Friday, July 10, 2020

Aside From Being Kryptonite For BeeDee - What Is Boasian Anti-Racism?

policytensor |  The core idea of Boasian antiracism is the negation of the core idea of high racialism, the hegemonic ideology of the Western world, and beyond, from the turn of the century to the anti-systemic turn after 1968. In order to understand the contours of Boasian antiracism, we must therefore begin with high racialism. The core belief of high racialism was that the world was composed of discrete anthropological races that sat in a natural hierarchy of ability, and it was these biological differences between races that explained why some nations were rich and strong and others poor and weak. As I explained last year,

What made racial taxonomy so compelling was what it was mobilized to explain: the astonishing scale of global polarization. As Westerners contemplated the human condition at the turn of the century, the dominant fact that cried out for explanation was the highly uneven distribution of wealth and power on earth. It did really look like fate had thrust the responsibility of the world on Anglo-Saxon shoulders; that Europe and its offshoots were vastly more advanced, civilized and powerful that the rest of the world; that Oriental or Russian armies simply couldn’t put up a fight with a European great power; that six thousand Englishmen could rule over hundreds of millions of Indians without fear of getting their throats cut. The most compelling explanation was the most straightforward one. To the sharpest knives in the turn of the century drawer, what explained the polarization of the world was the natural hierarchy of the races.

Ashley Montagu was the first to question the existence of biological races in 1942. But since before the turn of the century, Franz Boas, a physical anthropologist at Columbia, had been questioning self-satisfied perceptions of innate biological differences between the races. In the mid-1930s, his students at Columbia Anthropology, above all, Ashley Montagu, Margret Mead and Ruth Benedict, argued forcefully against Nazi racism—this was the first time the word “racism” appeared in public; ‘race prejudice’ was used before that.

There are two important facts to note about high racialism. First, there was hardly any daylight between the German and Anglo-Saxon understanding of race. Both were, in the final analysis, anchored in the scientific discourse of physical anthropology—no one, including the Nazis, was free to reject the main claims of ‘the science of race’.

Second, high racialism did not die after Auschwitz. A lot of scholars have made claims to the contrary.

The 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race looms large in the historical study of “race” in the 20th century. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and others point to the 1950 Statement on Race as the key moment in which science was harnessed in the political battle to combat racism and overturn the philosophical underpinnings of European colonialism and Jim Crow. These scholars recognize how the UNESCO Statement was doubly significant because the newly formed United Nations called for such an effort along with its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because the Statement apparently signaled the triumph of anti‐racist anthropology over the science that had defined social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Holocaust (Baker 1998; Banton 2002; Barkan 1992; Graves 2001; Kohn 1995; Patterson 2001; Shipman 2002; Tucker 1994; Zack 2002).

These scholars are mistaken. Not a single physical anthropologist contributed to the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race, which was authored by a small coterie of Boasian antiracists led by Ashley Montagu. It is fair bet that the vast majority of physical anthropologists disagreed with it. The dominant figure in the scientific understanding of race at midcentury was Carlton Coon. Coon’s magnum opus, The Origin of Races was published in 1962. He posited H. erectus and H. sapiens as stages of hominin development. He argued that some continental races achieved sapiens status later than others, and mobilized their differential time-depth to explain global polarization. The monograph, with its obvious racist implications, was seized on by southern racists, including Coon’s cousin Putnam, to contest school desegregation. It was also immediately contested by Boasian antiracists.