From Boas to Black Power
Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology
Mark Anderson



THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT HOW U.S. cultural anthropologists wrote about race, racism, and America between the 1920s and early 1970s as a window into U.S. antiracist liberalism. Over these fifty-odd years anthropology, initially under the leadership of Franz Boas, was consolidated as the academic discipline we know today. It expanded dramatically after World War II only to confront a sense of crisis generated by the political upheavals initiated in the 1960s. Culture became anthropology’s paradigmatic concept but race would remain its shadow.

Many U.S. anthropologists have, for quite some time, taken pride and comfort in the anti-racist legacy bequeathed by Franz Boas and his students. A story we often tell goes something like this: In the nineteenth century anthropology was, alas, a racist discipline. Anthropologists measured skulls to scientifically prove the innate superiority of whites and ranked the world’s peoples on a scale of civilizational achievement with “modern” Europeans at the top and “primitives” at the bottom. But then along came Boas, a Jewish German immigrant to the U.S. who refashioned the discipline and its discourses on race and culture. Boas refuted biological racism, asserting that the most important differences between groups of people derived from cultural (learned) rather than biological (innate) inheritance. He simultaneously argued against the ethnocentric ranking of cultures in evolutionary hierarchies. Boas thus established anthropology as an anti-racist science. This story is often told with greater nuance than this abbreviated version, but its moral, I believe, is a common component of the anthropological legacy.1 The lesson: anthropology is a racially progressive discipline that has repudiated its racist past and has played a key role in creating a racially progressive future. The story resonates with a common narrative of racial progress in the U.S., which is no mere coincidence because anthropology has contributed to that narrative.

Close examination of anthropological discourses on race and racism from the time of Boas forward complicates any simple story of the discipline’s racial progressivism. On the one hand, scholars have recognized the powerful role the Boasian intervention played in combating racism not only in the scientific community but in the wider public sphere. On the other hand, many of the same scholars have identified tensions and contradictions within the Boasian paradigm. George Stocking (1968)—whose nuanced appreciation of Boas informs all subsequent assessments—was careful to note that Boas never fully escaped the nineteenth-century evolutionism he challenged. Vernon Williams (1996; 2006) has elaborated on what he calls the Boasian paradox: the contradiction between Boas’ liberal egalitarian politics and his retention of inegalitarian tenets of physical anthropology. Race itself remained a valid biological category of human difference, even as Boasians sought to minimize its importance. “In retrospect, the Boasians could not perceive that race was a culturally constructed way of looking at and interpreting human variation” (Smedley 1993, 280).

Other scholars expand further on the paradoxical legacies of the Boasian intervention. Kamala Visweswaran (1998) provides one of the more pointed critiques. She argues that by defining culture against biology and relegating race to biology, Boasians left the study of race to the biological sciences and thereby ironically fueled “the machine of scientific racism” (1998, 70). She also contends that “after World War II, race dropped off the agenda of the cultural anthropologist in part due to the very success of the Boasian maneuver that argued that culture, not race, was a more meaningful explanation of significant differences among groups of people” (75). Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2003) similarly argues that a reified race-culture distinction ultimately left culture as a fetish for anthropological objectification, disconnected from the structural dynamics of power. These assessments suggest that the very touchstone of Boasian thought—the distinction between race and culture—produced a legacy in which cultural anthropologists came to avoid racism, particularly as a structural feature of contemporary society. Faye Harrison (2008a) puts the point succinctly: “Many sociocultural anthropologists assumed that race was not useful for understanding social distinctions. This led to a silence concerning structural racism.” According to Lee Baker, it also contributed to liberal and conservative color-blind discourses in the U.S. that minimize racism as a social reality (1998, 210; 2010, 219).

These arguments represent a profound challenge to any straightforward narrative of anthropology’s progressive history on race and racism.2 They inform my own analysis of the Boasians in the first half of the book, though I will have occasion to modify, complicate, and challenge various aspects of them. I depart from these critical perspectives—in the dual sense of starting from and differing from—in three general ways.

