Anthropology and Racial Politics

Anthropology may loosely be defined as the study of human culture -- but throughout the discipline's history, some cultures have been deemed more worthy of study than others. Who determines which cultures merit the most study -- and how, and why?

April 16, 2010

Anthropology may loosely be defined as the study of human culture -- but throughout the discipline's history, some cultures have been deemed more worthy of study than others. Who determines which cultures merit the most study -- and how, and why?

In a new book, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Duke University Press), Lee Baker explores how anthropological study of American Indians helped to shape academic and popular ideas about race and culture -- and how those same concepts informed the discipline's very different treatment of African American culture in the 20th century. Baker, who is associate professor of cultural anthropology, sociology, and African and African American studies and dean of academic affairs in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: You describe a "dramatic shift" in the first half of the 20th century, when the federal government "promulgat[ed]... policies to first destroy and then protect American Indian culture." This swift change "mirrored shifts in American popular culture, aesthetics, and attitudes toward traditional or authentic Native American cultures." Can you give an overview of how and why such a dramatic about-face occurred?

A: In 1883, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed a policy called the Religious Crimes Code, which authorized agents to use force or imprisonment to repress and stop American Indian religious practices that they deemed subversive, immoral, or an impediment to the goal of "civilizing" the Indian. This followed the much more comprehensive Dawes Act of 1887, which divided up tribal lands into small, individually-owned parcels. This allotment mechanism created a putative surplus of land that was sold to developers, railroads, and ranchers. The idea was to force rapid civilization based on individualism or speed the process of assimilation by destroying communal ways of life, but the amount of land provided to individual families was not large enough to be sustainable. The act and its various amendments were in place for almost a half a century, and American Indian families lost an estimated 90 million acres of treaty land. These two policies reinforced other punitive policies, practices, and violence tethered to an explicit “vanishing policy” -- a policy designed to make American Indian culture disappear.

In 1890, Sitting Bull was shot dead, and the army quickly stopped one of the last so-called uprisings with their massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1893, Fredrick Jackson Turner delivered his influential paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," detailing how American culture was tied to frontier expansion, but the frontier was now closed. By the turn of the 20th century, the western frontier was finished and the threat of American Indians diminished.

Americans began to focus on preservation and conservation of land, wildlife, and water, which fueled movements to establish public spaces and establish more national parks. As boarding schools, the Dawes act, and the BIA articulated macabre vanishing policies, early anthropologists like James Mooney and Frank H. Chushing began to practice salvage ethnography. They attempted to preserve and conserve Indian culture by writing and describing the practices that they viewed as quickly disappearing. Tourism to the Southwest, a growing appreciation in Indian art, living ethnological fair exhibits, and wild-west shows all promoted a pacified yet exotic and distinctively American way of life. At the same time, summer camps and organizations like the Camp Fire Girls were promoted, and teenagers around the country began dressing up to play Indian. American Indian culture slowly became America’s exotic but safe “other.”

The devastation of the Dawes Act, boarding schools, and years of violence and dislocation was slowly recognized by the federal government. With the help of John Collier, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s politically astute commissioner of Indian affairs, Congress passed the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934. Better known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), this was part of Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal legislation, and it was meant to curtail future allotments, empower tribal governments, and put structures in place to enable improved health, education, land acquisition, and cultural preservation.

Q: One of the book's recurrent themes is the "obvious division of labor... in social sciences" wherein anthropology has tended to focus, for the most part, on "out-of-the-way indigenous peoples," while sociology has been the discipline to study immigrants and --- especially -- African Americans. How and why do you think this division may have come about?

A: There were two early schools of anthropology in the United States. The most familiar to anthropology students is the one pioneered by Samuel Morton and Louis Agassiz; they focused on measuring brains and bodies to rank-order the races. This is usually called the “American School of Anthropology,” which culminated in Josiah Nott’s and George Gliddon’s 800-page tome of scientific racism entitled Types of Mankind (1854). I suggest, however, that there was a late-18th century Americanist tradition, begun by Peter S. Du Ponceau and Albert Gallatin and focusing on Native American linguistics and philology, which gave rise to the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) at the Smithsonian, founded in 1879. Unlike the American School of Anthropology, which focused on brains and bodies, the Americanist tradition focused on customs and behaviors.

Beginning with Lewis Henry Morgan through John W. Powell and Frederic W. Putnam, and then continuing with Franz Boas and his students, the primary focus of academic anthropological inquiry in the United States was American Indian languages and customs. It was not until World War II that anthropology in the United States did much else. In the timeless words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot “the ‘scientific’ study of the Savage qua Savage became the privileged field of academic anthropology.” Anthropologists got the savage slot, and continued to fill it with descriptions of out-of-the-way others. Sociologists in the United States described in-the-way others, and focused on recent immigrants and African Americans; they rarely focused on American Indians. In general terms, sociologists were used to support broader ideas of cultural assimilation, while anthropologists were used to support ideas of cultural preservation and conservation.

