Racial Purity (U.S.), 1900–1910

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Racial Purity (U.S.), 1900–1910









The ideology of racial purity has been embraced by various cultures throughout history. Racial purity relates to the idea that human beings can be ranked on a hierarchical scale where one ethnoracial group, or “race,” is ranked as more advanced than another group. For those that subscribe to this ideology, all cultures can be situated within this hierarchy, but there is only one culture and/or race that ranks supreme. Hence, it is not surprising to find that the importance of maintaining a racial hierarchy has been promoted historically by self-defined elite members of society in an attempt to uphold their status. In some cases the purity philosophy has been overt state policy, as in Hitler’s Third Reich.


In the United States, the period from 1900 to 1920 witnessed a large-scale racial purity crusade exceeding those of previous decades. The endeavor to protect white, Anglo-Saxon racial purity was applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to Charles Davenport, head of the Eugenics Records Office, in 1913. In order to prevent “race suicide”—the envisioned tragic result of a decrease in reproduction by a superior race—“good citizens of the right type” should multiply themselves to cancel out rampant breeding by “citizens of the wrong type.” This attitude went hand in hand with a movement that had begun in 1890: progressivism. Made up of primarily white, middle-class men and women, Progressives faced the new century fearing the further development of what they considered ever-increasing social disorder. In a time of incredible wealth, ease, and leisure for only a small minority of elite white Americans and of ever-increasing poverty and hardships for the lower classes, especially African Americans and eastern European immigrants, many members of the white middle class envisioned a coming world of peace, cleanliness, healthy bodies, and quiet minds. Progressives, through social transformations, desired to create a middle-class paradise patterned on their own idea of Utopia.

Although the urban white middle class lacked the monetary power of the upper elite and was small in number compared to the agrarian and working classes, Progressive Era social reformers did not shirk from decrying the economic control of big businesses, promoting temperance, striving to end prostitution and gambling, and trying to find ways to ameliorate poverty, mainly among the white “deserving poor.”

Black proscription through discrimination and segregation was seen as the proper means of safeguarding the common good from a race deemed decidedly inferior. Preventing miscegenation and removing any potential for African Americans to gain political power were both viewed as strategies to maintain the social order and, therefore, ensure economic progress and white supremacy.


In order to understand why racial purity was embraced by Progressives in the 1890s and continued to grip the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, one must examine how race was constructed in the early decades of the nation’s social history and how these constructions were reified by social and evolutionary theory in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Differences between humans in skin color, hair color and texture, language, and customs had been noted by various explorers and philosophers throughout history. European kingdoms, spurred by global exploration and the potential for the exploitation of untapped resources, found it convenient to expand the definition of “resources” to include people, especially people who varied in their appearance and culture from northern Europeans.

In the Western hemisphere, white settlers found themselves in possession of extremely large tracts of land far beyond their individual capacity to cultivate. A huge labor force was required to work in the rice, tobacco, and cotton plantations in the North American colonies. At first, the British attempted to fill this labor gap by enslaving Native Americans and using indentured English servants. They found quickly, however, that enslaved African workers were both more efficient and easier to control. Slaves could be owned for life, while a white indentured worker’s labor tenure usually lasted a maximum of seven years. Moreover, it was believed that an African worker could be forced to do more than twice as much work as white workers, who would eventually become fellow citizens. Enslaved Africans were to work as slaves for the rest of their lives on terms set by others. All in all, African laborers were seen as cheaper and thus more profitable to use.

Karen Brodkin notes in her discussion on race making in How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (1998, p. 68) that Africans were chosen to be slaves not necessarily because they were black, but because they could not escape as easily. As a result, various cultures along the western coast of Africa were subjected to continual threats of enslavement and kidnappings by European slave traders, and slavery became one of the primary economic systems of the colonies and eventually, the United States.

