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Sterilization settlement is an insult

by Jim Longworth

Last week, the North Carolina legislature finally decided to award reparations to surviving victims of forced sterilization. The gesture was tragically long overdue, and degradingly short on cash.

After years of stalls and broken promises, state lawmakers agreed to set aside a paltry $10 million to be divided equally among the approximately 168 surviving victims who have been identified and officially confirmed as having been sterilized against their will. That comes to about $50,000 per victim, which, to add even more insult to injury, won’t be dispersed until 2015.

In my exclusive interview with sterilization victim Elaine Riddick for a January 2012 edition of “Triad Today,” she said, “State lawmakers are just waiting around for surviving victims to die out.” Back then, victims had watched and waited as one governor after another dragged their heels, made empty apologies and promises they couldn’t keep. True to Elaine’s theory, many of the victims did pass away over the past decade while politicians did what they do best: nothing.

At first there was a proposal to allocate $100 million to the approximately 1,800 surviving victims of forced sterilization, but then came the recession, andthat figure was discarded, never to surface again. Too bad, because even that amount of money could not possibly have compensated the people whose lives were so horribly altered by the state. From the 1940s through the early 1970s, nearly 8,000 North Carolinians, most of them poor, black girls, were sterilized against their will under a state-approved and -supervised system designed to purge our population of so-called “undesirables.”

Girls like Elaine Riddick.

Elaine was raped at age 13, and became pregnant as a result of that rape. The state determined that she was “promiscuous,” and ordered her to be sterilized. Hers was a fairly typical story. Others were even more horrifying, like the 9-year-old African-American boy who was castrated because he acted up in school.

Yes, white people were sterilized too, but in almost all cases the common denominator for victims of our eugenics program was abject poverty, something which, like dark-skinned people, could be diminished for the so-called betterment of society. In fact the name of Forsyth County’s eugenics program was the “Human Betterment Society.”

Last year, a state task force estimated that 1,800 of the 7,000-plus sterilization victims were still alive, but fewer than 200 had come forward. In a twisted way, that was good news for state bean counters, because by then legislators from both sides of the aisle had made it clear that $50,000 per victim was more than enough compensation. The less surviving victims the better. Sadly, some of those politicians, like the people who elected them, felt that sterilization victims didn’t deserve a penny of taxpayer money because it all happened a long time ago, and the current state government had nothing to do with it. In truth, forced sterilizations for the purpose of ethnic cleansing were still being ordered 40 years ago, and government had everything to do with it. Said Riddick, “Your tax money DID pay for victims to be sterilized, whether you know it or not.”

Elaine was right, and after careful research and a series of simple calculations I was able to estimate what the state of North Carolina spent to sterilize its nearly 8,000 victims. In today’s dollars, the total expenditures for our horrific program amounted to about $240 million. All of a sudden, $100 million for reparations doesn’t seem unreasonable. Had the General Assembly set aside $100 million, that would have paid the nearly 200 identified victims about a half-million apiece, and that’s still a bargain for North Carolina. After all, it’s not unusual for our state (and others) to pay $3 and $4 million to a single individual who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime, and incarcerated for 10 or 20 years. Yet $50,000 is now supposed to be a generous offer by a predominantly white legislature, to the people whose reproductive rights we took away without an ounce of remorse.

This take-it-or-leave-it approach by state lawmakers is arrogant, shameful and hurtful. But perhaps there’s still time to change the little minds of these dispassionate politicians. I propose that a citizens committee petition a sympathetic judge to order all white male lawmakers to be sterilized against their will. Then, many years later, a new session of the General Assembly could vote to pay their predecessors $50,000 for the loss of their testicles. On second thought, what’s the use? Those guys already know what it’s like to have no balls.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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