Q: How did "the role anthropology played in shaping popular conceptions of the culture for Native Americans" differ from "the role it played in shaping popular conceptions of culture for African Americans," and why was this difference so pronounced?

A: In 1914, the influential sociologist Robert Park suggested that “the chief obstacle to assimilation of the Negro and the Oriental are not mental but physical traits. It is not because the Negro and the Japanese are so differently constituted that they do not assimilate. If they were given an opportunity the Japanese are quite as capable as the Italians, Armenians, or the Slavs of acquiring our culture and sharing our national ideals. The trouble is not with the Japanese mind but with the Japanese skin. The Jap is not the right color.”

Before the 1930s, many scholars believed that African Americans had lost their culture during the middle passage. Any distinctive customs or behaviors black folk performed were too often viewed as a bad copy of white culture. Like the boarding schools for American Indians, many Negro normal schools tried to assimilate black students in hopes that their culture too would vanish. The difference was that black American culture was rarely seen as distinctive, nor was it viewed as very exotic. Perhaps more importantly, as the threat level of American Indians waned, the threat level of African Americans waxed. It was not until the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro movement that black culture in the United States began to be viewed widely as distinctive and authentic and worthy of scientific study.

Before World War II, the consumption of a pacified and out-of-the-way Indian in Wild West shows, World’s Fairs, and museums can be juxtaposed with the consumption of a dangerous and in-the-way Negro in blackfaced minstrelsy, professionally promoted lynchings, and buffoon-saturated advertising. World’s Fair organizers routinely rejected requests to erect African American exhibits, and philanthropists flat-out rejected requests to erect a museum to showcase African and African American achievements. While many performers dressed up to play “authentic” renditions of somber Indians, others blackened up to play exaggerated renditions of knee-slapping Negroes, and there was no African American analog to the Campfire Girls and Indian Guides; middle-class white kids never went to camp to dress up to play Sambo. If one can compare popular historical and cultural representations of African Americans and Native Americans in these terms, and then connect this view to the distinct roles anthropology and sociology played studying these two groups, maybe one can get a better understanding of how the division of labor within the social sciences helped to contribute to very different politics of culture.

Q: How did the work of the anthropologist Franz Boas influence the American's public's understanding of race -- for better and worse?

A: Franz Boas is widely credited for delimiting race from language and culture. When he arrived in the United States from Germany in 1887, most Americans made little distinction between race and nation, peoples and culture. Many scholars believed the races were organized in an evolutionary hierarchy that began with savagery and moved through barbarism and ended with Christian Civilization. Franz Boas used the scientific method to demonstrate that races were not organized in a hierarchy, and that cultures should be viewed and understood within their own historical contexts. The notion that the world has multiple cultures and different races that are neither better nor worse, neither advanced nor retarded, can be attributed to the scientific work that Boas began in the 1890s. Although this had a significant long-term impact in terms of challenging the ideas of racial inferiority that served as the basis for Jim Crow segregation, Boas’s research articulated a particular racial politics of culture that provided a compelling argument against racial uplift and cultural assimilation. Many progressive whites and boarding-school educated American Indians, as well as prominent African American leaders like Booker T. Washington, believed that cultural assimilation was the most effective strategy to combat racial discrimination. Anthropologists, who earnestly believed that American Indians could and should be able to maintain their culture, were at odds with other well-meaning whites who believed that Indians should fully embrace or perform the white man’s culture.

Q: What are some of the key ways in which "anthropological concepts have been used in the service of political projects"? Do such concepts continue to bear on the American political or cultural discourse today?

A: In an effort to better fight the war in Afghanistan, the military has developed the Human Terrain System (HTS), in which social scientists give on-the-ground advice to military units. Many anthropologists are rightly concerned that basic anthropological ethics, like securing informed consent and being able to publish findings within the scientific community, are being violated with this program. Moreover, the program has not been adequately assessed and there are not good metrics in place to demonstrate how well it works. The program is hotly debated, and it is a very contemporary example of how anthropology and other social sciences become appropriated and used for projects other than traditional knowledge production. Although I am deeply committed to using knowledge in the service of society, this book provides examples of the unintended consequences and the tricky relationships that emerge when knowledge is used within the frame of specific political projects. I don’t think scientists or theorists should pull back in any way; I just hope that scholars realize that when they enter into the public sphere, they may lose control of how their work is employed, and scholars should not be surprised when the work they produce is used in a way that is inimical to their values.


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