Whiteness as a measure of purity and superiority in the United States fluctuated according to reactionary sentiments against various immigrant groups in the nineteenth century. For example, in the 1840s Irish immigrants—many of whom were impoverished, Catholic, and poorly educated—were met with ostracism and hatred when they arrived in American cities. Although the Irish, like enslaved and freed African Americans, filled a crucial niche in the American labor market by working primarily as manual laborers and domestic servants, their presence was considered a threat by established whites because of the sheer number of them arriving daily along the northeastern seaboard. Their devout Catholicism was seen as subversive, their deepest allegiance being to Rome rather than the United States with its pristine Protestantism. Stereotypes of the Irish as alcohol abusers, criminals, and beggars were widespread, and although the Irish for all intents and purposes appeared “white,” they were not actually considered or treated as white. Instead, the Irish were socially equated with formerly enslaved African Americans. Embracing this sentiment rather than resisting it, many neighborhoods sprang up that were populated by a mix of Irish settlers and free African Americans. Hell’s Kitchen in New York City was the most notorious of such group combinations. A common saying was that “An Irishman is a nigger turned inside out.” Job discrimination against the Irish was quite common; “the NINA system” meant that “No Irish Need Apply.”

On the other hand, the advantage that the Irish and other “off-white” groups had over African Americans, Native Americans, and other immigrants such as the Chinese was that since they looked white, they had the opportunity eventually to achieve the status of whiteness. As the cities became increasingly populated with scores of Irish immigrants by midcentury, the Irish slowly began to assume positions of power and, as a group, raise their social status on a broader scale. African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants faced stronger obstacles to raising their social status because not only were they socially stigmatized, they could never actually be white in appearance. African Americans were still bound by the chains of slavery, and Native Americans were continually being pushed west to make way for westward expansion. Chinese immigrants, filling another niche of the labor market, had a much more difficult time being accepted in society than European immigrants and frequently faced violence and hostility as they landed on the shores of California beginning in the late 1840s.


During this time of economic and population growth and its concomitant societal changes, the white, privileged sector of society felt that their position at the top of the social ladder was being threatened by the influx of foreign immigrants. To maintain their sense of racial and intellectual supremacy, many members of the white elite attempted to justify subjugation of other non-whites by publicly portraying them as less intelligent and lazy. Rarely were blacks portrayed during this time as positive individuals to be feared lest this imagery become a reality. For many whites blacks’ assertiveness often was seen as savagery, an additional indicator of their unsuitability for full freedom. For others, blacks were frequently portrayed as childlike, ignorant, and groveling. Caricatures, such as Uncle Tom and the ever-nurturing Mammy, suggested that not only were African Americans suited for slavery, but most of them embraced their roles in bondage. If African Americans required paternalistic treatment, then it could be argued that not only was slavery justifiable, but also morally right.

Another way white supremacy was reinforced was through the realm of science, specifically, scientific inquiry into the origin of races. Men such as Samuel George Morton amd Josiah Nott, among others, held blacks to be of a different species from whites. The great Swiss naturalist, Louis Agassiz, held that all humans, wherever located, lived under moral rules common to the universe, although he was convinced that blacks were of a different species from whites. He worried that the presence of large numbers of blacks would result in the collapse of the nation. For him and many other commentators, the physical attributes of blacks were clear indications of their being a different and much lower species. These men felt that one could prove once and for all that a natural racial hierarchy existed and should be upheld by society rather than challenged. In this racial ideology, those blessed by God (i.e., the white elite) were situated at the top of civilization and everyone else ranked somewhere below.

As a means of discovering the origin and character of racial and cultural differences, social theorists developed a classification system of what were dubbed essential natural human types. These essential natural types were based on physical as well as mental and behavioral characteristics, and they were also regarded as intrinsic and unchanging. Traits were passed from one generation to the next, and each race had essential characteristics distinguishing it from other races. Diverse traits such as skin color and intelligence were then measured and used as evidence that cultural and/or racial differences were representative of distinct types of humans (or even that some groups were non- or subhuman, as enslaved African Americans were often categorized).

