By Robin Jacobson.
Each semester when Georgetown University professor Charles King meets new college students in his social science classes, he discovers that many hold two discordant beliefs. On the one hand, the students wholly condemn racism and white nationalism and decry America’s long history of oppressing Native Americans and African Americans. On the other hand, they believe that “race and whiteness are deeply, biologically real.” This is despite the longstanding scientific consensus that humanity is not biologically divided into distinct races; race may be a social reality, but it is not a scientific one.
King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, offers a lively and timely introduction to good and bad science about race and culture – and to a heroic anthropologist who combated misperceptions about race and the risks posed by immigrants. King recounts the pioneering work of Franz Boas, a German Jewish immigrant, and his famous students (who included anthropologists/authors Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston).
Franz Boas (1858-1942) immigrated to the United States in 1886, proudly bearing both a German university doctorate and multiple facial scars (reportedly from fighting duels with anti-Semites). After some short-term scholarly stints, he landed a faculty position at Columbia University, rising to become America’s preeminent anthropologist.
King writes that Boas and his disciples were “on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that – despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom – humanity is one undivided thing.” In Boas’ time, the prevailing view was that humanity was divided into multiple races, ranked in order of superiority. In the United States, race-based laws enforced segregation, prohibited interracial marriage, and imposed voting restrictions. (Vestiges of those laws remain; until this past September, applicants for Virginia marriage licenses had to identify their race, sometimes choosing from a list that included “Aryan,” “Nubian,” “Red,” “Octoroon,” and “Moor.”)
Race theories also shaped immigration policy. The Passing of the Great Race (1916), an influential book by Madison Grant, lamented the mass immigration to America of Jews, Italians, and other races deemed inferior. Many American universities introduced courses on eugenics, using Grant’s book as a primary text. In 1924, Congress enacted severe restrictions on immigration. Said Grant, “We have closed the doors just in time to prevent our Nordic population being overrun by the lower races.”
Boas’ rigorous scientific research squarely refuted the racial theories of Grant and American eugenicists; Boas determined that the physical differences between people of supposedly different racial types were small compared to the range of variation in each type. Every “classification of mankind,” Boas concluded, “must be more or less artificial.”
Ominously, in 1925, Adolf Hitler described Grant’s Passing of the Great Race as “my Bible.” The Nazis drew inspiration from the American system of race-based laws. The difference was that in the Nazi legal system, Jews replaced African Americans as the most menacing race.
Anxious about his German homeland, Boas wrote an open letter to President von Hindenburg begging him to prevent Hitler from creating a one-party dictatorship. He published an essay on “Aryans and Non-Aryans,” criticizing Nazi “science.” He denounced Hitler and his policies in newspaper interviews and conference speeches. In retaliation, the Nazis rescinded Boas’ doctorate and pulled his books from libraries to burn them.
Boas died in 1942, before the defeat of Nazi Germany. His last words, said just before collapsing at the Columbia Faculty Club, were, “We should never stop repeating the idea that racism is a monstrous error and an impudent lie.”