I had strongly considered backing off from difficult topics for awhile, in deference to the difficult past few weeks. But then I saw this tweet by one of my favorite Twitter-follows:
Typical behavior of a white person new to oppression.
1. Tends to have hope
2. Tends to be unaware oppressed people were here before them
3. Tends to point to ex of extremism as the primary consequence
4. Tends to focus on their own oppression
5. Overall doesn’t know shit.
— Amene (@Ange_Amene) October 7, 2018
Some may not like the bluntness of @Ange_Amene, but I’ve always found her willingness to be true to herself, even if it enrages fellow Democrats and/or white feminists, to be refreshing and much-needed. And I also happen to think she’s right about “doesn’t know shit”; privilege more often than not has protected white folk from knowing and understanding history as it was, rather than as it was taught (often in support of white supremacy). So while it would be easier to stick with something lighter, today I’m focusing on a little-known phrase, “race suicide”, and how one prominent sociologist framed it and popularized the concept.
Race suicide is a phrase I hadn’t heard before, so when I stumbled across it in a book I was reading, I did a bit of digging. In the post-Darwinian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concept was first suggested by Edward A. Ross, a noted progressive sociologist, eugenicist, social Darwinist, and college professor. In 1901, Ross published an article in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science entitled, The Causes of Race Superiority. (The entire article can be found here.) The paper is based on an address that Dr. Ross gave at an annual meeting of American Academy of Political and Social Science where the topic for discussion was America’s race problems. His opening sentence, “The superiorities that, at a given time, one people may display over other peoples, are not necessarily racial” is promising from a turn-of-the-[last]century mindset, but from a 21st century sensibility, that single sentence is the high point of the 23-page paper.
Rather than questioning his underlying assumptions about race superiority, Dr. Ross builds his entire argument on the premise that race superiority exists, not as a socio-cultural phenomena, but as an empirical reality born out of an understanding of race as a biological category. He does not see race as a cultural construct, but as a by-birth classification. Thus, when he discusses race, he is not limiting himself to skin color, but includes nationality or historical tribal groups (e.g. Germans/Teutons, Irish/Celts), as well as broader classifications (“Hindoos” and Arabs) which often conflate religion and race. Jews are discussed as a separate, distinct race altogether. He acknowledges that the superior race can change at any given time in history. Within this broad and confusing context, he discusses the American race, which he holds is the superior race of the time and details the causes and characteristics which have led to this.
“The first cause of race superiority to which I invite your attention is a physiological trait, namely, climatic adaptability.” (Ross, p. 68) Ross discusses this characteristic from a white, American, and imperialist point of view:
Just now it is a grave question whether the flourishing and teeming peoples of the North Temperate zone can provide outlets for their surplus population in the rich but undeveloped lands of the tropics. Their superiority, economic and military, over the peoples under the vertical sun is beyond cavil…
…The answer is not yet sure, but the facts bearing on acclimatization are not comforting to our race. Immunity from the fevers that waste men in hot, humid climates seems to be in inverse ratio to energy. The French are more successful in tropical settlement than the Germans or the English. The Spanish, Portuguese and Italians surpass the French in almost equal measure. When it comes to settling Africa, instead of merely exploring or subduing it, the peoples may unexpectedly change their roles. With all their energy and their numbers the Anglo-Saxons appear to be physiologically inelastic, and incapable of making of Guiana or the Philippines a home such as they have made in New Zealand or Minnesota. In the tropics their very virtues-their push, their uncompromising standards, their aversion to intermarriage with the natives-are their destruction. (Ross, pp. 68-69)
The next truth to which I invite your attention is, that one race may surpass another in energy. The average of individual energy is not a fixed race attribute, for new varieties are constantly being created by migration. (Ross, p. 70) Dr. Ross never provides a concise definition of “energy,” but his examples show that he thinks of it in terms of physical fortitude and entrepreneurship…and American exceptionalism:
The voluntary, unassisted migration of individuals to lands of opportunity tends always to the upbuilding of highly energetic communities and peoples. To the wilderness go, not the brainiest or noblest or highest bred, but certainly the strongest and the most enterprising. The weakling and the sluggard stay at home, or, if they are launched into the new conditions, they soon go under…
…There is no doubt that the form of society which a race adopts is potent to paralyze or to release its energy. In this respect Americans are especially fortunate, for their energies are stimulated to the utmost by democracy. I refer not to popular government, but to the fact that with us social status depends little on birth and much on personal success. I will not deny that money, not merit, is frequently the test of social standing, and that Titania is often found kissing “the fair long ears ” of some Bottom; but the commercial spirit, even if it cannot lend society nobility or worth, certainly encourages men to strive. (Ross, p. 70, 72)
“Closely related to energy is the virtue of self-reliance.” (Ross, p. 73) Ross again talks within the context of immigration and promotes his own version of the bootstrap myth. He sees self-reliance not merely as a pioneering virtue, but as one that is an economic engine. For Ross, economic success goes hand-in-hand with race superiority.
