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Eugenic Visuality: Racist Epistemologies from Galton to “The Bell Curve”

Amanda Reyes

Pages 215 - 240



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This paper argues that Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” re-introduces into American politics a discourse of eugenics created by its founder, Francis Galton. Using a Visual Studies framework developed by Mieke Bal, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison, I show how the bell curve has been used to construct a eugenic visuality—a way of seeing, a practice of looking, a set of values, assumptions, and epistemologies—since Galton employed it to classify his countrymen and introduce the necessity of eugenics. Attention to the historicity of eugenic visualities from Galton to the American eugenic discourse of the early twentieth century and “The Bell Curve” in 1994 reveals that the directions of British and American eugenics were not the genocide of all groups of inferior people. The eugenic visualities I examine have been used to construct populations and offer suggestions for their management to protect and optimize national health. Thus, while Herrnstein and Murray do not encourage coercive sterilization or contraceptive policies, their suggestions to revoke social welfare benefits and end affirmative action are eugenic because they naturalize as group inferiority conditions created by structural inequality and scientific fantasy and, on that basis, argue for policies that deepen racial inequality.

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