The question of racial origins spurred many philosophers, biologists, zoologists, naturalists, and early anthropologists to grapple with how these racial differences had developed. Some leaned toward proving the assertion that all groups of people derive from a single, human line (monogenism), but some felt that physical differences observed between groups of people throughout the world were the result of several different human types, or species, that spontaneously generated at different times (polygenism). For monogenists, the human species was analogous to the trunk of a tree, where races made up the branches and twigs. Polygenists, in contrast, viewed races as separate species or subspecies of humanity created at separate places on the earth.

A consequence of this inquiry into the origins of race and the creation of human typologies was the establishment of racial hierarchies. Science, as opposed to speculation, carried more weight with lawmakers and the public because science was deemed to be based on nature and truth rather than intangible ideas. Although monogenists and polygenists differed in how they viewed racial origins, diversity, and the process of human inheritance, both perspectives regarded white Anglo-Saxons as the superior, ideal human type. To most scientists at the time, races were like individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, and to them, white Europeans had historically proven themselves to have higher willpower, strength, and intelligence. One only had to observe European and American economic and military global dominance to see the truth behind the science (Claeys 2000). Following this train of thought, unique physical characteristics differentiating groups around the world from northern Europeans implied permanent physical as well as mental inferiority that could not be remedied. According to Theodor Waitz in Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1859): “All wars of extermination, whenever the lower species are in the way of the white man, are then not only excusable, but fully justifiable, since physical existence only is destroyed, which, without any capacity for higher mental development, may be doomed to extinction in order to afford space to higher organisms” (p. 21).


When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the notion of inherited characteristics was generally accepted. However, what Darwin suggested in opposition to the monogenists and polygenists of the day was the process of natural selection, wherein very simply, those members of a species that survive are those that are best able to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Additionally, contrary to polygenism, new species are created through the process of natural selection rather than spontaneous generation. For Darwin, natural selection was a means for improving species as well as creating new ones. Survival of a species relied upon genetic fitness, which was measured by a species’ ability not only to reproduce but also to have one’s offspring reproduce. Some scientists and social theorists were troubled by these assertions, because if the ability to reproduce in great numbers increased a species’ chance of survival, then what they viewed as the fecundity of the urban poor could potentially drive the white elite into extinction.

Darwin did not discuss human evolution in Origin, but he addressed the issue in his 1871 work, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this book, Darwin attempted to address the fears of the elite who felt that his theories promoted the advancement of the poorer classes over the affluent. He posited in Descent that he felt that the “domestic race” was degenerating at a rapid rate because the poor members of society were allowed to reproduce unchecked while the more refined members of society married later in life. To Darwin, this was causing a retrograde effect on human progress, and the elite needed to address this problem (Claeys 2000). However, he also posited that while his theories rested on the premise that all “races” diverged from a single human evolutionary chain, some groups were more evolutionarily advanced and better able to survive than other groups. Contrary to his previous works, he did not focus on the similarities between groups of people throughout the world and the adaptive strategies inherent in different skin tones and other morphological characteristics. Darwin himself was a man of his day and supported the popular tenets that human intelligence could be measured and stratified according to race, and to Darwin, this meant that intelligence was also subject to natural selection. Hence, he conceived that civilized, intellectual, and moral societies could triumph over the lower and more degraded, savage races.

Social Darwinism, a paradigm based on cultural evolution that was embraced by social theorists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has often been viewed as a bastardization of Darwin’s theories. However, Darwin expressed some of these same racist ideas with his position on the superiority of civilized races and classes. Social Darwinism did not follow Darwin’s theories as much as the foundation of Social Darwinism was already present as a social theory before he published his first book. Social Darwinism holds not only that humans do evolve but that different races and/or cultures also evolve at different rates and are subject to the processes of natural selection. Hence, one culture may be more evolutionarily advanced than another, and all races/cultures can be viewed as being in a constant state of evolution. However, a major tenet of Social Darwinism is that the lower, or more “primitive” and immoral cultures, are never as evolved as the more “civilized” and moral cultures.