Science, machinery and steam-our heritage from the past century-together constitute a new economic civilization which is destined to work in the world a transformation such as the plow works among nomads. Two centuries ago Europe had little to offer Asia in an industrial way. Now, in western Europe and in America, there exists an industrial technique which alters the face of society wherever it goes. The exploitation of nature and man by steam and machinery directed by technical knowledge, has the strongest of human forces behind it, and nothing can check its triumphant expansion over the planet. (Ross, pp. 74-75)
“For economic greatness perhaps no quality is more important than foresight.” (Ross, p. 75) The conflating of economic success and race superiority continues, and it is in this section that we get the first glimmer of where this is all leading. He contends that living from hand-to-mouth, with no thoughts for the future is a hallmark of “primitive” society, and “especially of the races in the tropical lands where nature is bounteous, and the strenuous races have not yet made their competition felt. From the Rio Grande to the Rio de la Plata, the laboring masses, largely of Indian breed, are without a compelling vision of the future.” (Ross, p. 75) He doesn’t stop there:
Since, under modern conditions, abundant production is bound up, not so much with patient toil, as with the possession of ample capital, it is evident that, in the economic rivalry of races, the palm goes to the race that discounts the future least and is willing to exchange present pleasures for future gratifications most nearly at par. The power to do this depends partly on a lively imagination of remote experiences to come, partly on the self-control that can deny present cravings, or resist temptation in favor of the thrifty course recommended by reason. (Ross, p. 76)
The four points above are the central arguments for the causes of race superiority made by Ross; from there he goes on to discuss moral traits of a “winning” race. He claims that stability of character; pride of blood, coupled with an “uncompromising attitude toward the lower races” (Ross, p. 85); and a strong sense of its superiority are the moral traits that have elevated the American race to its place of superiority. These arguments are worth reading in the original paper, if only for their perverse understanding of morality; for the sake of keeping this post from becoming yet another novella, I’m not covering them in full detail. However, a brief quote will give you an idea of what Dr. Ross argues:
The Spaniard absorbed the Indians, the English exterminated them by fair means or foul.’ Whatever may be thought of the latter policy, the net result is that North America from the Behring Sea to the Rio Grande is dedicated to the highest type of civilization; while for centuries the rest of our hemisphere will drag the ball and chain of hybridism. (Ross, p. 85)
Finally, almost as an afterthought, Ross issues a warning. It is this warning which made this talk and paper part of the popular culture of the time:
In the presence of the plenty produced by its triumphant energy the superior race forms what the economists call “a Standard of Comfort,” and refuses to multiply save upon this plane. With his native ambition stimulated by the opportunity to rise and his natural foresight reinforced by education, the American, for example, overrules his strongest instincts and refrains from marrying or from increasing his family until he can realize his subjective standard of comfort or decency. The power to form and cling to such a standard is not only one of the noblest triumphs of reason over passion, but is, in sooth, the only sure hope for the elevation of the mass of men from the abyss of want and struggle. (Ross, p. 86)
Dr. Ross then contrasts this with the immigrant of a “lower plane”; for his purposes he uses the example of the “Asiatic.”
Suppose, for example, Asiatics flock to this country and, enjoying equal opportunities under our laws, learn our methods and compete actively with Americans. They may be able to produce and therefore earn in the ordinary occupations, say three-fourths as much as Americans; but if their standard of life is only half as high, the Asiatic will marry before the American feels able to marry. The Asiatic will rear two children while his competitor feels able to rear but one. The Asiatic will increase his children to six under conditions that will not encourage the American to raise more than four. Both, perhaps, are forward-looking and influenced by the worldly prospects of their children; but where the Oriental is satisfied with the outlook the American, who expects to school his children longer and place them better, shakes his head. (Ross, p. 87)
That Ross sees this as a dire possibility is clear. He goes on to propose that there are three possible results from this race “competition.” First, the American may capitulate in discouragement and lower his “exacting standard of decency” and begin to reproduce at the same rate as the “Asiatic.” Another possibility is that the “Asiatic” may raise themselves to the higher plane by learning and assuming the higher standard, thus lowering their rate of reproduction. Finally, there is a third possibility:
Thirdly, the standards may remain distinct, the rates of increase unequal, and the silent replacement of Americans by Asiatics go on unopposed until the latter monopolize all industrial occupations, and the Americans shrink to a superior caste able perhaps by virtue of its genius, its organization, and its vantage of position to retain for a while its hold on government, education, finance, and the direction of industry, but hopelessly beaten and displaced as a race. (Ross, p. 88)
This then, is Ross’ description of race suicide.
For a case like this I can find no words so apt as “race suicide.” There is no bloodshed, no violence, no assault of the race that waxes upon the race that wanes. The higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action. The working classes gradually delay marriage and restrict the size of the family as the opportunities hitherto reserved for their children are eagerly snapped up by the numerous progeny of the foreigner. The prudent, self-respecting natives first cease to expand, and then, as the struggle for existence grows sterner and the outlook for their children darker, they fail even to recruit their own numbers. (Ross, p. 88)
Today, despite being recognized as a preeminent sociologist, Dr. Ross’ views are largely rejected by sociologists and other scholars. But we can still see strains of it in history: in anti-miscegenation laws; in the genocide of non-Aryans in Nazi Germany and the Lebensborn program of the Nazi SS; in our past and current immigration polices; in the racial purity language of white supremacists; and even in the platform of the Republican Party. If we are to grow as a people and as a country, we must learn, share, and confront our past…or we’ll have to forever concede that we don’t “know shit.”
Next week: When a prominent American politician embraces and expands the understanding of race suicide…
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