4 Storied American Institutions (With Screwed-Up Origins)
Look, on some level, anything older than, like, nine months probably has a questionable past. You don't even want to know the horrible shit toddlers have hiding in their closet/diapers. So maybe we shouldn't be too surprised to learn some of our oldest institutions have extremely questionable pasts. But on the other hand, holy shit you guys ...
Aetna (And Basically Every Old Insurance Company) Sold Slave Policies
As much as we all hate insurance companies like Aetna, they do provide a certain peace of mind. In theory, they protect us from financial ruin following disasters like house fires, medical emergencies, or when your sex dungeon floods (with water, hopefully). Insurance protects customers' most valuable assets and property. And back in America's early days, that meant many insurance companies profited by insuring human property, i.e. enslaved people.
Slaveowners would take out policies on their slaves should they happen to die or somehow be murdered for no reason and without repercussion. For example, in 1781, a slaver ship headed for Jamaica called the Zong had a disease outbreak, and many of the prisoners got sick. Insurance didn't cover slaves dying from illness, and sick slaves didn't tend to sell so well, but insurance did cover drowning. So to save money, the crew threw 132 people overboard to their deaths, most of them chained together so they couldn't keep afloat. As soon as the ship hit the shore, the crew filed an insurance claim on their "lost product." The only reason the insurance company wasn't forced to pay was that they won an appeal claiming you can't intentionally kill the very things you insured. This was after the jury in the first case was like, "No, it's totally cool to murder over a hundred people for insurance money."
Weirdly, as the example of the Zong demonstrates, insuring slaves wasn't actually lucrative for these companies. The assholes who took out such policies also tended to be the type of assholes who killed their own slaves. To make things worse, it's not like great records existed of which slave was which, so policyholders often cashed in when any of their slaves died, whether or not they were the specific person on the insurance form. But the practice still continued right up until the Civil War, with even longstanding insurance companies offering policies until as late as 1856. In 2002, a lawsuit was filed against Aetna, along with other companies, claiming they should pay reparations for their part in slavery. It was dismissed two years later.
Planned Parenthood's Founder Practiced "Eugenic Feminism"
Whether you believe Planned Parenthood is A-OK or a front for Satan to lay claim to young people's genitals, they provide a lot of valuable services, like cancer screenings and stemming the spread of AIDS. From the beginning, the organization has been committed to ensuring people have more reproductive choices and options. At least, as long as they weren't, uh, feeble-minded morons.
See, as many good things as Planned Parenthood does now, it's founder, Margaret Sanger, conceived of it as a eugenicist project. Sanger wanted to utilize what she called "feminist eugenics" to help mothers (whom she called "natural eugenicists") wield abortion to control a child's potential traits. She primarily blamed poverty and unwantedness as the reason a kid might grow up to be morally or physically "defective," but apparently felt that treating people like a dog show breeder was an easier fix than solving poverty.
If a woman or man had genetic defects, Sanger advocated they be literally sent to a farm somewhere and segregated from the rest of the population for the entire lives ... unless they were medically sterilized. She didn't want any more "hordes of people ... who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race an iota ... Such human weeds clog up the path, drain the energies and the resources of this little earth." Somehow this doesn't look like a quote you'd find at the top of your "I think I'm pregnant, now what?" pamphlet.
Georgetown Still Exists Thanks To Selling Off All Its Slaves For Quick Cash
These days, Georgetown University primarily attracts students with its penchant for piping graduates straight to Wall Street, which is admittedly a weird stereotype for America's oldest Roman Catholic university. But back in 1838, they weren't doing so hot on the whole finances thing, and the college was on the verge of shutting down. Luckily, they had a backup plan: selling their hundreds of slaves to the Deep South.
Now, Georgetown had sold off individual slaves here and there for decades, but they'd never before considered a full-on human blowout sale. But wait! Several of the priests at the university objected to sending those people down to plantations. Except they weren't so much worried about the brutal working conditions as the possibility that those filthy Southerners might try to convert slaves from Christianity to ... different Christianity. Basically, the fear was the slaves might no longer be allowed to practice Catholicism, and would instead become Protestant.
Of course, religious concerns are rarely more powerful than monetary ones, so the slaves were promptly sold and the institution saved. Georgetown could get back to charging $24,112 more than the national average for their majority-white university to bless the world with that guy who voiced an anthropomorphic raccoon. To date, we've found over 8,000 descendants of former Georgetown slaves. No word on whether they're Catholic, Protestant, or *gasp* non-denominational.
Related: Oops, Hamilton Did Own Slaves
Environmentalists Wanted To Save The Land ... From Brown People
Founded in 1892, the Sierra Club is one of America's oldest environmentalist groups. Boasting a membership of three-quarters of million people, their current motto is "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet." Unfortunately, for a big chunk of their existence, the implied end to that slogan was "from inferior races."
That's because over the course of America's history, environmentalism in general and the Sierra Club in particular have been shockingly racist. This has included longtime opposition to immigration, and even support of "population control" for nonwhites. After all, only pasty-ass people can be trusted to really care about the environment. In 1988, John Tanton, a former Sierra Club national population committee chairman, asked: "What will happen when [the white population] goes into minority status, and the groups that comprise the new coalition majorities don't share the same [environmental] values?" All this despite the fact that white people tend to profit off environmental disasters, while people of color suffer. Weird how that works out!
And Tanton isn't some one-off weirdo. The Sierra Club's founder, John Muir, often talked about "lazy sambos" and "dirty Indians," and wrote in 1901 that white people shouldn't be afraid to visit national parks because "as to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence." Some environmentalists didn't even bother to blame their racism on environmental concerns. In fact, one of the biggest early environmentalists was a guy named Madison Grant, who both helped launch the national parks movement and wrote a book called The Passing Of The Great Race. This tome was so goddamned racist that Hitler claimed it as his "Bible." Grant was a cookie-cutter white supremacist shithead who happened to also really like to spend time in parks, smelling pretty flowers and watching birds.
More recently, some environmentalist organizations like Sierra Club are (finally) grappling with their pasts. It just took, you know, over a century to get there.
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