The Boasian Paradox, 1894-1915

By Williams, Vernon J., Jr. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Boasian Paradox, 1894-1915

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

The Boasian Paradox, 1894-1915

During the past four decades several historians and historically-minded social scientists have celebrated the monumental role that Franz Boas played in eviscerating the racist world-view that prevailed in the American social sciences during the years before 1930.(2) While it is true that Boas's antiracism is historically significant, it is also true that Boas made several concessions to staunch racists which muted his affirmation of African American equipotentiality. Although it would be a mistake to go so far as to argue -- as one of his most perceptive critics did in 1926(3) -- that Boas's position on race was static and placated all factions in the American social science community, it is clear that as late as 1915 his thought on the equipotentiality of African Americans was paradoxical. In short, it was marked by the contradiction between the backward-looking, rigid and conservative assumptions of physical anthropology and the forward-looking, left-liberal values of the field of cultural anthropology which Boas was developing.

This essay seeks to substantiate two arguments: First, Boas emerged as an enlightened apostle of anti-racism only after he had virtually nullified the significance of anthropometric measurements in his assessment of the capabilities of African Americans. Nevertheless, as late as 1915, Boas's racial vision was restricted by severe limitations. His attempts to make inferences concerning the capabilities of African Americans led him to conclude that there might be slight differences in the direction of the hereditary aptitudes of blacks and whites. Second, I will demonstrate that Boas's analysis of prejudice and his particularistic, rational scientific approach to Africans led him to conclude that prejudiced behavior was the salient variable in American race relations. Indeed, Boas was forward-looking when he attacked the problems of prejudice and argued that individual merit, not race, should determine what class position individual blacks should attain in American society.

Put simply, Boas -- albeit grudgingly -- attempted to extricate race relations theory from most of the racist assumptions of nineteenth-century social science. Once Boas had established that white prejudice, not the assumed innate racial traits, was the major obstacle to black progress, it became exceedingly difficult after 1930 in anthropology and sociology to rationalize the castelike system in the United States on the assumed cogential inferiority of people of African descent. In sum, flowing from the Boasian paradox was a prescriptive statement -- that is, in a just society African Americans should approximate, not assume, a distribution proportional to their size in the population in each socioeconomic class in the United States.

The father of modern American anthropology was born into a liberal Jewish household in Minden, Westphalia, in 1858, a decade following the republican revolutions that swept Europe. It was clear by his birthdate that the revolutions with their emphasis on liberalism and the creation of democratic republican nations had failed. Nevertheless, Boas's parents, who were the associates of many prominent "forty-eighters," inculcated him with these ideals -- ideals to which Boas held firmly throughout his entire life.

Boas attended several universities in his youth, receiving his doctorate at Kiel in physics in 1881. After an uneventful year in the German army and two years of studying and waiting for a teaching position in the increasingly conservative academic community in Bismarck's Germany, Boas went to Baffinland to study the Eskimos, attempting to understand the laws of human nature. Having decided to change disciplines, he sought better career opportunities, emigrating to the United States in 1886. Yet, he suffered tremendous setbacks in his attempts to secure employment in Anglo-Saxon dominated institutions. His post as geographical editor of Science was not funded in 1888; he was forced to resign a position as a docent in physical anthropology at Clark University in 1892; and he was dismissed from a temporary position as chief assistant of anthropology at the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1894. …

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