Saturday, April 18, 2015

More on the younger Franz Boas

As a professor at Columbia, Franz Boas encountered the elite liberal culture of the American Northeast, one example being Mary White Ovington, a founder of the NAACP (Wikicommons)

Antiracism has roots that go back to early Christianity and the assimilationist Roman and Hellenistic empires. In its modern form, however, it is a much more recent development, particularly in its special focus on relations between whites and blacks and its emphasis on discrimination as the cause of any mental or behavioral differences.

Modern antiracism began in the early 1800s as a radical outgrowth of abolitionism, reaching high levels of popular support in the mid-1800s, particularly in the American Northeast, and then falling into decline due to growing interest in Social Darwinism and increasing disillusionment with the aftermath of the Civil War. By the 1920s, it really held sway only in the Northeast, and even there it was losing ground.

This situation changed dramatically in the 1930s. Antiracism revived and entered a period of growth that would eventually go global. The anthropologist Franz Boas played a key role through his own work and indirectly through the work of his two protégés: Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Yet this was the old Boas, a man already in his seventies. The younger Boas had thought differently, as seen in an 1894 speech he gave on "Human Faculty as Determined by Race":

We find that the face of the negro as compared to the skull is larger than that of the American [Indian], whose face is in turn larger than that of the white. The lower portion of the face assumes larger dimensions. The alveolar arch is pushed forward and thus gains an appearance which reminds us of the higher apes. There is no denying that this feature is a most constant character of the black races and that it represents a type slightly nearer the animal than the European type. [...] We find here at least a few indications which tend to show that the white race differs more from the higher apes than the negro. But does this anatomical difference prove that their mental capacity is lower than that of the white? The probability that this may be the case is suggested by the anatomical facts, but they by themselves are no proof that such is the case. (Boas, 1974, p. 230)

It does not seem probable that the minds of races which show variations in their anatomical structure should act in exactly the same manner. Differences of structure must be accompanied by differences of function, physiological as well as psychological; and, as we found clear evidence of difference in structure between the races, so we must anticipate that differences in mental characteristics will be found. (Boas, 1974, p. 239)

We have shown that the anatomical evidence is such, that we may expect to find the races not equally gifted. While we have no right to consider one more ape-like than the other, the differences are such that some have probably greater mental vigor than others. The variations are, however, such that we may expect many individuals of all races to be equally gifted, while the number of men and women of higher ability will differ. (Boas, 1974, p. 242)

Boas returned to this topic in a 1908 speech on "Race Problems in America":

I do not believe that the negro is, in his physical and mental make-up, the same as the European. The anatomical differences are so great that corresponding mental differences are plausible. There may exist differences in character and in the direction of specific aptitudes. There is, however, no proof whatever that these differences signify any appreciable degree of inferiority of the negro, notwithstanding the slightly inferior size, and perhaps lesser complexity of structure, of his brain; for these racial differences are much less than the range of variation found in either race considered by itself. (Boas, 1974, pp. 328-329)

How did his views on race evolve over the next twenty years? This evolution is described by Williams (1996), who sees his views beginning to change at the turn of the century. After getting tenure at Columbia University in 1899, he became immersed in the elite liberal culture of the American northeast and began to express his views on race accordingly. The onset of this change is visible in 1905, when he penned an article for the first issue of The Crisis, the organ of the NAACP: “The Negro and the Demands of Modern Life.” While pointing out that the average negro brain was "smaller than that of other races" and that it was "plausible that certain differences of form of brain exist," he cautioned:

We must remember that individually the correlation [...] is often overshadowed by other causes, and that we find a considerable number of great men with slight brain weight. [...] We may, therefore, expect less average ability and also, on account of probable anatomical differences, somewhat different mental tendencies. (Williams, 1996, p. 17)

The same year, he wrote to a colleague, stressing "the desirability of collecting more definite information in relation to certain traits of the Negro race that seem of fundamental importance in determining the policy to be pursued towards that race" (Williams, 1996, p. 18). In 1906, he sought funding for such a project with two specific goals:

(1) Is there an earlier arrest of mental and physical development in the Negro child, as compared with the white child? And, if so, is this arrest due to social causes or to anatomical and physiological conditions?

