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The political scientist Charles King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air, chronicles how a circle of anthropologists battled “scientific” racism, eugenics, and ethnocentrism in the first half of the twentieth century. King’s book, written as a kind of collective biography, weaves together the life and work of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Deloria, all students and disciples of Franz Boas.

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Boas, a German Jewish immigrant with scars from duels, was the volatile center of this circle. As the founder of cultural anthropology, “Papa Franz” challenged the reigning notions of race and culture. His students did the same, adding sex and gender to the mix. This made all of them plenty of enemies, including the administration of Columbia University, where, beginning in 1897, Boas was based.

Boas evidently still has enemies, and not just among the resurgent forces of nationalism. Starting in the 1960s, Boas’s “scientific anti-racism” came under attack from postmodernist and postcolonialist scholars. These criticisms are summarized by the anthropologist Herbert S. Lewis in his defense of Boas’s legacy:

His life was lived in the service of precisely the values professed by many of his critics, and he achieved positive results that few scholars have ever matched. While it is certainly true that anyone’s best efforts may go wrong, and one’s scholarship may be misused and perverted by others, I believe that Boas’s critics have so far failed to demonstrate that this has been the case.

Once a giant in the field, subsequently whittled down to size, then heaped with calumny, Boas’s work is worth inspecting again in our own fraught time.

Key to this retrospective is an understanding of the United States Boas lived in. It was a place closely studied by the Nazis, who used the American system of racial apartheid as a model for their “Final Solution.” The U.S. court system declared who was and wasn’t white, for example: Chinese were not (1878), but Syrians were (1910). States had “morons” sterilized, a eugenic practice validated by the Supreme Court in 1927. Interracial marriage was illegal—and this was still law in sixteen states until 1967. American women who married non-white foreign men had their citizenship stripped from them by the Married Women’s Act of 1922.

Franz Boas
Franz Boas via Flickr/Flickr

One of Hitler’s favorite books was the popular American pseudo-history, The Passing of a Great Race (1916), by the patrician Madison Grant, who had once exhibited an African in the Bronx zoo. Grant believed the “Teutons” were being replaced by lesser races. The First World War made Grant change the name of the supposedly top-tier “race” (Boas would put the word in quotations) to “Nordics.” He also took personal credit for helping to stop immigration from Asia and severely limiting non-“Nordic” peoples from Europe in the Immigration Act of 1924.

Much of the American racial hierarchy was based on “science” that turned out to be flimsy at best, outright faked at worst. The combative Boas opposed the bogus rationalizations of racism, as well as the allegedly evolutionary classification of races this pseudoscience fostered. As an anthropologist, his biggest point was also his simplest: the assumption that one’s own culture or “race” was superior to others was not just wrong but harmful.

Judging the past by today’s standards is always a losing game. But in his own context, Boas fought against American colonialism and the rise of fascism, and for civil liberties and free immigration. As Lews puts it: “He was as farsighted and clear-eyed as anyone in his time, an opponent of racism, ethnocentrism, inequality, chauvinism, imperialism, war, censorship, and political cant and mind-fogging sloganeering.”

As King’s book reveals, Boas, the gruff old professor, was also unusually welcoming to women in the field. The “field” is here both figurative—academic anthropology—and literal. Mead famously went to Samoa. The less well-known Deloria to the Great Plains. The now-better-known Hurston went to rural Florida, not long after an anti-black pogrom in Ocoee forced hundreds of African American families into becoming refugees in their own country. Hurston packed a gun—for she was venturing into the savage territory of American racism.

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American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 447-467
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association