The Prologue uses a discussion between anthropologist Margaret Mead and writer James Baldwin, recorded in A Rap on Race, to foreshadow core themes of the book: the anthropology of race and racism and its legacies; Black Power; anti-racist liberalism and its contradictions; and challenges to anti-racist liberalism that emerged in the 1960s.
The Introduction provides an overview of the main arguments of the book and the theoretical perspectives informing the analysis. It discusses how the book differs from previous scholarship by focusing on the historical relationship between anthropology, U.S. liberalism, and the creation of liberal anti-racism, as developed in the first half of the twentieth century and challenged in the late 1960s. A discussion of the contradictions of liberal anti-racism, and how to think about them, is at the heart of this chapter.
Chapter 1 develops an account of the Boasian intervention on race within the context of racial stratification in the U.S. and the development of anthropology as an academic discipline in the early twentieth century. The Boasians were part of larger intellectual networks striving to reinvent understandings of America and U.S. culture along liberal and socialist principles in the post–World War I era, a moment of intense American nativism directed against both peoples of color and southern and eastern European immigrants. The chapter discusses the principal Boasian contributions to anti-racist thought, focusing on how they critiqued scientific racism, reconceptualized racial classification, and promoted the culture concept. It also compares Boasian approaches to race and culture with that of Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, who sought to carve out a space for the recognition of a distinctive African American culture and identity in ways that departed from the Boasian orientation toward assimilation.
Chapter 2 analyzes an under-examined paradox in the thought of Franz Boas, one of the most important anti-racist intellectuals of the twentieth century. Why did Boas contend that the ultimate solution to the "Negro problem" involved sexual relations between white men and African American women? The chapter develops a close reading of his discussions of race relations in the U.S. and argues that Boas' thought was driven by a deeply pessimistic assessment of the possibility of the liberalization of American whites. This assessment provided the potential grounds for a critical analysis of American liberalism and white supremacy. Boas, however, ultimately embraced a vision of American belonging that tacitly confirmed the whiteness of America. The chapter concludes with a comparison of Boas' reflections on miscegenation to those of Harlem Renaissance intellectual George Schuyler to explore the contradictions in Boas' thought on the political economy of interracial sex and marriage.
Chapter 3 examines Ruth Benedict's writings on race and racism. Benedict was a student and colleague of Boas and one of the most famous anthropologists of the twentieth century. The chapter provides a close reading of Race: Science and Politics (1940) and related essays and popular works. It details how Benedict built on the Boasian intervention by providing a cultural history of racism and suggesting solutions consistent with New Deal economic and social reforms. It then shows how she drew on the model of European immigrant assimilation to assess the condition of non-whites, ultimately representing racism in the U.S. as an aberration from American culture, a problem in the nation rather than of the nation. She instructed (white) Americans how to reconcile the existence of racism in America with a faith in America as a liberal racial democracy, erasing the constitutive power of whiteness in the U.S. body politic.
This chapter provides an account of anthropological engagements with race and racism in the post–World War II era. It identifies key developments in U.S. anthropology in the context of formal decolonization abroad, domestic civil rights mobilization, and the ascendance of the U.S. as the preeminent global power. It also examines the institutional expansion and transformation of the discipline as it confronted challenges to racial exclusion in the civil rights era, paying particular attention to the situation of Black anthropologists within a white-dominant academy. Finally, the chapter discusses anthropological engagements with race as a social phenomenon and challenges the standard scholarly view that cultural anthropologists abandoned the analysis of race and racism.
Chapter 5 examines the work of anthropologists Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris, who developed comparative analysis of racial classification in the Americas in the 1950s and early 1960s. This work was initiated through a project on race relations in Brazil sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This project sought to understand the "harmonious" race relations perceived as characteristic of Brazil. However, Wagley and Harris provided ethnographic evidence of racial prejudice in Brazil. They developed comparative accounts of racial classification systems and "social race" that had the potential for generating a structural, materialist account of white-dominant racisms across the Americas. This potential, however, went unrealized. Harris and Wagley relied on an understanding of racism that equated racial discrimination with "caste" segregation, a model that led them to downplay racism in Latin America and the power of whiteness in the U.S.
Chapter 6 explores the heretofore unexamined relationship between the turbulent politics of the 1960s, a sense of crisis in anthropology, efforts to decolonize anthropology, and critiques of racial liberalism. The chapter begins with an account of the crisis and self-critical turn in anthropology, focusing on Black Studies critiques of the academy and U.S. liberalism and their effects on the discipline. It proceeds to analyze the writings of three neglected figures, African American anthropologists William Willis and Diane Lewis and white anthropologist Charles Valentine. Read together, these scholars challenged anthropology's self-image as a progressive, anti-racist discipline, promoting expansive understandings of racism as a structural phenomenon that anticipated later critiques of the culture concept as a successor to biological racism. They also demanded a reckoning with American liberalism—and the anthropology that nurtured it—as a paradoxical project of racial inclusion that left the normalization of whiteness intact.
The conclusion reflects on the lessons of the book for the present. In an era marked by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, there is an enormous temptation to defend liberal anti-racism as the unfulfilled promise of America; to link the promotion of the values of racial freedom, equality, and justice to national identity, heritage, and culture; to reclaim the nation from a resurgence of overt white supremacist nationalism. The conclusion draws on the book's account of anthropological anti-racism and its critics to identify some of the problems associated with that orientation and reflects on why the election of Trump came as a shock to many liberals. It then provides an account of the enduring whiteness of anthropology and the enduring need to decolonize the discipline and the nation.