(2) What is the position of the mulatto child and of the adult mulatto in relation to the two races? Is he an intermediate type, or is there a tendency of reversion towards either race? So that particularly gifted mulattoes have to be considered as reversals of the white race. The question of the physical vigor of the mulatto could be taken up at the same time. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

His tone was less even-handed in a private letter, written the same year:

You may be aware that in my opinion the assumption seems justifiable that on the average the mental capacity of the negro may be a little less than that of the white, but that the capacities of the bulk of both races are on the same level. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

In 1911, Boas published the first edition of The Mind of Primitive Man. It recycled most of his previous writings on race, while emphasizing that race differences in mental makeup were statistical and showed considerable overlap. In 1915, he continued in this direction when he wrote a preface to Half A Man by Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP:

Many students of anthropology recognize that no proof can be given of any material inferiority of the Negro race; that without doubt the bulk of the individuals composing the race are equal in mental aptitude to the bulk of our own people; that, although their hereditary aptitude may lie in slightly different directions, it is very improbable that the majority of individuals composing the white race should possess greater ability than the Negro race. (Williams, 1996, pp. 22-23)

Nonetheless, one finds little change from his earlier writings in his 1928 work Anthropology and Modern Life:

[...] the distribution of individuals and of family lines in the various races differs. When we select among the Europeans a group with large brains, their frequency will be relatively high, while among the Negroes the frequency of occurrence of the corresponding group will be low. If, for instance, there are 50 percent of a European population who have a brain weight of more than, let us say 1,500 grams, there may be only 20 percent of Negroes of the same class. Therefore, 30 percent of the large-brained Europeans cannot be matched by any corresponding group of Negroes. (Williams, 1996, p. 35)


From 1900 to 1930, Boas seemed to become increasingly liberal in his views on race, but this trend was hesitant at best and reflected, at least in part, a change in the audience he was addressing. As a professor at Columbia, he was dealing with a regional WASP culture that still preserved the radical abolitionism of the previous century. A good example was Mary White Ovington, whose Unitarian parents had been involved in the anti-slavery movement and who in 1910 helped found the NAACP. Boas was also dealing with the city's growing African American community and, through Ovington's contacts, wrote articles for the NAACP. Finally, he was also dealing with the growing Jewish community, who identified with antiracism partly out of self-interest and partly out of a desire to assimilate into northeastern WASP culture.

Boas didn't really change his mind on race until the 1930s. The cause is not hard to pinpoint. When he died in 1942, an obituary mentioned his alarm over the threat of Nazism:

Dr. Boas, who had studied and written widely in all fields of anthropology devoted most of his researches during the past few years to the study of the "race question," especially so after the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Discussing his efforts to disprove what he called "this Nordic nonsense," Prof. Boas said upon his retirement from teaching in 1936 that "with the present condition of the world, I consider the race question a most important one. I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race those days. I think the question is particularly important for this country, too; as here also people are going crazy." (JTA, 1942)

Hitler's rise to power created a sense of urgency among many academics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, thereby convincing fence-sitters like Franz Boas to put aside their doubts and take a more aggressive stand on race. Thus began the war on racism, which foreshadowed the coming world conflict.


Boas, F. (1974). A Franz Boas Reader. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911, G.W. Stocking Jr. (ed.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Frost, P. (2014). The Franz Boas you never knew, Evo and Proud, July 13

JTA (1942). Dr. Franz Boas, Debunker of Nazi Racial Theories, Dies in New York, December 23

Williams Jr., V.J. (1996). Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries, University Press of Kentucky.


n/a said...

It's an outrageous distortion of history to suggest Jews supported antiracism "out of a desire to assimilate into northeastern WASP culture".

Most northeasterners, of any class, were never abolitionists (antislavery does not equal abolitionist), and even most abolitionists did not advocate anything approaching modern anti-racism.

No major constituency in America denied the existence of biological differences between blacks and whites when Boas immigrated, and advocating such views provided no quick path to social advancement (though obviously at a deeper level, Boas wished to target "anti-semitism").

As I replied to someone who picked this line up from you last time you tried peddling it: It would have been very strange indeed for a physical anthropologist in the 1890s to outright deny the existence of race or obvious racial differences. The important thing is the direction in which [Boas] differed from his contemporaries and his motivations for taking the stances he did. And, as Frost acknowledges, Boas's race-denialism grew more extreme over time. The continuation of this trend among his students after his death hardly gainsays the fundamental influence of Boas on the school of anthropology he founded.

Nor is there any indication Boas was eager to assimilate into American culture. According to Boas himself: "The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force". Beyond his identity as a Jew, he continued to identify with Germany at least through World War I, writing letters to the editor that were hardly calculated to endear him to Americans and banning a returning soldier in uniform from his classroom.

After Boas retired, Columbia administrators appointed an outsider as his replacement: "Linton's appointment was a deliberate attempt to counteract the influence of Boas and his students in the department, who were seen by the conservative [Columbia president] Nicholas Murray Butler as dangerous radicals."

Luke Lea said...

Nice article. I was aware of his earlier views and just assumed that the rise of the Nazi's was the reason he moderated them.

n/a said...


No, this is not a "nice article".