First, whereas most engagements with Boasians focus on their conceptions of race as a physical/biological phenomenon, I am interested in their explicit and implicit engagements with what I call the social life of race. If, to be sure, the main import of the Boasian intervention was to undermine biological determinism, Boas and his students also provided accounts of racial consciousness, prejudice, discrimination and conflict as social phenomena. Boasians did not simply assume that the public dissemination of scientific knowledge or proper thinking about the race concept would resolve race “problems.” They were not so naïve as to believe that the debunking of scientific racism alone could fundamentally transform race relations. Ruth Benedict was quite explicit on this point, noting that the anthropologist “has no illusions that proofs of what race is or is not will change racial attitudes” (1941, 74). She viewed racial “conflict” and prejudice as social facts amenable to cultural investigation.

The sociologist and the cultural anthropologist must begin their study where the physical anthropologist, the psychological student of race, the geneticist and the physiologist conclude theirs. If racial conflict is not written in biological laws, it is nevertheless before us in America as a social fact which we cannot blink. It is no less real for being man-made. (1941, 74)

This was a clear statement that racial conflict and prejudice (though not race itself) were realities produced by social and cultural dynamics. As we will see, Benedict’s historical explanation of racism ultimately minimized the need to investigate it (Visweswaran 1998), but her thought cannot be reduced to a reflex of the race-culture distinction. Boas himself explored the social dimensions of race, identifying the cultural variability in the significance of race in defining social groups across world regions. For him, the race problem in the U.S. was particularly intractable because there social group distinctions were defined by race. Indeed, for quite some time Boas contended that the “Black problem” in the U.S. could only be resolved by the lightening of the Black population via miscegenation between Black women and white men. Understanding why he took this remarkable and troubling position—a subject neglected in the literature—requires an examination of how Boas understood the relationship between race, social categories, national identity, and white subjectivity in the U.S. More generally, examining how anthropologists theorized the social life of race and imagined a progressive racial future provides insights into anthropological anti-racism and its paradoxes.

Second, I approach the Boasians as key thinkers within the broader intellectual tradition of American liberal anti-racism who, when interpreted critically, help illuminate paradoxes of that tradition. Understanding race in anthropological thought requires an inquiry into the political ideals, motivations, and worldviews informing anthropological understandings of race and racism. It also requires reading anthropological anti-racism through the lens of anthropologists’ engagements with “America” and liberalism. I refer to the “Americanism” of U.S. anthropologists to call attention to the various ways U.S. anthropology was a project in which an imagined America—as nation, people, society, and/or culture—figured prominently. Boasian anthropology was a political project with powerful associations with liberalism and with deep commitments to America. U.S. society, culture, and peoplehood were an object of sustained concern, whether or not anthropologists understood themselves as directly studying the U.S. (Gilkeson 2010). Dorothy Ross has observed that the disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology in the U.S. were distinctively American precisely in the influence that ideologies of American exceptionalism—“the idea that America occupies an exceptional place in history based on her republican government and economic opportunity”—had upon them (1991, xiv). As I will show, this was no less true of U.S. anthropology even as anthropologists promoted liberal reform in U.S. society. In referring to the “Americanism” of U.S. anthropology, I am concerned with how anthropologists imagined and constructed America, with how perceived American (liberal) ideals informed their thought, and with how their relationships and commitments to America affected their figurations of race and racism. This approach, in turn, allows for a reconsideration of their public impact in U.S. intellectual life.

Finally, my inquiry departs from previous accounts in examining how U.S. cultural anthropologists engaged the social life of race in the period after World War II. As I will show in more detail later, cultural anthropologists did not abandon the study of the social life of race, and the Boasian separation of race and culture did not logically inhibit such inquiries. The issue then is not why did cultural anthropologists relinquish race but what happened to the study of race by cultural anthropologists in the wake of the Boasian intervention. I focus here on two moments. On the one hand, in the 1950s and 1960s there were efforts to extend and move beyond the Boasians in the historical, ethnographic, and comparative study of the social life of race, represented most prominently by two of their successors at Columbia, Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris. On the other hand, by the late 1960s a critical perspective on the racial politics of the discipline emerged as a crucial but today neglected part of the wider effort to decolonize the discipline. Voiced primarily by anthropologists of color and influenced by a Black Studies perspective that identified white racism as a constitutive feature of the nation and its institutions, this critique called into question the image of anthropology as a racially progressive discipline, echoing the doubts that had arisen concerning the realities of American liberal democracy.

