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Rethinking Race

Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries

Vernon J. Williams
Copyright Date: 1996
Edition: 1
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Rethinking Race
    Book Description:

    In this thought-provoking reexamination of the history of "racial science" Vernon J. Williams argues that all current theories of race and race relations can be understood as extensions of or reactions to the theories formulated during the first half of the twentieth century. Williams explores these theories in a carefully crafted analysis of Franz Boas and his influence upon his contemporaries, especially W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, George W. Ellis, and Robert E. Park. Historians have long recognized the monumental role Franz Boas played in eviscerating the racist worldview that prevailed in the American social sciences. Williams reconsiders the standard portrait of Boas and offers a new understanding of a man who never fully escaped the racist assumptions of 19th-century anthropology but nevertheless successfully argued that African Americans could assimiliate into American society and that the chief obstacle facing them was not heredity but the prejudice of white America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4908-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    For more than two generations Franz Uri Boas—thanks primarily to the yeomanlike work of several historians and historically minded social scientists—has assumed a gargantuan stature in intellectual history because of his pioneering role in initiating the antiracist creed in American social science. In his attempts to foster the uplift of African Americans, Boas reacted against the dominant discourse on race and sought to modify the biologistic paradigm that had evolved since the publication of Charles Darwin’sOrigin of Speciesin 1859. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that he was firmly anchored in his own times when he discussed...

  5. 1 Franz Uri Boas’s Paradox
    (pp. 4-36)

    Since the 1950s, historians and historically minded social scientists have celebrated the monumental role that Franz Uri Boas played in eviscerating the racist world view that prevailed in the American social sciences during the years before 1930.¹ Nevertheless, between 1894 and 1938, when Boas addressed the issue of the capabilities of African Americans, his writing exhibited contradictions between his commitment to science and his commitment to the values of his liberal ideology. Reflecting on Boas’s life and career up to 1938, his family background and ethnicity, his scientific training, the historical context, and the controversies over the condition and destiny...

  6. 2 Boas and the African American Intelligentsia
    (pp. 37-53)

    Marshall Hyatt argued in 1990 that Franz Uri Boas throughout his long career used blacks as a “camouflage … for attacking all forms of prejudice.”¹ In other words, Hyatt saw Boas’s indictment of antiblack racism as part of his desire to protect his own ethnic group. Yet Boas’s correspondence with leading. African American intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Alain L. Locke, George E. Haynes, Abram Harris, Charles S. Johnson, Monroe N. Work, Charles H. Thompson, and Zora Neale Hurston reveals that he not only displayed an astonishing degree of real empathy with the...

  7. 3 The Myths of Africa in the Writings of Booker T. Washington
    (pp. 54-72)

    Since the 1960s, several scholars examining the discourses between white American elites on the character and capabilities of African Americans, though cognizant of the exceptionalism of Franz Boas, have branded American thinkers during the Progressive era as racists¹—especially those in the disciplines which in 1915 the distinguished anthropologist of the Native Americans, Alfred L. Kroeber, called “history”: historical anthropology, history proper, and sociology.² Recent scholars have certainly told the truth about their forebears in those disciplines but not the whole truth, for they have virtually ignored the participation of African Americans in the discourses.

    Racial thought in the age...

  8. 4 W.E.B. Du Bois, George W. Ellis, and the Reconstruction of the Image of Africa
    (pp. 73-85)

    To a left-of-center scholar and activist like W.E.B. Du Bois, Boas’s insights into the glories of the African past assumed a degree of potency that resulted in a life-long attempt to counter the right-of-center’s myth of African inferiority. Even for the gifted and perceptive Du Bois, however, the process of dignifying the African past of African Americans was slow and protracted. In each of his three books on African history, written between 1915 and 1946, he was compelled to admit that he still labored

    under the difficulty of the persistent lack of interest in Africa so long characteristic of modern...

  9. 5 Robert Ezra Park and American Race and Class Relations
    (pp. 86-101)

    Since the mid-1960s, sociological discussions of the present and future of racial equality in the social order of the United States have been marred by assessments that are both conflicting and controversial. The major scholarly debate centers on the question of whether the United States is progressive with respect to its black population. In 1978 William J. Wilson argued inThe Declining Significance of Racethat class rather than race was the most salient variable in race relations in contemporary America. He declared unequivocally that “race declined in importance in the economic sector” during the post–World War II period,...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 102-102)

    Since the 1970s, Boasian thought has given rise to numerous and diverse themes on race and race relations. For those scholars who constitute most of the antiracist branch of American intellectuals, Boasian thought suggests that the concept of race is a “folk classification,” which—to use Audrey Smedley’s words—“continues in large part because of its value as a mechanism for indentifying who should have access to wealth, privilege, loyalty, respect, and power and who should not…. It is a powerful psychological force, providing scapegoat functions as well as a facile external means of establishing and measuring one’s own self-worth.”¹...

  11. Appendix: Toward an Ecumenical Mythistory
    (pp. 103-116)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 117-126)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 127-134)
  14. Index
    (pp. 135-152)