Frederick Hoffman wrote, I think, one of the most influential documents in social science at the turn of the 20th century: Race, Traits, and Tendencies of the American Negro. And in this document, he put forth a whole host of statistics to back up the idea that the Negro would eventually become extinct. And he did this by charting disease rates, by looking at the conditions that the freed slaves faced in the cities as they moved away from the rural south and outside of slavery.
A key measure for him was the differential rates of tuberculosis between whites and blacks. And what he found was that African Americans had very, very high rates of tuberculosis. He also found high rates of syphilis and venereal diseases. But for him, though, tuberculosis was key because he felt that this was the signal index of whether or not African Americans would be able to survive outside of slavery.
He would say, “Well, given these high rates of tuberculosis and other kinds of infectious diseases, we expect the Negro and the Native American to become extinct. They just simply will not be able to survive the rigors of civilization because in part, their bodies are not fit for those environments. Their intellects aren’t fit to compete with us. They are not capable of engaging with us in the rough and tumble world of the marketplace. And therefore, they will simply die off.” And that was what they believed. Of course it didn’t happen.
What’s interesting about this piece is that it resonated in the minds of so many other social observers of the time, the extinction thesis. It fit into their notions of how races become ascendent in the world; it fit into their notions of how races also had degenerated - that is, had died out. And so they saw themselves at the pinnacle of civilization. They looked at other groups of people in various stages beneath them.
So again, you see, it’s a kind of reflection of an anxiety about a whole host of social issues - about the role of the freed peoples in American society, the role of Native Americans in American society, the role of all the immigrants who were coming in at that same moment in time, and what that would mean for the position, the prestige and power of the whites who basically had control of the society.
They’re worried about the threat from these other peoples and that threat and that anxiety is being expressed through the idea that, “Look at their bodies, they’re dying from disease. We can chart that, we can quantify it, we can see by looking at this that they will not be able to survive.” It was a way of quelling their anxiety but also putting their anxiety in a way that they could in some ways control.
It’s important thing to realize that there were responses to people like Hoffman. There were people who said, “There’s something wrong with this picture and the conclusions that you draw from this picture.” And W. E. B. DuBois was one of those people.
DuBois suggested that if you look at tuberculosis rates among peoples who live in similar circumstances, you will see the same kinds of rates. If you compare the rates of African Americans who live in Chicago in dire conditions and you compare immigrants - groups who live in those same kinds of neighborhoods with very poor housing, bad water, probably live near the stockyards - you see high rates of tuberculosis among those groups of people as well. And therefore, tuberculosis is not an index of fitness for civilization. It is a reflection of certain kinds of environmental conditions that can be changed.
And he was very adamant about that. So he really wanted to counter the notion of this inherent racial difference and emphasize that environment was important, if not more important in how we understand these kinds of disease rates. Now DuBois makes this argument; there are a few other commentators who also try to argue against this prevailing view of extinction. But by and large, nobody pays any attention to them.
Evelynn M. Hammonds (via notime4yourshit)
I keep telling y’all the fact that we survived is the real problem whiteness has with communities of color.