The Arguments

The book is organized into two halves, chronologically divided by World War II. The first part treats Boasian anthropology, with primary chapters focusing on Franz Boas (Chapter 2) and Ruth Benedict (Chapter 3). Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Boasian intervention on race in the wider social and political context of the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. The second part analyzes significant trajectories of post-Boasian cultural anthropological engagements with race and racism. Here, another overview chapter (Chapter 4) provides an account of transformations in anthropology in the post-war era. Primary chapters focus on the work of Marvin Harris and Charles Wagley (Chapter 5) and the reconceptualization of race and anthropology at a moment of disciplinary crisis, as represented in the writings of William Willis, Diane Lewis, and Charles Valentine (Chapter 6).

The central argument of the first half is that cultural anthropology in the Boasian tradition was an Americanist liberal project that contributed to key paradoxes of liberal discourses on race and racism in the United States. I use the term liberal here in the most general sense of an ethical and political stance promoting the freedom of humans to realize their potential as individuals. Generally recognized as rooted in Enlightenment thought and enshrined in political documents such as the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, American liberalism from the start rested on constitutive contradictions (Wilder 2005) between the notion of equal endowment across humanity (“all men are created equal”) and the delimitation of full political rights to a “community of the free” restricted to propertied white men. Whiteness itself became a form of property integral to a U.S. body politic characterized by racialized exclusions and hierarchies (Harris 1993; Hartman 1997). “The principle of racial equality became a constitutive element in liberal identity only from the mid-twentieth century onwards” (Losurdo 2011, 322). Boasians helped forge that identity, seeking to expand liberal principles across the color line and instructing Americans—particularly white Americans—on how to reconcile liberal principles with racial differences. Yet the deep relationships between racism and liberalism integral to the U.S. body politic proved exceptionally difficult to dissolve and were reproduced in the anthropological imagination. Anthropology, in turn, helped produce a liberal imagination of American race and culture that reinscribed in new terms the equation between whiteness and America.

I focus on two sets of conundrums in Boasian anti-racist thought. If the Boasians’ view of racism as a cultural phenomenon made its elimination imaginable, their theorization of the tenacity of tradition and the power of culture to shape individual consciousness provided a formidable obstacle to liberal reform. The implicit question emerged: How could U.S. whites—socialized into racist attitudes toward non-whites—become liberal subjects who treated individuals as individuals? Education, especially socialization into liberal principles from an early age, was the most ready solution, but Boasians also doubted its efficacy. Most striking, Boas himself was pessimistic that white Americans could be educated into becoming liberal subjects who could ignore race in the evaluation and treatment of Black individuals. However, rather than confront this social-political problem as a reflection of deep associations between whiteness, liberalism, and American national identity formation, he deferred it by proposing a biological solution—the lightening of the Black population through miscegenation. Benedict pursued a different tack, attempting to reconcile the coexistence of white racism and liberal democracy in the U.S. by representing liberal democratic principles as core values in American culture. Overall, Boasians ultimately deferred a confrontation with racism, the color line, and the power of whiteness as constitutive features of the U.S. social order.

Moreover, Boasian thought reflected and perpetuated a typically tacit, sometimes explicit, equation between whiteness and American even as it contested dogmas of white supremacy. Boasians argued that culture rather than race provided the best scientific explanation for group differences, but they did not deconstruct the race concept (Teslow 2014). Rather, they reconstructed race to signify a global division of humanity into three primary classifications: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. This had the effect of sharpening a distinction between whites and non-whites—the color line in its most basic sense—under the authority of science (Jacobson 1998). Race continued to matter in Boasians’ thought as a category of biological difference and social belonging in the U.S., as evidenced in the care they took to insist that European immigrants were racially white rather than members of distinct races or sub-races. Although Boasians recognized racism as a problem created by white Americans and acknowledged the social importance of the color line, they nonetheless modeled the overcoming of racism facing non-whites on the assimilation of European immigrants. These immigrant analogies contributed to the effacement of the power of racial distinction and whiteness in structuring U.S. society while reproducing an equation between whiteness and America.

In sum, Boasian thought was an important part of a larger stream of twentieth-century liberal anti-racist Americanist discourse that simultaneously contested, instantiated, and denied white domination. Seeds for alternative approaches, however, were apparent from within Boasian thought itself as well as in subsequent cultural anthropological engagements with racism discussed in the second half of the book.

