Particularism on the Back Burner: A Review Essay

By Williams, Vernon J., Jr. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Particularism on the Back Burner: A Review Essay


Williams, Vernon J., Jr., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Particularism on the Back Burner: A Review Essay

Marshall Hyatt, Franz Boas -- Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990); 174 pp.

R. Fred Wacker, Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Race: Race Relations Theory in America Before Myrdal (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 114 pp.

John H. Stanfield, Philanthropy and Jim Crow in American Social Science (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 216 pp.

John Higham, Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America: Revised Edition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 261 pp.

Walter A. Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism 1938-1987 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 447 pp.

In a presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1985, the distinguished historian, William H. McNeill, announced that since the 1960s "the scope and range of historiography has widened, and that change looks as irreversible...as the widening of physics that occurred when Einstein's equations proved capable of explaining phenomena that Newton's could not." McNeill doubted that African Americans, women, Asians, Africans, and Amerindians would be excluded "from any future mythistory of the world." Although McNeill thought "it impossible not to believe" that the new mythistories represented "an advance on older notions," he nevertheless suggested that "time would settle" the issue of whether or not he was correct.(1)

In light of the historiography written during the past decade which deals with the treatment of African Americans in the American social sciences with which we will be concerned in this essay, McNeill was indeed correct. The history of the social sciences, a subfield of American intellectual history, is telling Americans more about themselves on the issue of race -- most of which they are reluctant to hear -- than any other subfield in recent American history. Thus, despite the fact that it is exceedingly difficult for any reflective person not to view the future with a degree of apprehension in these days when the post-1945 liberal orthodoxy has been shattered by both internal and external developments, and Americans become a nation of particularists,(2) it is a pleasant relief to read the scholarship of persons dedicated to addressing themselves to an issue of monumental significance. Seeking to provide guidance to the nation in order for it to persevere the inexorable changes in the new world order, this varied group of persons is searching the years from 1895 until 1945 to find a unifying myth which will bind this multiethnic society in which numerous disparate groups vociferously demand greater status and power.

The fundamental question confronting these historians and historically-minded social scientists is whether or not the pre-1945 social scientific scholarship can provide insight and guidance on present-day issues of race in general and African Americans in particular. In answering this complex question, they have focused primarily on the work of Franz Boas and his students at Columbia University in anthropology; the Chicago school of race relations which was dominated by the theories of Robert Ezra Park, and the liberal orthodoxy of moral immediatism, liberal globalism, and social engineering that permeated the work of Gunnat Myrdal. The conclusions of the historians of the social sciences are varied, yet they are a necessary first step in initiating an essential debate concerning the condition and destiny of African Americans in the twenty-first century.

During the past four decades several scholars -- men such as Melville J. Herskovits, Thomas F. Gossett, John Higham, George W. Stocking, Jr., Edward H. Beardsley, and Hamilton Cravens -- have celebrated the decisive role that Franz Boas played in eviscerating the racist worldview that prevailed in the newly emerging social sciences (anthropology, psychology, and sociology) during the years before 1930.

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