounds; or when Pro-Life Radio’s Stephen Peroutka calls for “the defunding of the racist agenda of Planned Parenthood,” while he and his brother and law partner Michael are the principal sponsors of the Institute on the Constitution: a think-tank closely tied to the far-right Constitution Party, which calls for repealing the Voting Rights Act.
Alfred Ross, the founder and president of the Institute for Democracy Studies, which researches antidemocratic movements in the U.S., studied right-wing organizations in the early 1990s for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He tracked ties between the anti-abortion movement and fringe groups such as the Taxpayer Party (now the Constitution Party) that, he says, represented “the first underground movement that justified the creation of a militia.” These groups promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories that condemned legal abortion as a Jewish plot.
More recently, attacks on Planned Parenthood have found ammunition in the work of the anti-abortion ingénue Lila Rose, a White University of California Los Angeles student who gained fame for a “sting operation” that caught several Planned Parenthood clinics accepting donations targeted to fund abortions for Black women. (Rose was inspired, boasts Childress, by reading his BlackGenocide.org website.) Rose’s collaborator in the scheme was James O’Keefe, the right-wing activist behind a similar 2009 sting against the community organizing group ACORN, in which O’Keefe posed as a pimp. In phone calls to Planned Parenthood, O’Keefe claimed he was donating out of concern that affirmative action would harm the prospects of his (fictitious) child. However, complicating the “gotcha” appeal of his script are revelations that O’Keefe’s racist playacting isn’t far removed from his college history of holding an “affirmative action bake sale” or his later involvement in a 2006 Race and Conservatism conference, sponsored by the Robert A. Taft Club, a paleoconservative organization affiliated with a network of racist groups, which drew an audience of noted antisemites and White supremacists. O’Keefe was arrested this winter for breaking into the office of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA).
Alfred Ross warns, though, that overstressing the relationship between the anti-abortion movement and racism may be missing the mark. “Some people who make that argument aren’t from the racist right, they’re just using an opportunistic moment to recruit supporters,” he says. From the late 1980s on, right-wing groups such as Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition attempted to recruit Black churches using social issues such as LBGT rights, on which these churches took conservative positions. “In spite of the barbarism of their agenda,” says Ross, “they’re marginally creative enough to make up reasons why people who aren’t allies should become allies. They’re bottom feeding: whatever bait they can throw up, no matter how rancid, they use.”
Kevin Alexander Gray, an African American civil rights leader and the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics (2008), sees White conservative Evangelical outreach to the Black church as destructive. It has shifted the Black church away from liberation theology, he says, and toward conservative social action, particularly through the prosperity gospel movement, which has flourished in Black churches by promising financial rewards to the faithful.
Likewise, the organizations screening Maafa 21 for black audiences, such as the Frederick Douglass Foundation, Global Outreach Campus Ministries, and the Network of Politically Active Christians (NPAC), which is now lobbying for Georgia’s “Black genocide” bill, “have close ties with religious right powerhouses Focus on the Family and Family Research Council,” says Sarah Posner, the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (2008). Some groups, like the NPAC, which shares offices with the Family Research Council, were created specifically “to bolster Religious Right and Republican outreach to Blacks,” Posner says.
The Power of Rumor
Maafa 21, says Posner, argues “that Blacks have been ‘hoodwinked’ by diabolical, eugenics-promoting family planning advocates.” The film, she says, “is intended to tap into anger about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and involuntary sterilizations of the early- to mid-twentieth century.” Timothy Johnson, chairman of the right-wing Frederick Douglass Foundation told Posner that Maafa 21 screenings have been successful because they reinforce Black people’s historically justified sense that they’ve been lied to.
But the comparison between the Tuskegee experiment and abortion is a false one, says Faith Pennick, the director and producer of Silent Choices, a 2007 documentary about Black women and abortion. The Tuskegee victims had no opportunity to give informed consent—unlike women seeking abortions. Nonetheless, says Pennick, who is African American, the genocide argument “hits a nerve with Black people, particularly those who are uncomfortable with abortion, because they say, here’s another example of us being messed with.” The sad reality is that rumors about eugenics experiments keep many young women of color from accessing what’s often the only affordable medical care in their communities.
Pamela Merritt, an African American blogger and the statewide e-organizer for Planned Parenthood affiliates in Missouri, witnessed this firsthand in 2003, when she volunteered in a transitional home for teen mothers in St. Louis. In a discussion about where the women could obtain affordable HIV/AIDS tests, their first reaction was, “Not the Planned Parenthood!” When Merritt asked them why, they told her that at Planned Parenthood, women are given shots that will keep them from ever having babies. “It wasn’t the same thing as the prolife rhetoric that you shouldn’t even walk through the door,” says Merritt. “It’s the sense that, if I walk through that door, they’re going to do something to make me not have this baby.”
The big issue, for Merritt, is sex education. She has met a stream of young women in her community who have been taught so little about reproduction that a number weren’t really sure where children come from, and there is a vicious cycle of STD re-infection among the St. Louis population. Into this knowledge vacuum come out-of-state groups such as Lou Engle’s Bound4Life, which tour local churches to promote the idea of Planned Parenthood’s “Black genocide” agenda. “Call me militant,” Merritt says, “but from my perspective, not allowing more women of color, without fear or dogma or this crazy conspiracy theory, to have access to medically accurate information and health care, is itself part of a mass plot to hold back communities of color.”
"Dupes" and "Sell-Outs"
In the 1990s, when Alex Sanger, Margaret Sanger’s grandson and the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, ran Planned Parenthood New York City, he observed that the Black escorts working at the city’s clinics were particular targets of protesters, who would single them out and accuse them of committing genocide against their own people. Sanger sees the problem as originating in older splits in the various Black rights movements, which, he says, were often along gender lines, as Black women leaders demanded the ability to control their fertility while male leaders were more concerned about “the genocide issue.”
