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Primary Source
Review of Frederick Hoffman's Race Traits
and Tendencies of the American Negro

 — W. E. B. Du Bois  [1897]

Du Bois, W.E.B. "Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. By Frederick L. Hoffman, F.S.S." [Review]. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, v. 9 (January 1897): pp.127-133.

Online Sources:
1. Start page of DuBois's review at Google Books [alternate].
2. Volume 9 of the Annals is available in several formats at
the Internet Archive: download page.

Robert Williams' Notes:
1. Frederick L. Hoffman published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro in the Publications of the American Economic Association, v.11, n.1-3 (1896):1-329. The full text is available at the Internet Archive (download page) or via Google Books (viewable online or else downloadable [About-this-book page]).

2. Biographical sketches of Frederick Hoffman are available:
• "Frederick L. Hoffman, 1865-1946" by Francis J. Rigney, Jr.: online at the American Statistical Association's "Statisticians in History".
• "The Rediscovered Prophet: Frederick L. Hoffman (18651946)" by Francis J. Sypher (Cosmos Journal, 2000): online.
• "Frederick L. Hoffman, LLD (Hon), 18651946" by Richard A. Brand (Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 467:10 (October 2009): pp.24892490): online.

3. Kelly Miller (1863-1939), the activist and Howard University professor of Mathematics and Sociology, was a contemporary of DuBois. Miller published a detailed critique of Hoffman as Occasional Paper No. 1 (1897) of the American Negro Academy. Entitled "A Review of Hoffman's Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro", the essay is accessible as plain text or page images via the African American Pamphlet Collection at the Library of Congress (essay's start page). Project Gutenberg provides Miller's essay in plain text, html, and other formats: download page.

4. Various contemporary reviews of Hoffman's book include:
• Anonymous. "Race Problems as Exemplified by the American Negro." Public Health, 9 (No. 104)(December 1896): 98-99 [start page, Google Books]. In this U.K. publication the author wrote a positive review of the book.
• Anonymous. "Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro by Frederick L. Hoffman." Gunton's Magazine, 12:2 (February 1897): 140-142 [start page, Google Books]. This review generally accepted Hoffman's analysis, but wanted suggestions from Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes as to how African Americans could progress.
• Isabel Eaton. "Race Problem.—Hoffman's 'Race Traits of the American Negro'." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science; 17:1 (January 1901): 158-160 [start page, Google Books]. Eaton was very critical of the book, focusing on alternatives to Hoffman's own interpretations of the data he presented.
• Frederick Starr. "The Degeneracy of the American Negro." The Dial, 22 (January 1, 1897): 17-18 [start page. Google Books]. Starr readily accepted Hoffman's analysis and provided several white supremacist statements of his own.

5. Megan Wolff discusses the various criticisms of Hoffman's book (including the reviews by DuBois and Miller) in her "The Myth Of The Actuary: Life Insurance and Frederick L. Hoffman's Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro [in Public Health Reports, 121:1 (January-Feburary 2006): 84-91]. It can be viewed online and is available in a PDF format (~110 K).

— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]

Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. By Frederick L. Hoffman, F. S. S. Publications of the American Economic Association. Vol. xi, Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Pp. x, 329. Price, $1.25. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1896.
    There are many indications pointing toward the beginning of a new phase in the study of the Negro Question. This is partly due to the general increase of interest in sociological studies, and partly also to the fact that the nation is just getting far enough from the heat and passion of civil strife, to take an unprejudiced, scientific interest in this problem.
    Mr. Hoffman's book will on this account be welcomed as one of the first fruits of this new interest. The object of the author is stated to be the impartial application of the statistical method to the study of the condition and development of the American Negro. The work begins with a consideration of the numerical development of the race, and the author points out that here the Negro has lost ground in comparison with the white race, both north and south. His smaller rate of increase is connected with his larger death-rate which threatens his extinction. This death-rate, which is largest for constitutional and respiratory diseases, is traced by the author to the influence of certain "race traits and tendencies" rather than to conditions of life.
    To prove this, Mr. Hoffman next turns to the physical constitution of the Negro, and finds by anthropometrical inquiry many differences between the white and black, particularly in regard to chest measurements. Moreover, he believes that along with a progressive improvement in the physique of the white American has gone a deterioration in that of the black.
    Turning to the social conditions of the Negro, Mr. Hoffman finds no evidence of a tendency to amalgamation with the whites, and considers the mulatto an inferior type. He considers that the advance in religious organization and in education is more than offset by the statistics of crime, poverty, and sexual immorality. Moreover, the author contends that although the freedman has accumulated some property, yet he is deficient in the first elements of thrift, and bears few of the public burdens.
    The author finally concludes that the cause of the failure of so many peoples in the struggle of life is the lack of those race characteristics for which the Aryan is pre-eminent; and the Negro shows evidence of these same fatal shortcomings.
    Evidently the striking thing about this work is its wide-reaching and positive conclusions. Among scholars the usual complaint has been, heretofore, the great scarcity of reliable statistics bearing on the Negro. The question, therefore, first arises: Where did Mr. Hoffman find material sufficient in quantity and quality to form the basis of so momentous deductions?
    The author has drawn his data from various sources, but his main reliance has been the Eleventh Census, the statistics of soldiers collected during the war, and the recent vital statistics of large cities.
    In the Eleventh Census, Mr. Hoffman expresses great faith, and thinks it as reliable as any of the previous enumerations. There nevertheless exists in the minds of many scholars grave doubts as to the accuracy of a large part of this census, and a disposition to base few important conclusions on its results. To this extent, therefore, many of Mr. Hoffman's conclusions will be discounted. The anthropological material collected at war-time is of undoubted value, if, as Dr. Gould himself points out, the student remembers that they relate to one sex only, and to the most healthful years. Finally, in all deductions drawn from the vital statistics of large cities, the student must know that only in recent years are these figures reliable, and that they give little or no clue to conditions in the country where over three-fourths of the Negroes live.
    From a glance at this available material, most persons will at the outset be disposed to criticise the air of perfect conviction that pervades Mr. Hoffman's conclusions, and, considering the vast field which his work essays to cover, and the peculiar complications of the problem, would feel surer of the author's fairness and judgment if he more candidly admitted the contingent character of his broader conclusions.
    We must first examine the author according to his own canons, and scrutinize his application of the statistical method. Much light and emphasis have undoubtedly been thrown on many points by his numerous and well-arranged tables; the great increase of Negro urban population, the great mortality of blacks in cities, and their accumution [sic: accumulation] of property in three states, are well shown. With all this, however, Mr. Hoffman has by no means avoided the many fallacies of the statistical method. This method is after all nothing but the application of logic to counting, and no amount of counting will justify a departure from the severe rules of correct reasoning.
