April 1, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
She reviewed it 35 years ago but didn’t realize it was foundational to white nationalists. Here’s how she understands the book now
Fern Schumer Chapman (and Jane Elliott) on The Birth Dearth.
You remember I interviewed Michelle B. Young. We talked about how the Democrats actually did not “strand” Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during Senate confirmation hearings for her being the next justice.
During our chat, Michelle shared a video clip of Jane Elliott, a well-known white anti-racist teacher. Michelle said the video clip illustrated her belief that Republican “issues” are not issues at all.
“Immigration” isn’t about immigration. “Abortion” isn’t about abortion. “Critical race theory” isn’t about CRT. Instead, they’re proxies for the fact that many white people “value whiteness more than democracy.”
Republican issues are usually about something else – and that something else is almost certainly rooted in white anxiety and fear of a republic slipping out of the control of white people, especially men.
In the video clip, Elliott talks about a book that explains all this. Written by Ben Wattenberg in 1987, it’s called The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? (The author died in 2015.) I wanted to know more about the book.
“At the time, I couldn’t believe anyone would make the case that the major problem confronting the United States in 1987 was that there weren’t enough white babies being born. As I remember, he claimed white people will be in the numerical minority and our country would no longer be a white man’s land.”
I happened on a 1987 review published in Fortune. The reviewer was Fern Schumer Chapman, who later wrote the acclaimed Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Daughter’s Journey to Reclaim the Past (2001).
I tracked Fern down. I asked if she’d be willing to talk about the book, though her review ran 35 years ago. She said sure. She said we could also talk about how the subject of Wattenberg’s book – basically, eugenics – affected her personally. The Nazis murdered her grandparents after they sent her mom to America at the age of 12.
Before we get to the interview, I want you to read what Jane Elliott said about The Birth Dearth and how it explains to her the reasons why white people do what they do to nonwhite people in this country.
The transcript is lightly edited.
The interview with Fern follows it.
Jane Elliott on The Birth Dearth
If you don’t understand the destruction of Planned Parenthood offices, and you don’t understand the wall we’re going to build on the southern border, you haven’t read The Birth Dearth by Ben Wattenberg.
Ben Wattenberg was a brilliant Jewish man who was a member of the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote a book the first paragraph of which says: The main problem confronting the United States these days is that there aren’t enough white babies being born. He was an advisor to presidents of the United States. He wrote the book in 1987.
He says if we don’t change this and change it rapidly, white people will lose their numerical majority in this country and this will no longer be a white man’s land. Now, I’m not misrepresenting this.
I’m telling you almost exactly what he says.
He says there are three things we can do.
Number one, we could pay women to have babies, as they have been doing in western European nations for years. Then he says, and these are his words, not mine: Unfortunately, we would have to pay women of all colors to have babies. So we don’t want to do that.
“[The book] tells white people that they are superior because of the lack of melanin in their skin. Then they find out we’ve got a Black president. That’s traumatic. That’s where their trauma is – living a lie. Finding out the truth is traumatic.”
He says the second thing we could do is increase the number of legal immigrants that are allowed into this country every year. Then once again, he says, unfortunately, the vast majority of those wanting to come to this country are people of color. So we don’t want to do that.
The third thing he says – and white women had better pay attention to this – 60 percent of the fetuses that are aborted every year are white.
If we can keep that 60 percent alive, that would solve our birth dearth.
Does that sound like racism to you?
[The book] tells white people that they are superior because of the lack of melanin in their skin. Then they find out we’ve got a Black president.
That’s where their trauma is – living a lie.
Finding out the truth is traumatic.
Finding out that within 30 years, white people will be in the numerical minority in this country is going to be traumatic. White people are scared to death right now, particularly white males.
They’re scared to death that they are going to lose their power in the future, and they are, but if you want to get ready for the future, if you want to be treated well in the future, treat others well in the present.
What we do in the present constructs the future.
My interview with Fern Schumer Chapman
What was your first reaction to Wattenberg’s Birth Dearth?
The book was outrageous!
At the time, I couldn’t believe anyone would make the case that the major problem confronting the United States in 1987 was that there weren’t enough white babies being born.
As I remember, he claimed white people will be in the numerical minority and our country would no longer be a white man’s land.
I didn’t take it very seriously then.
Looking back, I believe he launched the white nationalist movement.
He had a three prong solution.
1. Pay women to have babies. But he was troubled by the fact that we would pay women of all colors to have babies.
2. Increase the number of legal immigrants allowed into this country every year. He didn’t like that idea, because the majority of those coming to this country would be people of color.
3. He said 60 percent of fetuses aborted every year are white. We should keep that 60 percent of life alive. That would solve what he called “the birth dearth.”
Let’s spell out what he thought the problem was.
He worried about falling birthrates in the US and other industrialized democracies. He predicted a Spenglerian decline of the west.
He worried that America would no longer be characterized as a nation that is predominately of white European extraction.
“The major threat to western values and the free world concerns the fact that, as the next century progresses, there won’t be many free westerners around to protect and promote those values,” he wrote.
To be clear about language, when he uses words like “civilization,” “western values,” and “free world,” he means white, right?
