Segment from The Departed

End of the Line?

Historian Michele Mitchell and Ed discuss 19th-century notions of racial extinction — the claim that newly emancipated African-Americans could not survive in freedom.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**


BRIAN: Throughout today’s show, we’ve been reflecting on the ways Americans have thought about the extinction non-humans. We’re going to end our show on a bit of a different note with a story about a theory of human extinction.

ED: This story begins in the Nation’s early days when some white American’s started articulating scientific sounding theories to justify the institution of slavery. The idea, and you can see this taking shape in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in the 1780s was that there was a natural, physical hierarchy of the races. And the people at the lower end of this hierarchy were, by their very nature, unable to survive in a system that was not slavery. If they were freed, they were actually at risk of going extinct.

BRIAN: In the Civil War years people who believed this found confirmation of the theory when smallpox and other diseases started ravaging the camps of newly freed people. And in the decades following, some prominent social scientists pointed to the high infant mortality rates, urban disease epidemics, and what turned out to be erroneous census results as evidence that black people were, indeed, dying out.

MALE VOICE: It is not in the conditions of life but in the race traits and tendencies that we find the causes of the excessive mortality. So long as immorality and vice are a habit of life of the vast majority of the colored population, the effect will be to increase the mortality by hereditary transmission of weak constitutions– until the births fall below deaths, and gradual extinction results.

ED: This is an excerpt from the 1896 study Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. It’s author was Frederick Hoffman– a number cruncher for Prudential Life Insurance. And one of the most influential proponents the black extinction hypothesis.

Now Hoffman argued that we shouldn’t look to socioeconomic or environmental factors to explain the public health of black people. But, rather, to their immoral behavior. I sat down with NYU historian Michele Mitchell to discuss the way that African Americans responded to Hoffman’s diagnosis.

MICHELE MITCHELL: African Americans respond in a couple of ways. You have somebody such as W.E.B. Du Bois saying that any time that you have people who can use statistics, or make claims, about black extermination, they can barely contain their glee. You have these sort of reactions on that front.

Among African Americans themselves, the answer becomes really pretty complicated. Because you have some reformers claiming that, OK, we are not as healthy as we should be. We have behaviors or habits that are detrimental. We live in conditions that are not the most healthful.

And so you have this really complicated internal discourse that happens about what African Americans needed to do. And it really– it gets a little– it’s a little messy.

ED: So you have the African American community, itself, debating whether or not there’s any reality to this at all. And, as you said, Du Bois just says white people can barely hide their glee when they think that African Americans might be going the way of American Indians. It’ll be, sort of, a problem that will just solve itself.


ED: But there are these other reformers who say, you know, OK, yeah, but there does seem to be a real problem. That our health is not really what it should be. And our children are not what they should be. And we’re simply going to have to take care of ourselves, because, obviously, white America is not going to.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Uh-huh– I’m going to go to a very, sort of, a controversial text. And it was controversial at the time, and it remains controversial. And it comes right on the heels of Frederick Hoffman.

ED: Uh-huh.

MICHELE MITCHELL: It’s William Hannibal Thomas’ The American Negro. And this was a man who positioned himself as a descendant of free people of color. But he also took pains to distinguish himself from what he viewed as the, sort of, the mass black population.

And he argued– and this is a quote “An imperious sexual impulse of the Negro character constitutes the main degeneracy of the race and is the chief hindrance to the race’s social uplifting.” And insinuates that extinction was a real possibility facing African Americans, because of moral failings.

ED: So how do these concerns about premarital sex and promiscuity lead to concerns about extinction? That would seem to be pointing in, exactly, the opposite direction.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Well, precisely– and this is where the discourse of Eugenics and the notion of the well-born come into play. Because Eugenic discourse is also coming together during the late 19th, early 20th, century.

And so the argument would be that people might be having sex. They might be having sex young. But they’re not, necessarily, producing healthy children that are going to survive. And so that– it’s about, also, the quality of children being born. There are those arguments.

ED: So this is, actually, something that the white critics and the African American, sort of, internal critics seem to agree upon. Right? Is that this is a very hard time demographically, for the African American community.


ED: So what are they– suggest needs to be done?

MICHELE MITCHELL: Well, not surprisingly marriage, and keeping sexual intercourse within marriage. That being primary– one thing.

ED: Right.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Another thing is arguments about trying to reform the home life. And you have a number of people speaking out about the evils of the one room cabin– saying that this is something that we couldn’t help but live with during slavery, but we don’t need to continue to live in these conditions. So you have people making arguments about the need for privacy within homes.

Margaret Murray Washington– Booker T. Washington’s wife and a real activist and educator– she is a leading force in the late 19th century in the formation of Mother’s Clubs. Being, sort of, the mind that poorer African American women needed to learn how to properly care for their children. They needed to take care of themselves. They needed to keep a proper home.

So you have Club women who are taking hereditarian arguments about African American’s supposed predisposition to degeneracy or dissipation. And they’re saying, yes, there are these issues, but these are things that we can control. And we can do things to improve the environments in our homes and in ourselves. So you have that going on, too.

ED: So, Michele, in the largest picture, what are we to make of this very long conversation?

MICHELE MITCHELL: I think the thing that we are to make of this conversation and, even, when you look at African American’s own conversations about disease, about degeneracy, about possible extinction– there’s always a question mark in terms of whether or not this is actually happening. Whether or not these problems are actually severe. Whether or not there actually is a moral issue that’s at the root of this.

So there’s always a questioning. And there’s always a sense that these overheated claims are just that– they’re claims. They’re charges. That they’re not real. They are reflecting desires that, perhaps, we don’t persist. And that we’re not healthy.

And you look at the long legacy of this discourse but, all the while, people continue to be born. They continue to thrive. They continue to have children.

And the population, percentage-wise in the nation, remains, more or less, constant, at around 10 to 12 percent. So clearly, extinction’s not happening. Degeneracy is not taking hold of the race.

ED: That helps shape the conversation, doesn’t it.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Yes– so I think that this is really connected to this contentious issue that goes throughout the 20th century into the Civil Rights Movement– into the present day– questions of citizenship and fitness for citizenship. I think it’s connected to that.

ED: That’s Michele Mitchell. She’s a historian at NYU and author of Righteous Propagation– African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction.

PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we are not going extinct. We’ll be back next week– same time, same place– with a show about the history of US-Russia relations. You can see that show taking shape at Drop us a note and don’t be a stranger.