The March 8th issue of the New Yorker has an excellent article (by Claudia Roth Pierpont) on Franz Boas (1858-1942), the “father” of American cultural anthropology. His influence can be seen by a short list of some of his most famous students: Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovits, Zora Neale Hurston, Alfred L. Kroeber, Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu, and Edward Sapir. He was also a major influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss. And he was instrumental in developing the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But what stands out in Boas’ legacy is his life-long battle against scientific racism which, in those days, was as ascendent in the United States as it was in his native Germany.
Pierpont informs us that in his exasperation over loosing important battles against racist immigration policies, sterilization campaigns, and museum displays, he sought refuge with his sisters in Germany:
Was there less reason to have faith in Germany than in America? Hitler had written admiringly of U.S. immigration policy in “Mein Kampf,” but the Germans had passed no national or racial immigration restrictions; German eugenicists had gained government approval only for a program of consensual sterilization. Who could have been sure, as the thirties began, which of these economically plummeting nations would go racially mad?
Boas’ nemesis was Madison Grant, whose book, The Passing of the Great Race was considered frequently referred to by Hitler as his “Bible”! Grant joined the board of the Museum of Natural History after Boas left, and together with the museum’s president, Osborne, formed a Eugenics society which would have broad implications for American scientific policy until the “science” was discredited in the wake of World War Two.
The science was called eugenics. The link between biology and authoritarian politics was set when, in 1883, Sir Francis Galton founded a discipline “which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race”; in 1910, he outlined a notably British utopia called Kantsaywhere, in which citizens obeyed strict laws of procreation while displaying a permanently courteous disposition. Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, was intent on undoing the damage that misguided societies had wrought in allowing the survival (and reproduction) of the less than fit. His doctrine spread quickly, initially finding as much support among progressives as among reactionaries-George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and even Winston Churchill were early believers-in England and, very soon, in Germany. By 1912, however, when the First International Congress of Eugenics took place, in London, only the late-starting American contingent had converted theory into practice: eight states-including New York, Connecticut, and California-had passed laws authorizing sterilization for epileptics, criminals, or the insane. Madison Grant was a fervent champion of such laws; his book held out the promise of their extension to “weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless racial types.” The primary targets of the American eugenicists were not, after all, in institutions; they were in the city streets, outbreeding their masters and killing by their crowding and filth, and more were arriving every day. And so the Galton Society, established by Osborn and Grant in the American Museum of Natural History in 1918, took the undoing of U.S. immigration policy as its first command.
Meeting once a month in Osborn’s office, the society’s members worked out racial interpretations of the recently invented I.Q. tests-higher test scores among immigrants who had been in the country longer were taken as proof of a flow of increasingly stupid immigrants-and rehearsed their testimony for the House Immigration and Naturalization committee. In 1921, the museum was host to the Second International Congress of Eugenics. Osborn, in the opening address, made the challenge to Boas perfectly clear: “We are engaged in a serious struggle to maintain our historic republican institutions through barring the entrance of those who are unfit to share the duties and responsibilities of our well-founded government.” Further, those now judged unfit would be unfit forever, since it was a matter of scientific fact “that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values.”
Although the rise of the K.K.K. in America, and Nazism in Germany made it seem as if Boas was loosing the battle within his lifetime, his ideas would live on to play an important role in shaping the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education:
Boas died without knowing how the war would end, or what would become of the country that won its magnificent victory with an Army still segregated by race. “It is an arduous work that is before you,” he had warned Du Bois’s students at Atlanta University in 1906. “Do not let your path deviate from the quiet and steadfast insistence on full opportunities for your powers.” Nearly half a century later, when the Supreme Court, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously overrode its “separate but equal” decision and ordered the racial integration of public schools, Boas’s ideas were fully present in the courtroom. Thurgood Marshall’s winning argument for the N.A.A.C.P. relied on testimony about the effects of segregation on Negro children by the sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, who had trained with Boas at Columbia. Chief Justice Warren’s decision cited Gunnar Myrdal’s comprehensive 1944 volume “An American Dilemma,” which derived its account of racial history from studies that Myrdal had commissioned from Melville Herskovits, Ashley Montagu-doctorate from Boas, 1937-and other Boas disciples. Precise credit for the historic reversal was assigned by angry segregationists, who decried the overpowering influence of “the Boas cult” and claimed that “the ghost of Boas” had served as a powerful tenth justice on the Court.