Focus on Sanger seems misplaced

The University community owes a debt of gratitude to College Republican and candidate for state Legislature Tom Gromacki. His crusade to remove the portrait of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger from Wilson Library has cast some much needed light on her less-than-savory racial views. The birth control champion did, as Gromacki claims, advocate eugenic programs designed to restrict breeding among groups she regarded as unfit — especially blacks, poor whites and the feebleminded. She printed racist propaganda in her newsletter, just as Gromacki charges. Furthermore, though Sanger herself was hardly an ardent or vocal white supremacist, a few of her associates in the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control most certainly were. Anyone who cares about the truth should welcome a thorough inquiry into the ugly racist beliefs entertained by many of our nation’s most cherished historical figures, Sanger included. Take an honest look at American history and you’ll discover that right-wing extremists and Southern rednecks have never had a monopoly on white supremacist views.
It’s hard to shake the feeling, however, that Gromacki’s focus on Sanger is a bit misplaced. Contrary to what he would have us believe, concern for “racial purity” played a negligible role in Sanger’s arguments for the legalization of birth control. Far more important from her standpoint was the fact that safe, legal birth control would immeasurably expand women’s freedom. As she put it, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose conscientiously whether she will or will not be a mother.” True, Sanger held some racist views, but she was more liberal on racial issues than President Warren Harding (a Ku Klux Klan member), industrialist Andrew Carnegie (a committed Social Darwinist), automobile magnate Henry Ford (a Nazi sympathizer) and countless other prominent white leaders of her era. Besides, in the long run her work directly improved the health, well-being and social situation of all women regardless of race or ethnicity.
If Gromacki and other Republican converts to the cause of racial justice are serious about removing symbols of race hatred from the august halls of this University, there are more appropriate targets than Margaret Sanger.
Consider the portraits of famous philosophers that hang in Room 359 Ford Hall. Almost without exception the intellectual luminaries represented there were unrepentant white supremacists.
Take Immanuel Kant, the giant of 18th- century German philosophy. Kant rightfully insisted that as a fundamental ethical principle, human beings ought to be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end. However, that didn’t stop him from thinking that blacks as a race were lacking in “moral understanding.” Nor did it keep him from writing that “the difference between the [black and white] races of man … appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as it is in color.” (This latter statement, it should be noted, is more blatantly racist than any that’s ever been attributed to Sanger).
Or take David Hume, the Scottish empiricist who Kant was determined to refute. Kant and Hume may have disagreed about the nature of causality or about the existence of a priori moral laws, but they concurred in their virulent racism. Hume claimed that people of color were naturally inferior to whites. He saw Arabs as “uncouth and disagreeable” and labeled Jews “fraudulent.” He even tried to discount reports of educated, intelligent blacks living in Jamaica by arguing that such individuals were likely “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”
Then there’s John Locke. Most educated people know Locke as the author of “Two Treatise on Civil Government,” which advances the doctrine of natural rights and defends the institution of representative democracy. However, most people don’t know that in 1669 Locke wrote a constitution for the then-British colony of South Carolina that gave slave holders absolute power over their slaves. And they probably don’t know that he invested in the slave trade.
Of course, if we extend this list beyond the thinkers whose pictures hang in Ford Hall to include those whose work is routinely taught in University classrooms, the litany of bigotry and racism could be continued almost indefinitely. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and thought blacks were intellectually deficient. Benjamin Franklin wanted an all-white America. Voltaire was an anti-Semite. So was Schopenhauer. John Stuart Mill maintained that the people of India were so uncivilized that they needed British colonial rule in order to progress. German existentialist Martin Heidegger was a Nazi. And on and on.
Interestingly, Gromacki and his cronies haven’t uttered so much as a peep about the racism that pervades the Great Western Canon of which Kant, Locke and the others are such a treasured part. This makes one wonder if their efforts to get Sanger’s picture removed don’t perhaps have an ulterior motive. After all, Gromacki is a member of the Republican Party, the same Republican Party that tolerates frothing-at-the-mouth racists like ex-Klan leader David Duke and routinely runs race-baiting TV ads during election campaigns. That Gromacki’s making such an issue of racism thus seems rather incongruous. Could it be that he is only playacting his indignation over Sanger’s racial chauvinism? Is it possible he objects to Sanger not because she was a eugenicist but because she fought for abortion rights (which Gromacki happens to vehemently oppose)? Worse yet, is his bid to scrap her portrait simply a cynical election-year publicity stunt?
In the end, no matter how vile his motives for making them, at least some of Gromacki’s accusations about Sanger are accurate. Nevertheless, it makes no sense to single her out as he has. An insidious white supremacist ideology permeates the entire Western cultural and political tradition. The best way of dealing with this repugnant heritage is, I would suggest, by exposing and criticizing it in exhaustive detail and at every opportunity. By candidly and openly discussing this sorry history we will be better able to understand the persistence of racism in the present and hence will be better equipped to combat it. But the facile gesture of taking down a picture of Margaret Sanger — a courageous woman who helped to liberate so many in spite of her sometimes regressive attitudes — will achieve nothing.
Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every Tuesday.