One of the basic ways to evaluate the health of a given society is to assess the safety and wellbeing of its weakest members. In healthy social orders, the vulnerable are defined not by their vulnerabilities, but by their membership in a wider community of care and responsibility. Whatever their weaknesses and whatever the sources of their diminished social status may be, in healthy communities the vulnerable are seen, known, encouraged, supported, and—above all—protected from exploitation. On the other hand, indulgent, decadent, and uncaring societies exacerbate the differences between strong and weak and fail to protect the vulnerable from everyday injustice.
This week, we bring you three recent pieces chronicling failures in the responsibility to protect the vulnerable in the course of the American experiment.
The first is a brief account of the legal and cultural conditions under which the American Eugenics experiment flourished, particularly in our own state of Virginia. Writing for the New Yorker and drawing heavily from Adam Cohen’s recent and excellent book, Imbeciles, Andrea DenHoed presents the story of Carrie Buck, a Charlottesville woman who was forcibly sterilized in the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-minded.
In addition to giving the basic details of Carrie Buck’s life and the social conditions under which she lived, DenHoed’s account is useful for anyone interested in the ways in which networks of influential people can change societies—for good or for ill. The main figures who crafted Virginia’s forced sterilization law, supported the scientific work underpinning forced sterilizations, and finally ratified the law in the courts were all, as DenHoed has it, “marching their agendas forward over bridges formed by social connections.”
Second: In a previous briefing, we brought you some early pieces reporting upon the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. This week, we noticed a devastating but important piece on the ongoing mental health needs in Flint. Writing for the New York Times, Abby Goodnough and Scott Atkinson report upon the ongoing support needs in Flint before profiling five families continuing to struggle with the shame, guilt, and ongoing concern they have experienced in response to the water crisis. In aggregate, the stories of these residents demonstrate the effects of crisis and mismanagement even after the initial phase of a crisis has subsided.
Finally, we bring you a remarkable interactive piece from the New York Times on the relation of racial integration, affluence, and achievement levels in public schools. The upshot of a Stanford study confirms what has long been well-known: “children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.” Beyond this, however, is the sobering data showing that some of the largest disparities between white and minority children “emerge in some of the wealthiest communities.” Importantly, this piece visualizes this data, making it possible to see how each individual school district ranks in relation to the rest of the country.
Each of these stories highlights features of our society we would rather overlook. But we should resist that temptation. For if, as Wendell Berry has put it in the title of one of his essays, “health is membership,” we can learn a great deal about the health of our own society by attending to the lived experiences of those ill at ease within it.