In the post-war era, the Boasian critique of biological determinism was deployed in advancing a civil rights agenda within the U.S. and a human rights agenda within the international sphere (Baker 1998). As in the previous era, many anthropologists would support scientific anti-racism without devoting their work to the study of the social life of race and racism. There were exceptions. Most prominently, Marvin Harris and his mentor Charles Wagley produced a substantial body of comparative work on race, racial classification, and discrimination in Latin America and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. This work was initiated by a study of race relations in Brazil sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with the goal of determining conditions of “racial harmony.” Wagley and Harris departed from the Boasian tradition in devoting sustained ethnographic attention to the social dynamics of race and racism and, in the case of Harris, developing a materialist perspective to explain social variance in forms of racial classification and discrimination. Their comparative analysis had the potential to generate a structural account of racism and white domination across the Americas.

That potential was unrealized as they minimized race as a factor in social domination in Brazil despite early ethnographic insights from Harris that racial ascription was a key factor in social stratification and class formation. Wagley and (ultimately) Harris projected an image of race in Brazil as a society free of systemic racial discrimination, relying on an interpretation of Brazilian society as a kind of inverted projection of the rigid “caste-like” race relations of the U.S. I argue that this account better reflected their liberal desires for the possibility of a post-colonial, post-slavery society free of racism than their ethnographic data. Their theoretical frames minimized racism in Latin America and circumvented the nascent possibility of a project of a comparative and hemispheric study of whiteness as a form of social power. Moreover, Wagley and Harris deployed modernization discourses and immigrant analogies that perpetuated problematic comparisons between whites and non-whites in both the U.S. and Brazil that contributed to the normalization of whiteness. Like the Boasians they succeeded, Wagley and Harris contributed to liberal anti-racist discourses that tacitly confirmed the cultural power of whiteness.

The entanglements between U.S. anthropology, racism, and liberalism came under self-conscious anthropology scrutiny in the late 1960s as a crucial but neglected component of a critical turn in the discipline in which the traditional subjects of anthropologists, as well as anthropologists themselves, began to question the ethics, politics, and relevance of the discipline. The critical turn was itself related to a crisis in American liberal nationalism generated by ethnoracial movements at home, decolonization abroad, the Vietnam War, the rise of the counterculture, and domestic repression. Emergent accusations that anthropology was a form of knowledge production beholden to colonialism and imperialism clearly implicated racism, but the best-known voices involved in the critical turn devoted little attention to a revitalized anthropological approach to race and racism. However, a set of anthropologists—most of them anthropologists of color—articulated a critical race agenda for the discipline and offered a profound challenge to anthropological self-satisfaction as a progressive, anti-racist discipline.

Chapter 6 traces these developments through a focus on the critical diagnosis of anthropology by William Willis, Diane Lewis, and Charles Valentine. Influenced by the Black Studies movement, these scholars developed approaches for analyzing the color line and white supremacy as structural features of America and global imperialism while casting into radical doubt the progressive legacy of the discipline. They developed early critiques of anthropological culture as a concept that, like biological racism, could justify racial and ethnic hierarchies. They advocated structural approaches to race/racism that refused to reduce racial and ethnic dynamics to class and capitalism, and they called for a “native” or “insider” anthropology. They exposed the normalization of whiteness in American social institutions, including the university and anthropology, which they identified as a predominately white liberal practice. The reinvention of anthropology, they suggested, would have to go beyond the critique of biological determinism and scientific racism to confront the racial contradictions of American liberalism reflected in the discipline itself. The Conclusion reflects on the legacies of these interventions.


1. Unconquered indigenous peoples were declared enemies of the state. In California, federally sponsored killings reduced the Indian population from 310,000 in 1850 to 50,000 in 1855 (Menchaca 2001, 223).

2. Daniel Folkmar (1861–1932) received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Paris after studying at Harvard, Clark, and the University of Chicago. He was a lieutenant governor of a province in the Philippines from 1903 to 1907 during the U.S. occupation and published a photographic album of Philippine racial “types.” He subsequently joined the United States Immigration Commission (Perlmann 2011, 11–12).