(Vox) — Scientific racism was certainly not new to America in the 1990s: The Bell Curve tapped into a long and ignominious tradition. Its roots wend back to the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton produced works like Crania Americana and Crania Aegyptiaca, in which he assiduously measured skull sizes of members of different races, then correlated those measurements with alleged intelligence.
Its heyday spanned the late 19th and early 20th century, when the fad for cataloguing differences blended with empire-building and mass migration. And in the 1910s and 1920, at the dawn of the modern era of genetic science, it resulted in eugenics research and policy.
The science of eugenics, literally “good stock,” found favor among many white progressives in America, who saw it as a neat solution for social problems. If qualities like ignorance and vice were heritable, the long-term solution was not better schools and better jails — though progressives wanted those, too — but rather a tidying up of the gene pool.