I wrote the review 35 years ago. However, I remember that that was his implication, though he may have been cagey. He said “demographic turbulence would be much less likely to show up if the real culprits, the non-reproducing white middle class, started reproducing itself.”
He’s clear, by inference, who’s to blame for falling birth rates.
2. birth control
3. “tolerance” for homosexuality.
4. women married later in life.
5. women working outside home.
In other words, women and LGBTQ people.
None of this is new.
Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916), was a stalwart for the preservation of the nativist/Nordicist strain of eugenics during the progressive era. He argued for the preservation of America as a “civilization preserve” for the Nordic race, advocating for immigration from the founding stock of Anglo-Saxons and other Nordics from northeastern Europe. This was Hitler’s bible.
Madison Grant indirectly affected you personally.
Yes! American immigration quotas during the 1930s prevented my grandparents from fleeing Nazi Germany. My grandparents sent my mother to America for safety all by herself. She was 12 years old.
The Nazis murdered my grandparents in concentration camps.
My mother’s immigration experience profoundly defined her life. She’s 96 now. She can’t watch television news. She can’t watch the Ukrainian families being ripped apart. It re-traumatizes her to see it again.
I have spent decades writing about how the policies of eugenics have played out in our family. The trauma transmits through generations.
My mother never spoke of her past. When I was pregnant with my third child in 1991, my mother decided she wanted to return to the small town in Germany where her family lived for over 200 years. When she was born, in 1925, the town had two Jewish families and 2,000 people. Everyone knew them. My grandfather was a civic leader.
We had intimate experiences in which residents said they had never heard of the Holocaust or begged us for forgiveness. My first book, Motherland, captured how that journey transformed my relationship with my mother and how Germans live with the history of eugenics.
My mother felt like she was betrayed by her country and her parents. She was thrown out of her homeland as if she were garbage. It took her years to understand her parents hadn’t rejected her; they had saved her life. She was stuck in a 12-year-old’s broken heart.
Wait, some residents told you they never heard of the Holocaust!?
They claimed they did what their parents told them to do. It was against the law at that time to speak to a Jewish neighbor.
That’s a lie, right?
Yes, a lie.
But German schools didn’t teach the Holocaust until the mid-1960s.
Nazism is institutionalized bullying. The government approves of cruel behaviors against one powerless group of people or another.
I don’t think most white Christian-ish Americans understand the depth of white fear of being replaced, of moral perversion.
Some of this white fear feels like a backlash (or as Van Jones said, “a whitelash”) to Barack Obama’s presidency. Intolerance to shifting demographics is inevitable. Many issues are expressions of this fear.
Changing demographics can be stopped “if the real culprits, the non-reproducing white middle class, started reproducing itself.”
That’s Wattenberg again.
I’m afraid many Americans don’t understand the concept of America — built on democratic principles, immigration and diversity. I fear that the emerging restrictions on books will exacerbate this thinking.
Which brings us back to Hitler: “I’ll put an end to the idea that a woman’s body belongs to her,” he said. “Nazi ideals demand that the practice of abortion shall be exterminated with a strong hand.”
Controlling women, their bodies and birth rate, and limiting immigration of the “undesirables” are all part of eugenics.
Madison Grant insisted “the Laws of Nature require the obliteration of the unfit” and rejected the “alloying of races” in the Melting Pot.
Someone told me the forces making women give birth are the same forces stopping women from giving birth. In other words, make white women give birth. Stop nonwhite women from giving birth.
Late 19th-century intellectuals in England had a variety of eugenic policies. In the US, members of the progressive movement embraced eugenic ideas, especially immigration restriction and sterilization.
Indiana enacted the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907. The Supreme Court upheld such laws. State programs sterilized institutionalized and mentally disabled women.
By World War II, US programs had sterilized 60,000 people.
Nazi eugenics sterilized 400,000 in under a decade. China and India still have coerced sterilization programs. Involuntary sterilization is still used against minority groups in some parts of the world.
So you wrote the review in 1987. What was it like rereading it all these years later — in context of a global far-right in ascendance and demanding pretty much what Ben Wattenberg called for?
I had forgotten about the review until you reminded me. I didn’t take his book seriously at the time. Now, in retrospect, I wish I had slammed it harder. As I remember, the editors didn’t want a slam.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
“As I remember, the editors didn’t want a slam.”
First, the fact that Wattenberg, a Jewish American, could write this way means that he was quite assured of his own whiteness, that his prescriptions wouldn’t impact him. That itself is powerful proof of the centrality of white supremacy as a founding principle.
Second, “[The book] tells white people that they are superior because of the lack of melanin in their skin. Then they find out we’ve got a Black president. That’s traumatic. That’s where their trauma is – living a lie. Finding out the truth is traumatic”
I could reverse this statement– I grew up thinking that the US was slowly becoming more equal and beginning to live up to its democratic ideals. Then I find out we’ve got Trump for president. That’s traumatic. Because I assumed things were getting better. Finding out the truth is traumatic.— This is the first thing I thought of when reading this passage. Realizing the depth and breadth of authoritarian, white supremacist feeling in this country has been an ongoing source of bewilderment to me.