Why Occidental College Revoked a 1929 Honorary Degree to White Supremacist Paul Popenoe
Confronting the legacy of eugenics in the United States and its ties to the founder of modern marriage counseling
Racism is America’s original sin. 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, many colleges and universities have created task forces and programs to excavate their racist histories. 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 that, wittingly or unwittingly, reflected society’s white supremacist values. In 2017, for example, Yale University renamed Calhoun College — a residential complex named for John C. Calhoun, South Carolina senator, vice president, and influential advocate for slavery — and removed his portrait from a dining hall. Last August, protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled “Silent Sam,” a Confederate campus monument erected in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In April, students at Georgetown University voted to raise their tuition to create a fund to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans that the Jesuits who ran the school sold in 1838 to sustain its finances. (The university’s board of directors must approve the measure before it can take effect).
Occidental College’s campus in Los Angeles doesn’t have any statues of slave owners, pro-slavery politicians, or Confederate generals, but in 1929, the college did award an honorary degree to white supremacist Paul Popenoe, one of the nation’s most prominent racist eugenicists and an influential advocate for involuntary sterilization. In 1976 — almost half a century later — the college Alumni Board of Governors presented Popenoe with its Auld Lang Syne Award for “unwavering loyalty to Occidental College and the principle for which it stands.”
I learned about Popenoe’s career and his ties to Occidental while researching a completely different topic and wrote an article about him for the student newspaper in March. A few weeks later, 86 percent of the college’s faculty as well as many staff and administrators (including three vice presidents) signed a statement urging the board of trustees to revoke Popenoe’s honorary degree. The board didn’t hesitate, unanimously voting to rescind the award.
In recent decades, Occidental has gained a reputation as a progressive institution. Admissions materials remind prospective students that as an Occidental student in 1981, Barack Obama gave his first political speech at a campus rally protesting South African apartheid. When it hired John Brooks Slaughter at its president in 1988, Occidental was the first highly selective, predominantly white liberal arts college headed by an African American. Since the nineteen-nineties, Occidental has consistently ranked near the top among colleges committed to racial and economic diversity, including enrollment of low-income students and students of color.
Some students and faculty, however, believe Occidental hasn’t taken sufficient steps to deserve its reputation and have pushed the college to be take stronger action on hiring, curriculum, and promoting a campus culture of racial inclusiveness.
That culture was tested in March, when the student newspaper published a 1984 college yearbook photograph of a current white trustee and several of her white classmates dressed in blackface. (They had entered a talent show dressed up as the Jackson 5.) The trustee, Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite, immediately resigned from the board and apologized. Before the controversy erupted, Crosthwaite and her husband had pledged $1.5 million to help fund a new campus pool that was to be named in their honor. They agreed to remove their name from the pool and to redirect their donation to scholarships for low-income and first-generation students. In response to the incident, the college is asking this fall’s incoming freshmen to read several articles and watch two videos about white supremacy and “racial representation,” including blackface and other “racist tropes,” which will be discussed during orientation and throughout the academic year. Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, will be speaking on campus in October in support of Occidental’s Obama Scholars program, which provides full four-year scholarships and paid summer internships to low-income students and students of color.
That controversy no doubt influenced the willingness of the trustees to act quickly to revoke Popenoe’s honorary degree. Unlike the 1984 blackface photo of foolish undergraduates, the awards to Popenoe were official acts by the college itself, repeated in two different eras.
Born in 1888 in Kansas, Popenoe grew up in California, where his father was a pioneer in the avocado industry. He attended Occidental for two years, from 1905 to 1907. He transferred to Stanford, where he studied with President David Starr Jordan, a biologist and eugenicist, but dropped out after one year to take care of his ailing father. Popenoe worked for several years as a newspaper editor, and 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 him 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.
In 1918 — eleven years before Occidental gave him an honorary degree — Popenoe published Applied Eugenics, which explained “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, and was, ominously, translated into German. The book includes a chapter about the alleged racial inferiority of African Americans, which includes statements such as, “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.” Elsewhere, Popenoe devotes many pages to encouraging people with “good” heredity to marry and have many children.
Not surprisingly, Popenoe and other eugenicists were strong advocates of restricting immigration to the United States 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, which imposed country-by-country limits on immigration in order to keep out “undesirable” ethnic groups — particularly those from Asia and southern and Eastern Europe — in order to maintain America’s “character” as nation of northern and western European stock.
Popenoe also 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, three years before Occidental awarded him an honorary degree.
Popenoe became a key leader of the U.S. eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century. In his writings, speeches, and political activism, he advocated for compulsory sterilization, a practice which disproportionately harmed people of color, people with physical and mental disabilities, and women.
In 1909, California had 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.” Popenoe disseminated model sterilization legislation to encourage laws to limit the reproduction of people they considered to be “unfit.” Between 1909 and 1929, at least 6,255 people — 45 percent of them women — were sterilized in state hospitals and prisons. Many of these women were classified as “bad girls” and described as “oversexed,” passionate,” or “sexually wayward.”
That mission was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, which ruled that compulsory sterilization laws were constitutional. In 1929, Popenoe coauthored 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. By the mid-nineteen-thirties, 30 states allowed eugenic sterilization and 41 states prohibited marriage among the “feebleminded” and insane. By 1960, at least 20,000 Californians had been sterilized, far more than in any other state. California’s sterilization law wasn’t repealed until 1979. In 2003, Governor Gray Davis issued an apology for the program.