    For instance the author's first contention is that the Negro is not holding his own numerically with the white race. This same fact might be cited as to the Anglo-Saxon element in our nation; but Mr. Hoffman claims that even in the South, where foreign immigration has had little effect, the rate of increase among the whites exceeds that of the blacks: in order to prove this, however, the author relies solely on the Eleventh Census, and ignores the testimony of previous decades—a manifestly dangerous logical procedure unless special reasons for decreased growth appeared first in the decade, 1880 to 1890. The author discovers this special cause in the increased urban population and the increased death-rate which has resulted. But the Negro urban population in the South was, in 1890, by the author's own figures, less than eleven per cent of the total, and it is doubtful if a cause affecting so small a portion could exert so marked an influence on the whole. Moreover, even here the author contradicts his own logic, by declaring that the large city death-rate of Negroes is mainly attributable to "race traits" and not to "conditions of life." Consequently it would seem incumbent on him further to prove that these race traits after being held in abeyance for at least a century, first took decisive action in the decade 1880 to 1890. Throughout this discussion, Mr. Hoffman continually forgets that he is comparing two special classes, the one usually vigorous and intelligent, the other with unusual disadvantages. It is therefore necessary for the student to place more stress on the absolute increase of Negroes, than their relative increase compared with the abnormal advance of white America. Compared with most modern nations the decennial increase of American Negroes has been large, and although, as in the case with other peoples, it has been lessening each decade, it is still higher than the decennial increase of England and Wales.
    Mr. Hoffman shows that the death-rate of Negroes in cities far surpasses that of whites; in ten Southern cities the annual death-rate for whites averaged during the four years 1890 to 1894, 20.12 per thousand; that of Negroes, 32.61 per thousand—the chief cause of the higher gross Negro mortality being, naturally, an immense infant death-rate. This is a dangerous excess and calls for immediate and careful remedies.
    One cannot, however, agree with the author that this excessive death-rate threatens the extinction of the race. Compared with death-rates elsewhere it is not remarkable. Mr. Hoffman knows that the large cities of his own German fatherland showed an average death rate of 27.50 in 1880-85, and some cities like Munich, a rate as high as 32.80 in 1878-80. Indeed Montreal, Naples, Belfast, Buda-Pesth, Breslau and Madrid, all have shown within a few years, death-rates which equal and often surpass that of American Negroes in cities. Moreover it may be doubted if the sanitary conditions of the Negro portions of Southern cities are, on the whole, as good as the conditions in the above-mentioned municipalities.
    Of course no careful student would think of judging the death-rate of Germany from that of Munich, or of arguing that an increase in the death-rate of Paris showed an increase in the death-rate of France. Yet Mr. Hoffman commits very similar mistakes; he bases his arguments as to the threatened extinction of the Negro almost solely on city death-rates, and argues that an increase in these death-rates means an increase in the general Negro death-rate. Such logic would be erroneous, even if Mr. Hoffman proved that, following the recent rush of Negroes into cities, their death-rate there had increased. Even this point, however, the author assumes on insufficient proof. The figures he adduces for Baltimore, Richmond, Washington, Louisville and Atlanta go back only to 1890, but in that period they all show a decrease in the Negro death-rate. Mobile, Savannah and New Orleans show a decrease since the war. Charleston alone shows an increase, and Mr. Hoffman, on the ground that the records in this city are continuous for a longer period than in others, concludes that they are "therefore the most satisfactory from a statistical standpoint," and from this data concludes that "the Negro mortality has largely increased since emancipation, and that too in the localities considered most favorable for the race."
    Many tables prove the great susceptibility of Negroes to respiratory diseases. That this susceptibility has increased since emancipation, however, is very doubtful. To prove this thesis the author uses four sets of statistics: Gould's anthropological statistics, the measurements of soldiers during the war, the reports of the hospitals of the Freedman's Bureau and Dr. Billings' mortality reports. The careful statistician will immediately see that, while all these different sets of figures give data interesting in themselves, they must be used with great care in comparison, because they relate to different classes people and to widely different conditions of life. The first two sets refer to the same period—1863-66, and to recruits and soldiers in the field; the third set refers to men, women, children and even new-born babes—the outcasts and refugees of war-time; finally, Dr. Billings' Negro death-rates refer mostly to the slums or worse portions of six great cities. Manifestly to take the absolute returns of these statistics and argue a decrease or increase of susceptibility to particular diseases among millions of people is unscientific. If Mr. Hoffman had followed up the statistics of the special class with which he commenced, i. e., soldiers of the United States Army, he would have gained a far better scientific basis for deduction. These figures do not in any degree support Mr. Hoffman's contention. Not only do the reports of the Surgeon-General show a progressive decrease in the mortality from consumption among Negroes in the army, but a progressive disappearance of the difference in the mortality between whites and blacks from this dread disease. The same fact is noticeable in the statistics of general disease.* From such figures it would be rash to draw many inferences as to the condition of the race as a whole, and yet, for purposes of comparison, they are far superior to Mr. Hoffman's table's.