Social Darwinists used a variety of ways to measure the level of evolutionary advancement in a society or culture. For example, skulls of white Europeans and African Americans (as well as other ethnoracial groups) were often measured in various ways to gauge cranial capacity, and therefore intelligence. In some cases, these skulls were filled with various materials, such as mustard seeds, which were then weighed to determine the cranial capacity and intelligence of each race. Various experiments placed one culture over another in the evolutionary hierarchy, but not surprisingly, all these experiments resulted in the conclusion that those of northern European descent had larger brains and were therefore more evolutionarily advanced than other ethnoracial groups.


The development of evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century occurred during a time of significant social change in the United States. The defeat of the Confederacy and the ending of slavery created a new dynamic between the races, especially between ex-masters and ex-slaves. The presence of large numbers of emancipated African Americans made many whites uneasy, for they no longer had personal control of their darker fellow citizens. Blacks were quickly discriminated against in employment by white workers and employers alike. Employers occasionally used blacks to keep down wages, thus angering white employees, who resisted any decrease in the value of their services. The Civil War promise of forty acres and a mule went unfulfilled, with neither being given to penniless ex-slaves. Black farmers were residentially segregated to marginal lands. Northern whites, however, were not much different in these sentiments because although many had supported abolition, they did not necessarily consider blacks equal to themselves in any measure. Whites on both sides of the former Mason-Dixon line began publishing books and articles disparaging the end of slavery and arguing that, with freedom, blacks had become socially intolerable and were reverting back to their “savage” roots, and, as a result, respectable society would have to be protected.

While these sentiments were being expressed throughout the nation, relations between poor whites and blacks began to worsen. Before the Civil War, poor whites were sometimes equated with African Americans in terms of intelligence and, at times, considered as being less evolved than their affluent brethren. Following the war, poor whites, with little power to change their economic circumstances as factory workers in the cities and tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the rural areas, had to compete economically with blacks. This competition increased racial hostility between working-class whites and blacks, especially since this competition arose at a time of major labor surplus. As freed blacks and poor whites flocked to the cities in search of work, there were not enough jobs for all who sought them, and many had to face returning to the rural hinterlands to compete for low wages as sharecroppers.

These setbacks only served to create even further hostility as poor whites then blamed blacks for their inability to secure employment. The white master class did not want the working classes to unite and challenge their control of politics and the economy; therefore, they frequently fostered bad relations between the poor along racial lines by stressing their common physical inheritance (Wilson 1976). Overt antiblack attitudes and conduct gave whiteness an added value, so much so that the white poor of the South eventually became the most rabid of racial purists.

The emergence of a widely dispersed white middle class served only to increase the urge for racial purity. One unanticipated result of the end of the Civil War was the rapid rise of the middle class. The middle class, primarily comprising local politicians, factory owners, merchants, bankers, and the owners and operators of mines and railroads, achieved a measure of economic power during the postwar years, and together with the white ruling elite, became increasingly wary of the prospects of black and white working-class cohesion. Hence, instead of ignoring the plight of the white working class as the master class had done for years, the white middle class helped poor whites push politically for black disenfranchisement and legal segregation.

Race would still be a status marker, now reinforced by class. What the white working and middle classes wanted was for segregation to extend from education to residency to public transportation. Ultimately, they desired separate facilities for whites and blacks in all public places. By the late 1880s, several states, such as Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, conceded to the concerns of poor whites and enacted laws requiring separate accommodations for blacks on railcars. Hence, the wheels were put in motion for an era of legalized segregation, disenfranchisement, and antimiscegenation regulations known as Jim Crow.