Popenoe’s enthusiastic writings about compulsory sterilization—including his reports for the Pasadena-based Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenics organization for whom he was the major researcher and propagandist — influenced Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who modeled their sterilization regime to create an Aryan “master race” in part on Popenoe’s reports on the California program. Popenoe, in turn, praised Hitler and the Nazi sterilization program. “Hitler himself — though a bachelor — has long been a convinced advocate of race betterment through eugenic measures,” Popenoe would write in the Journal of Heredity in 1934.
The 1929 Occidental honorary degree allowed him to identify himself as “Dr. Popenoe,” which he did for the rest of his life, promoting himself as an expert on genetics and marriage. In 1930, with funding from his patron Ezra Gosney, who had founded the Human Betterment Foundation, Popenoe established the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR), headquartered in Los Angeles. He claimed that his marriage counseling ideas 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 became well-known as the host of a national radio program, “Love and Marriage,” the author of a syndicated newspaper column with the byline “Dr. Paul Popenoe,” and his regular advice column in the Ladies Home Journal, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” He was a frequent guest on Art Linkletter’s popular TV show, where he discussed marriage issues. He was the Dr. Phil of his time. He claimed to have lectured at more than 200 colleges and universities.
Popenoe’s work on eugenics and his marriage counseling went hand-in-hand. He wanted to make sure that the “right kind of people” — meaning affluent white people — got married, stayed married and produced “superior offspring.”
One byproduct of Popenoe’s views was Occidental’s Eugenics Fund, which was established to encourage faculty and alumni (who were overwhelmingly white at the time) to have large families. The college cooperated with the Population Reference Bureau to analyze the proportion of Occidental alumni who were married and how many children they had 10 and 25 years after graduation compared with the national average. According to an article in the March 1951 Occidental alumni magazine:
In the judgement of Dr. Clarence J. Gamble ’14, a director of the Population Reference Bureau, “ an erosion of the country’s best hereditary qualities is going on primarily because the families of college graduates are too small to replace them. College alumni are among those who can give their children the best of intelligent heredity and careful upbringing.”
The article quotes Occidental president Arthur G. Coons urging alumni to have at least “two children per graduate” because they are “needed for mere replacement of the outstanding mental qualities of graduates.” Although he never earned a regular degree, Popenoe, who lived in nearby Pasadena, occasionally spoke in classes on the Occidental campus and remained involved in college alumni activities, which accounts for the 1976 award from the Alumni Board of Governors. The citation for the award notes that Popenoe and his wife have “four sons, all happily married to their first wives and all successful professional men,” along with 11 grandchildren.
Occidental’s posthumous revocation of Popenoe’s honorary degree (he died in 1979), like controversies about racism on other campuses, raises the question of what standards we should use to judge people from the past. Should we hold people who lived many years ago to today’s ethical yardsticks?
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 nineteen-hundreds many esteemed Americans, including scientists, embraced its ideas. “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. Billionaire philanthropists like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Harriman funded eugenics research. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, flirted with the eugenics movement. Support for eugenics declined after World War II among the scientific community and the general public, but it continues to rear its ugly head among white supremacist and nativist groups. Some of President Donald Trump’s views — about immigrants, Jews, African Americans, and his family background and his own self-proclaimed success — echo eugenics thinking.
Ironically, contemporary conservatives — particularly foes of birth control and abortion — have used Sanger’s support for eugenics to discredit Planned Parenthood and score political points, claiming that her work in the Black community was a form of racial genocide. In 2015, for example, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas claimed that Sanger “advocated for the extermination of African Americans.”
Sanger can be justifiably criticized for her brief embrace of eugenics, but her partnership with African American leaders was about women’s rights, not extermination. Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, primarily serving immigrant women, and went to jail to defend women’s rights to contraception. In 1930, with the support of W. E. B. Du Bois, the Urban League, and the Amsterdam News, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a Black doctor and Black social worker. In 1939, Du Bois, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem’s powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and other Black leaders encouraged Sanger to expand her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans lived. They and Sanger viewed birth control as a way to empower Black women, not as a means to reduce the Black population. Sanger explained that the project was designed to help “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped… to get a fair share of the better things in life.”
We shouldn’t ignore the offensive views and actions of progressives like Sanger. Future generations should recognize that these pioneers — like many other reformers and radicals—were human beings who were both trapped by and sought to escape the social and political straightjackets of their times. But our judgements should depend on totality of a person’s contributions to the struggle for social justice.
In contrast to Sanger, Popenoe’s views on race, gender, and immigration — bigotry cloaked as science — were consistent throughout his life. He displayed no redeeming qualities that might lead people to forgive him for his views and activities about eugenics and sterilization. Simply revoking Popenoe’s degree, or dismantling pro-slavery statues and monuments, serves no purpose, however, unless we learn from the past. To understand how Occidental could have ignored Popenoe’s ugly views when it honored him in 1929 and again in 1976, we should ask ourselves what ideas and practices — about wealth inequality, race, gender, the death penalty, human rights abuses, education, climate change, health care, and other issues — we take for granted today that future generations might find appalling. We need to reckon with our past in order to move forward.
Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books) and co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style ( The New Press), forthcoming in January.