Blood and Bloodline
Blood and Bloodline
“Blood” is a historical explanation for inherited traits that were believed to pass through “bloodlines,” meaning lines of kinship descent. This understanding of heredity derives from the ancient Greek concept that eventually became known as pangenesis. Hippocrates believed that “pan-genes” formed throughout the human body. The Greeks conceived of pangenes as tiny pieces of body parts, which moved through bodily fluids into the genitals, from which they were passed on to offspring.
The theory of pangenesis was revitalized by European scientists in the seventeenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, American racial scientists began to posit a scientific link between bloodlines, culture, and racial groups. According to this view, bloodlines determined one’s behavioral traits as well as physiological traits. This theory of heredity profoundly influenced European conceptions of kinship and group identity and formed a scientific justification for racism. Modern science did not fully supplant pangenesis until the twentieth century.
As biologists began in the late nineteenth century to move away from pangenetic theories, the parallel science of biometrical eugenics emerged. Eugenics preserved the notion of blood heredity, thus permitting scientific racism to hold sway well into the mid-twentieth century. Francis Galton (1822–1911), a pioneering eugenicist, argued that human intervention was needed “to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had” (Field 1911). Such intervention—or eugenics—would involve ensuring that people of different races did not intermarry or interbreed, thus preserving the blood purity of the superior races, thereby ensuring the continuing transmission of their superiority through their bloodlines.
At the peak period of the eugenics movement’s influence in the United States between 1910 and 1930, numerous federal and state laws were passed that reflected the obsession with purity of blood and the desire to regulate bloodlines. Existing antimiscegenation laws were strengthened and more rigorously enforced. Madison Grant (1865–1937), a leading eugenicist, wrote in The Passing of the Great Race (1916): “When it becomes thoroughly understood that the children of mixed marriages between contrasted races belong to the lower type, the importance of transmitting in unimpaired purity the blood inheritance of ages will be appreciated at its full value.”
Consequently, a recent cultural innovation—the “one drop” definition of nonwhiteness—was institutionalized into law in a number of American states. The one-drop doctrine held that a person with any nonwhite ancestry whatsoever in his or her ancestral bloodlines could not legally be classified as white. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was the classic expression of one-drop doctrine, holding that “the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to such person as has no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian.” Virginia’s act prohibited interracial marriage, mandated that the race of every newborn be recorded and registered with the state government, and provided for a penalty of up to a year in prison for making a false report of racial identity.
Eugenic initiatives eventually moved beyond segregation and antimiscegenation laws. From the 1920s through the 1940s, a number of states in the United States set up programs to medically sterilize people defined as inferior—primarily on the basis of perceived mental disability—to ensure that they would not reproduce their traits in offspring. The Eugenics Record Office constructed pedigrees on thousands of families and determined that people who were mentally disabled came mostly from poor and minority families. Such findings only reinforced stereotypes of inferior bloodlines.
Eugenics principles were also invoked to justify anti-immigrant initiatives and exclusionary laws in the United States. Most notable was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which was specifically intended to drastically reduce the flow of immigration of Italians and eastern European Jews, whom eugenicists considered to be of inferior stock. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand also passed exclusionary laws based on race, motivated by scientific racist notions of inferior bloodlines. Eugenics also took hold in some Latin American countries, where elites advocated increased immigration from Europe and the eradication of indigenous groups. The goal was to “whiten” society by reducing the number of nonwhite bloodlines. In Brazilian Portuguese this process was known as branqueamento. In Argentinean Spanish it was called blanqueamiento.
The most extreme form of eugenics took place in Nazi Germany, where Adolph Hitler’s obsession with blood purity led not only to antimiscegenation and sterilization programs but also an expansion into full-blown genocide against minority groups. The notion of a “Final Solution”—the extermination of inferior bloodlines—was not original to Hitler. It had already been entertained by Madison Grant, the prominent American eugenicist.
While scientific racism was significantly discredited in the late twentieth century, the use of blood as a metaphor for kinship remains firmly ensconced in popular discourse. The use of “blood quantum” persists in federal law, which mandates a requisite minimum of one-quarter Indian blood to qualify for some services reserved to American Indians. Most American Indian tribes have written their own laws mandating a minimum blood quantum as a requirement for tribal citizenship.
Some people have found ways to take advantage of American culture’s unresolved relationship with the notion of bloodlines. There are numerous cases in which an apparently white person claims an invisible “one drop” of black or Indian blood in order to gain access to minority entitlements. For example, in 1985 Boston firefighters Philip and Paul Malone were found guilty of “racial fraud” for falsely claiming a black grandmother in order to receive affirmative action employment advantages. More recently, Ward Churchill enjoyed a long career as a Cherokee academic and activist before being exposed by the Indian tribe in which he falsely claimed enrollment.
The archaic and scientifically discredited notion of blood as racial-ethnic identity persists in contemporary culture, bolstered by the historical echoes of pangenesis to be found in popular misunderstanding of DNA research. Many new business enterprises sprang up in the early twenty-first century that were designed to capitalize on this misconception, playing on the old theme of racial-ethnic bloodlines. For a fee, one can submit a DNA sample that firms purport to use to determine the percentages of various racial and ethnic identities in a person’s ancestral pedigree.
SEE ALSO Ethnicity; Eugenics; Heredity; Hitler, Adolf; Kinship; Miscegenation; Multiracials in the USA; Nationalism and Nationality; Nazism; Race Mixing; Racial Classification; Racism; Social Exclusion; Whitening
Field, James A. 1911. The Progress of Eugenics. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 26 (1): 1–67.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. ed. New York: Norton.
Grant, Madison. 1970. Passing of the Great Race, Or, the Racial Basis of European History (American Immigration Collection, Ser 2). Ayer Co Pub; Reprint edition (October 1970).
Smith, J. David. 1993. The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press.
Thomas F. Brown