Reopening this old rift, anti-abortion groups claim that Blacks who support choice are either genocidal elitists or dupes. Alveda King suggests that a White-led birth control movement “cultivate[d] Black leaders” to coerce them into targeting other people of color. Day Gardner likewise refers to the Black politicians, ministers, and community organizers who worked with Margaret Sanger in Harlem as Judases, “who sold their souls for ‘30 pieces of silver’” when they were hired to enact “ethnic cleansing.”
Childress and Maafa 21 focus on mainstream Black organizations, such as the NAACP, and leaders such as Jesse Jackson, who at one time opposed abortion rights, depicting them as formerly principled advocates who bought into Planned Parenthood lies in exchange for campaign support. In Maafa 21, the Dallas, Texas, pastor Stephen Broden, a leader in the “Black genocide” movement who has addressed Tea Party conventions, remarks of Jackson, “There’s never been a shortage of Black leaders willing to sell us down the river.” (Gray, who was Jackson’s South Carolina presidential campaign manager in 1988, instead suggests that Jackson’s understanding of the issue evolved.)
The argument leaves Black women facing the accusation that they are either fools or murderers—and either way complicit in what Mark Crutcher says is Planned Parenthood’s sinister plan for “convincing the target group to commit mass suicide.” The accusation cuts to the heart of an intersection of sexism and racism for Black women, who have historically been pressed to choose allegiance between two aspects of their beings: their gender and their race.
It continues today. Maame Mensima-Horn, an African American activist based in Miami who consulted for Sister Song, says that the “Black genocide” argument has remained a male-driven conversation that shuts out women of color and ignores the role they have played in the reproductive justice movement. Mensima-Horn sees a new generation of male activists relegating women to “breeder” status and blaming them for a deficit in the Black population.
It seems a neat return to the 1920s debate in the Black community about how to best uplift the race. W.E.B. DuBois argued for “quality versus quantity,” saying that Black interests were best met by family planning that allowed parents to invest more in fewer children, not by simply birthing greater numbers. In 2010, Catherine Davis of Georgia Right to Life seems to take the latter position, saying that if Black women hadn’t had abortions, “we would be 59 million strong.”
The emphasis underscores a history of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement and its institutions, says Gray, in which Black women’s intellectual and physical labor was the backbone of the movement yet was rarely acknowledged. Today, “Black genocide” movement leaders, such as Childress and King, emphasize male leadership in both the movement and church—not surprising in conservative circles, but the destructive effect on women of color continues.
For Gray, this kind of sexism is a result of White fundamentalist outreach as well as a symptom of a larger problem: the breakdown of political education in Black politics. He says,
The result of it is that we have people claiming that the maafa is the abortion of black kids, instead of what it really is: the great catastrophe related to the slave trade. It means a bunch of frauds can rewrite your history and make it everything that it’s not. The freedom movement, which is what civil rights is about, is about the freedom of citizens to determine their lives for themselves and make their own opportunities.
And not, Grays says, to become a mother simply “because these people think you ought to be a mother.”
Women of Color at the Intersection
The question of how to counter the “Black genocide” argument is almost as complicated as its history. Ellen Chesler, historian and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992) says that, after one hundred years of variations on the argument, she’s not sure what the response could be. Alex Sanger says it’s the same dilemma that faces the larger prochoice movement, of boiling down a complex argument to a catchphrase, to counter anti-abortion slogans that claim abortion is murder, or now, genocide.
Gloria Feldt, author of The War on Choice (2004) and a former president of Planned Parenthood, says that many reproductive-rights activists who came out of the Civil Rights Movement are so horrified by accusations of racism that they haven’t been able to effectively contextualize this history.
We’re not pure in this country, but Margaret Sanger was probably on the leading edge of those looking for a different way. It does take a certain amount of energy and research to put the truth out there, but the truth is that for any woman of any race, ethnicity, or economic level, the first and most important thing she must have is the right to make her own reproductive decisions. “To own and control her own body,” as Sanger herself says.
Part of the answer could be more discussion of the issue led by women of color. Sanger notes the need for more diversity in the reproductive-rights movement, and more women of color in visible leadership roles. Faith Pennick agrees that inadequate outreach by prochoice groups to women of color, and insufficiently direct attempts to address the complicated history of Sanger and eugenics, has “left a door open for prolife organizations to come in and say, ‘they don’t care about you, but we do.’”
“That’s my motivation for addressing it, because this is what makes someone feel not comfortable in joining a movement we need more women of color joining,” says Pamela Merritt.
Another part of the solution, many activists agree, must be more discussion of sexuality and reproductive issues in communities of color. Gray says that’s a problematic absence in the Black community, which avoids discussions of abortion just as it has shunned talk of AIDS and gay issues.
When you don’t talk about it, it gives all these other folks who have their own political agenda room to step in and shape the argument as they have with the black church, as it relates to gay rights and women’s rights. Nothing is being said, so they're filling up the space.
“There is a need to have more conversations,” agrees Paris Hatcher. She points out that the Georgia billboards and legislative campaign have had the unintended, positive effect of drawing hundreds of people into the debate—to rallies, email campaigns and public comment on media stories about the issue. The conversation itself affirms a long unacknowledged truth: that abortion is not a White issue. “There is ample silence in our communities, and it’s important that we are vocal about what’s going on and talking about what’s going on with our bodies,” says Hatcher. “If we’re not talking about them, they’re being divvied up by other people”