The alarmist term “race suicide” was coined by the popular and distinguished U.S. sociologist Edward A. Ross at the turn of the 20th century. The concept was in-principle a general one. When the birth rate within a so-called race dropped below the death rate, “race suicide” was thought to be occurring, with the ultimate consequence that the “race” would die out. In practice, however, the concept was deployed to raise fears amongst members of dominant “races” about their declining numbers and the influx of foreigners. Ross, for instance, believed that “old stock Americans” were committing race suicide, to be replaced by more fertile immigrant “races”. The same fear was felt by so-called English Canadians. As the invocation of “suicide” suggests, no external violence was thought to cause race suicide. Blame was cast primarily on supposedly inferior immigrant “races” and on women. The attempt to control “race suicide” is a good example of eugenic ideas in action. Race suicide theorists believed that natural evolutionary dynamics were disrupted in the age of industry, and that social policy was needed to ensure that the supposedly superior “races” did not disappear.
The concept of “race suicide” is now rejected by sociologists and other scholars because of its racism, its anti-feminism, its connection to the eugenic movement, and its use of the controversial category of “race”. Support for race as a biological category has been in decline since the mid-twentieth century. If there are no races, there can be no “race suicide”.
Immigration and “Race Suicide”
The race suicide scare grew out of earlier concerns about immigrants out-breeding old-stock white Americans. Race suicide was a new fear: that old-stock whites were failing to reproduce their numbers. Fear of race suicide spread from the U.S. to Canada and other nations, including Australia and Britain.
Race suicide was not a matter of dropping fertility in what is now conventionally called the “white race”. Racial taxonomy at the turn of the twentieth century was more specific, including groups that we would currently think of in terms of nationality or ethnicity (e.g. the “Irish race”). Ross feared the suicide of the “American race”, which he saw as the fine product of generations of natural selection. He argued that the weak and the fearful did not make the treacherous ocean journey to America, and those weak specimens who did were the least likely to have survived and reproduced. Natural selection had taken place on the initial voyages out of England, and then again on the harsh frontier, producing the American “race” that Ross idealized.
For Charles Darwin fitness was measured in offspring. Race suicide theorists turned Darwinian logic on its head. Race suicide was a response to the perceived reversal of the natural order: the survival of the unfit. According to the eugenic logic of race suicide, “fitness” was a normative concept, not a matter of statistics, of babies born. The people with the highest fertility could be the least “fit”. Natural selection was thought to be unreliable in the modern industrial world. Cheap steamboat travel (wrongly presumed to be relatively safe) no longer encouraged emigration of the fittest. Once ashore, “Latin, Slav, Semitic, and Mongolian races” accepted low-wage employment, and settled for a “low standard of living”. There were fears that they were outcompeting and out-breeding their old-stock American counterparts, thought to be their “racial betters”.
Like suicide, “race suicide” was understood to be self-inflicted. Immigrants could not directly cause “race suicide”. Why, then, were they scapegoated? The tenuous logic traces back to Ross’ intellectual predecessor, Francis Amasa Walker. As Walker explained the situation in 1891, native-born whites were shocked by the living standards immigrants provided for their large families. Rather than lowering their own standards of living, as they would be forced to do if they were to support large families on the newly reduced wages, they limited their family sizes. In Ross’ terminology, they were driven to “race suicide”. For Ross, the mark of a superior race was its demand for a high standard of “decency” and comfort. Immigrants who accepted low-paying work and low living standards were failing to assimilate. In reality, societal changes, such as restrictions on child labor and increasing costs of living, were making small families a more desirable option, especially for middle and upper-class city-dwellers.
The idea of “race suicide” quickly spread to Canada, and Ross’ views were mirrored by W. S. Wallace, who would become editor of the Canadian Historical Review. In his article The Canadian Immigration Policy Wallace proclaimed that, ‘The native-born population, in the struggle to keep up appearances in the face of the increasing competition, fails to propagate itself, commits race suicide… whereas the immigrant population, being inferior, and having no appearances to keep up, propagates itself like the fish of the sea’. It is not surprising that the race suicide scare spread from the U.S. to other industrial nations, such as Canada. The same labor market pressures were changing Canadian demographics, driving an influx of immigrant workers. Moreover, the fertility levels of the old-stock whites were – like in much of the industrial world at the time – in decline. However, Canada did not develop policies aimed at increasing the birth-rate equivalent to those seen in the U.S., partly because of fears that such policies would encourage population booms in the French-speaking Quebecers and also in the Irish. Such was the specificity of prejudice that characterized the race suicide scare.
Women and “Race Suicide”
The idea of race suicide was popularized in a speech given by U.S. President Roosevelt on March 13, 1905, before the National Congress of Mothers. Roosevelt shifted the focus of blame for race suicide from immigrants to women. He claimed that a woman who is childless by choice, and thus contributes to “race suicide”, ‘merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle’. College educated women, and women’s use of birth control, were specific focuses of attack. Roosevelt used popular eugenic rhetoric about race betterment to support his arguments. His call for old-stock white women to prevent “race suicide” by having more children was endorsed in Canada by prominent feminists, including Nelly McClung, Louise McKinney and Emily Murphy. Nationalists, they saw it as the duty of Canadian women of British descent to raise fertility levels and, in doing this, to build a stronger “race” and nation. Note that while the focus of the race suicide debated shifted from immigration to women, those women were compared to the more fertile women of so-called inferior races: anti-immigrant sentiment was still a driving force in the debate.
The charge that college-educated women, in particular, were not fulfilling their duty to the “race” was thought to be supported by studies such as the one carried out by G. Stanley Hall and Theodate Smith, which showed that in 1903 marriage rates of female students at Vassar were dropping drastically (55.46% of the class of 1867 were married, whereas 28.92% of the 1896 class had married), with corresponding drops in fertility. Marriage rates amongst male Harvard graduates were also dropping, but Harvard-educated bachelors, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not incite the moral outrage leveled at their spinster counterparts at Vassar.
Roosevelt was not totally unsympathetic when it came to the matter of women’s rights (including the right to education), but he saw the “duty” to reproduce the “American race” as the overpowering consideration. Failure to fulfill this duty was condemned as an act of selfishness. Feminists fought back: some accepting the eugenic logic of race suicide theorists, some rejecting their eugenic premises. A common response was that smaller families, with wanted children, were the healthiest way of propagating the “race”. A more radical response came from feminists who argued for the basic right of self-determination, especially when it came to the question of family planning.
Race suicide theorists rejected laissez-faire confidence in the dynamics of evolution in an age of industry. Reform was thought to be necessary to prevent the unfit from out-competing the fit, to prevent race suicide from occurring, and to restore a “natural order” to society, modeled on large rural families. The idea of race suicide was largely a response to a perceived challenge to white male hegemony at a time of immense social upheaval. Immigrants and women were scapegoated, but societal changes (e.g. restrictions on child labor, increasing costs of living) made smaller families more attractive, especially for middle and upper-class urbanites.
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