The Jim Crow era officially began two decades before the Progressive movement. The price of the North and South reunion was the withdrawal of federal supervision of southern race relations. This left blacks open to informal segregation through the violence of vigilante groups such as the newly organized Ku Klux Klan, beginning shortly after the Civil War ended. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment’equal protection provisions applied only to state action, not to individual acts, and the court was not meant to tell states how to handle race relations. This type of decision led directly to the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) doctrine of separate-but-equal. Blacks and whites alike understood that this decision was intended to prevent equality in transportation. White status purity was to be preserved, the immediate emergence of the “Negro car” being a visible symbol of the racial differences. Of course, this situation did not bar whites from being attended by their black servants or employees. From Reconstruction forward, not only to provide service for upper-status white travelers, but also to reassure them of their personal superiority, George Pullman, inventor of the “sleeping car” for long-distance train travel, took great pains to hire only those black porters who appeared to display unadulterated black genetic inheritance. Their bodies made clear the ranks of all.

Progressives, focused on transforming the nation from a defective society to a middle-class paradise, supported segregation policies and black proscription because many reformers felt that it would increase social stability. Many blacks resisted these policies, however, refusing to use segregated facilities and public transportation. However, African Americans as a group lacked the political leverage to overturn these racist policies. As the turn of the twentieth century neared, racial tensions continued to increase and the lynching of African Americans in the South continued. Racial tensions between lower-status blacks and whites were exacerbated by a new wave of European—mostly eastern European—immigrants. Poverty, overcrowding, and crime increased in the cities as a result of this rapid population growth and prompted Progressives to campaign for stricter sanctions against immoral behavior as well as sanitation reform at the local and regional levels.

The increase in disease epidemics, overcrowding, and filth in the city streets led many to believe that African Americans and foreign-born immigrants were to blame for social and sanitation problems. That is, African Americans and immigrants were considered carriers of disease because they were viewed as not as evolved as white middle-class Americans. Proponents of Social Darwinism posited that the “inferior races” had no other recourse than to accept their innate condition and hope for improvements only as individuals.

According to Lawrence Friedman in The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South (1970, p. 123), there was also the belief at this time that African Americans were black because the entire race had once been afflicted with leprosy, and that all blacks inherently harbored “venereal [sic] diseases.” Because of these afflictions, any contact with African Americans, be it sharing living quarters or occupying a railroad passenger car, could render any white person infected. Hence, white people felt that it was imperative that segregation policies stay in place or be more firmly enforced, and many also believed that foreign immigration had to be stopped, or at least, controlled.


The threat of “racial pollution” and the question of how to control it became the crux of social and political discourse between 1900 and 1910. Progressives and Social Darwinists alike felt that to protect society, the unfit elements of society, namely people of color, the physically and mentally challenged, criminals, and the undeserving poor (i.e., those who did not ascribe to middle-class social norms), needed to be prevented from reproducing. Even more imperative was the need to prevent marriage, and therefore procreation, between the pure, moral race (i.e., whites) and the socially unfit. Only by maintaining the purity of the white race could society be saved and progress be guaranteed. To save the dominant groups’ racial purity, some reformers advocated eugenics programs and sterilization laws to prevent breeding by the socially unfit; furthermore, antimiscege-nation laws were advocated to control marriage and family life.

The early years of the twentieth century were marked by increasing fears of society’s “others,” and various articles and books were published demonstrating the inherent savagery of African Americans and the urgent need to protect society from it. In 1900, Charles Carroll published The Negro a Beast. Carroll was a devout Christian who questioned the humanity of African Americans by taking Darwin and other evolutionary theorists to task with their ideas that all humans derived from the same evolutionary line. He contrasted the physical characteristics of whites and blacks to prove that in no way could blacks and whites derive from the same origin. Carroll noted differences in skin color, hair, cranial capacity, skull shape, and even brain tissue color, and he argued that African American features were more akin to those of apes than to people of European descent. Hence, to Carroll, African Americans should not be treated as humans. Instead, they should be treated as beasts who exist only for the service of the white man. Protecting the racial purity of the white race was essential, therefore, because, according to Carroll (1900),

the offspring of man and the negro, if bred continuously to pure whites for ages, could never become pure white; you could never breed the ape out, nor breed the spiritual creation in. Hence, they would remain simply mixed bloods, without reference to what their physical and mental characters might be. These measurements demonstrate that if the offspring of whites and negroes were bred continuously to negroes for ages they would never become negroes, but would remain mixed bloods. (p. 49)