[Footnote at the bottom of the page]
   * Cf. Report of Surgeon-General in Report of Secretary of War, 1894 and 1895.
    One extreme case of abuse of the statistical evidence deserves to be cited. Dr. Gould publishes the following table (Anthropological Statistics, p. 530), showing the distance at which soldiers could read a test object:
Here Du Bois cited Benjamin Gould's Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers (NY: Hurd & Houghton, 1869): p. 530 in the full text at Google Books.
    Mr. Hoffman regards this as proof sufficient to justify the statement that "The power of vision of the negro [sic] is inferior to that of the white" (p. 171).
    Such examples as I have cited show that the author does not always use the statistical method with the nice discrimination which its nature requires, and has often allowed himself to be hurried into conclusions which agree with his general thesis, when the facts bearing on the particular point under consideration offer no conclusive testimony.
    In his general social conclusions Mr. Hoffman lays before us many considerations to which attention has seldom been called before; chief among these are the statistics of illegitimacy in the city of Washington, and of property-holding in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
    The proper interpretation of apparently contradictory social facts, is a matter requiring careful study and deep insight If, for instance, we find among American Negroes to-day, at the very same time, increasing intelligence and increasing crime, increasing wealth and disproportionate poverty, increasing religious and moral activity and high rate of illegitimacy in births, we can no more fasten upon the bad as typifying the general tendency than we can upon the good. Least of all can we subscribe to Mr. Hoffman's absurd conclusion, that "in the plain language of the facts brought together the colored race is shown to be on the downward grade" (p. 312). Such contradictory facts are not facts pertaining to "the race" but to its various classes, which development since emancipation has differentiated. As is natural with all races, material and mental development has, in the course of a single generation, progressed farther than the moral: to save a little money, to go to the mission schools, were paths of progress much easier of comprehension to the dazed freedman, than the rehabilitation of the family relationship which slavery so fatally destroyed. On the other hand, when the younger generation came on the stage with exaggerated but laudable hopes of "rising," and found that a dogged Anglo-Saxon prejudice had shut nearly every avenue of advancement in their faces, the energies of many undoubtedly found an outlet in crime.
    To comprehend this peculiar and complicated evolution, and to pronounce final judgment upon it, will take far greater power of analysis, niceness of inquiry, and delicacy of measurement than Mr. Hoffman brings to his task. In the absence of such an investigation, most persons will persist in seeing in the figures which Mr. Hoffman himself adduces, grounds for great hope. Rome, Munich, Vienna, Stockholm, Paris and Brussels have all shown in recent years more startling percentages of illegitimacy than the Negroes of Washington; while the Negroes of Rhode Island showed a rate of only five per cent of illegitimate births in 1890. The criminal statistics raise the whole question as to how far black and white malefactors are subjected to different standards of justice. The record of poverty is not startling for a people who started practically penniless a generation or two ago. On the other hand how much of toil, self-denial and patience does the fifteen millions of Negro property in Georgia represent, or the 833,000 acres of Virginia soil?
    To sum up briefly, the value of Mr. Hoffman's work lies in the collection and emphasis of a number of interesting and valuable data in regard to the American Negro. Most of the conclusions drawn from these facts are, however, of doubtful value, on account of the character of the material, the extent of the field, and the unscientific use of the statistical method. The book emphasizes the need of a Department of Negro Statistics in 1900, and of careful monographic study of the Negro in limited localities and from particular points of view.
    As a piece of book-making this work invites criticism for its absence of page headings or rubrics, and its unnecessary use of italics. Moreover, Mr. Hoffman has committed the unpardonable sin of publishing a book of 329 pages without an index.
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois.     
[End of the original text.]

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