From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954

From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954

From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954

From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954

Synopsis

Lee D. Baker explores what racial categories mean to the American public and how these meanings are reinforced by anthropology, popular culture, and the law. Focusing on the period between two landmark Supreme Court decisions-- Plessy v. Ferguson (the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine established in 1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (the public school desegregation decision of 1954)--Baker shows how racial categories change over time.

Baker paints a vivid picture of the relationships between specific African American and white scholars, who orchestrated a paradigm shift within the social sciences from ideas based on Social Darwinism to those based on cultural relativism. He demonstrates that the greatest impact on the way the law codifies racial differences has been made by organizations such as the NAACP, which skillfully appropriated the new social science to exploit the politics of the Cold War.

Excerpt

Race in the United States is at once an utter illusion and a material reality, a fiction and a “scientific” fact. It is a political wedge and a unifying force. It is structured by legislation yet destabilized by judicial fiat, shaped by public opinion but also configured by academic consensus. Though historically contingent, it is constantly being transformed. The history and reality of race and racism in the United States force individuals to negotiate daily between the ideological pillars of democracy—justice, freedom, and equality—and stark racial inequality. Whether one looks to Alexis de Tocqueville or Studs Terkel, this negotiation is recognized as a fundamental character of U.S. society—what Terkel calls “the American obsession.”

In the United States, people use “commonsense” racial categories every day to identify strangers and social situations or to help form their own identities. Racial categories are often seen as “natural” or as having some inherent biological component. But some have understood for decades that categories of race in the United States have little to do with natural history and a great deal to do with social and political history.

Although they often seem immutable, racial categories are always in flux; indeed, sometimes they change rapidly. Racial categories are produced and reproduced ideologically and culturally: they are constructed. In turn, these categories structure the access of specific groups to opportunities and resources. Complex political, economic, and cultural processes on a global scale produce various racial constructs that vary during particular periods in history from solid and generally accepted to . . .

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