The Clansman (1905), written by Thomas Ryan Dixon, was another book published during this time that attempted to demonstrate the inferiority of African Americans, especially African American men. Dixon published this book to highlight the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization he felt deserved recognition for their service in preserving the purity of the white race. In The Clansman, Dixon discussed how the Klan was developed after the Civil War out of necessity to relieve the South from chaos. As opposed to being a terrorist organization based on hatred, Dixon described the Klan as rising from the ashes of the war to protect white southern women from violence perpetrated by African American men, men who were essentially beasts and subhuman.

Robert W. Shufeldt’s The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization (1907) discussed the origin of Africans

and African Americans in a similar vein to Carroll. Like Carroll, he attempted to demonstrate the ways in which Africans and Europeans were physically and psychologically different. To Shufeldt, it was devastating to the white race to interbreed with blacks and create “diseased” offspring. This fraternization could only increase the danger of interbreeding and potentially plunge the white race into evolutionary regression.

With this line of racial discourse in the public forefront, it was not difficult for eugenicists to posit that through selective breeding, biologically superior white men and women could be produced and inferior breeds would no longer be reproduced. Several forced sterilization programs were introduced to hinder the ability of the less evolved elements of the population to continue bearing offspring.

One of the most vocal proponents of forced sterilization and restrictions on interracial marriage was Madison Grant. To Grant, miscegenation was a social and racial crime that could only lead whites to racial suicide. In his book, The Passing of the Great Race, or the Racial Basis of European History (1916), Grant noted that interbreeding could only result in the offspring being relegated to the “lower race,” because procreation between a highly evolved white person and a black person would pollute the superior person’s “germ plasm.”

The effects of these perspectives resulted in a high tide of forced sterilizations and tighter restrictions on interracial marriage after 1910. By stringent testing and observation, some argued, the socially unfit and feebleminded could be identified and sterilized. Many patients in mental hospitals, alcoholics, prison inmates, and epileptics were therefore sterilized without their consent. Forced sterilization was seen as producing a good for all of society.

The focus on sterilization as a means of protecting white racial purity, and therefore white social, economic, and political supremacy, continued unabated in the United States until the 1930s, when the Great Depression and foreign affairs shifted the public’s attention to other matters. Jim Crow segregation policies, disenfranchisement, and antimiscegenation laws continued well into the mid-twentieth century, however, and even after the civil rights movement of the 1960s passed, many people of color in the United States continue to struggle for equal rights.

SEE ALSO Black-White Intermarriage; Dixon, Thomas, Jr.; Forced Sterilization; Irish Americans and Whiteness; Ku Klux Klan; Nott, Josiah; Plessy v. Ferguson; Poverty; Racial Hierarchy; Scientific Racism, History of; Skin Color; Subspecies.


Brodkin, Karen. 1998. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Carroll, Charles. 1900. The Negro a Beast, or In the Image of God. St. Louis, MO: American Book and Bible House.

Claeys, Gregory. 2000. “The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and the Origin of Social Darwinism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 61 (2): 223–240.

Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.

_____. 1871. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

Dixon, Thomas Ryan. 1905. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday.

Friedman, Lawrence J. 1970. The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Grant, Madison. 1916. The Passing of the Great Race, or the Racial Basis of European History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Humphrey, Seth K. The Menace of the Half Man. Journal of Heredity 11: 228–232.

Shufeldt, Robert W. 1907. The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization. Boston: Richard G. Badger.

Waitz, Theodor. 1859. Anthropologie der Naturvölker. Vol. 1. Leipzig: F. Fleischer.

Wilson, William. 1976. “Class Conflict and Jim Crow Segregation in the Postbellum South.” Pacific Sociological Review 19 (4): 431–446.

Tanya A. Faberson