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How One Anthropologist Reshaped How Social Scientists Think About Race

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking a lot about race in this country, most recently because of comments by President Trump about certain lawmakers and certain cities and countries that many have criticized as racist. Critics say that because Mr. Trump's comments so often seem to rely on a racial hierarchy placing people like himself at the top and people different from him, especially people of color, at the bottom.

Given the fierce pushback, it might be hard to remember that in the early 1900s, at the dawn of what we've come to call social science, nearly all research was seen through a white supremacist lens until a German American professor started developing and then teaching the then-radical idea that race is a social rather than biological construct and that most ideas about race are really rationalizations for political positions and that all cultures deserve to be regarded with respect. That professor, Franz Boas, pioneered the field of anthropology, and his influence spread through students who also became pioneers such as Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.

Their collective story is the subject of a new book - "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Circle Of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, And Gender In The 20th Century." It was written by Charles King, author and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. He joined me in our Washington, D.C. studios to tell us more about Franz Boas and just how unconventional his ideas were at the time.

CHARLES KING: Well, he was a revolutionary because, of course, at the time he started doing this new kind of social science, which he and his students had to name as cultural anthropology, there was widespread consensus about this idea of cultural, racial, gender hierarchy - that the natural order of the world was one in which you had folks at the top and folks at the bottom, and you stayed in those categories over the entirety of your life, and those categories were inheritable. You were taught this, and you experienced it every day depending on what swimming pool you could go to, what streetcar you could ride in, where you were buried. So from literally cradle to grave, you work inside this hierarchy. And he worked very hard to teach people that that was a product of our own society, not of God or nature.

MARTIN: Well, given the fact that he was, as you said, surrounded by this point of view, how did it happen that he started to see the world differently? What changed him?

KING: Well, in some ways, he and everyone he gathered around him - Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and others - were themselves outsiders in some way. He was a German Jewish immigrant to the United States who found himself on the wrong side of the first World War. He said it was the greatest disappointment of his life when he witnessed the nationalism that attended that conflict.

Of course, we forget today, but at the time of the first World War, German Americans were the largest minority group in the United States - immigrant minority group in the United States. And they were treated abysmally by both the American government at the time, by state governments and so forth. The teaching of German was banned in some states. And so this experience, I think, propelled him forward with the idea that every society creates its own kind of hierarchies, and to live intelligently in the world, to live as a social scientist in the world, what do you had to do was to try to recognize those.

MARTIN: But you make the point in your book that a lot of his ideas started to come from his fieldwork, where he was going out and experiencing, you know, what we would call native cultures or traditional cultures firsthand. A lot of people were doing that at that time. Why is it that he was able to go out and realize that basically, what he had been taught was just wrong?

KING: Well, I think at some point, Boas and each of his students had a kind of transformational experience somewhere. For Mead, it was in American Samoa. For Boas, it was on Baffin Island, living with the Inuit in the Arctic. And all of them at some point had an experience in which they realized that while they were educated, they could make their way through their own culture and their society, in the place that they found themselves in that moment, they were stupid. They didn't know how to survive. They didn't know how to be a proper person. They didn't know what kind of food you could eat or what would kill you.

And each of them took from that experience, I think, the understanding that how you make your way in the world is a product of your education, your circumstance, your culture. It's not a thing that is inherent to you. Your place in the world is determined by your surroundings. And they elevated that into an entire theory of society.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book is that there were always competitors to Boas' ideas. In fact, one of his sort of chief antagonists was a person named Grant. What's...

KING: Madison Grant, yeah.

MARTIN: Madison Grant, who actually created some of the institutions which continue to survive today as anti-immigrant think tanks.

KING: That's right. On the one hand, Madison Grant - you know, we owe the survival of the American bison to him. We owe so many of the great conservation institutions to him and conservation areas in the American West to him. But he at the same time believed deeply that what he was seeing in New York - he was from New York, living in New York - was the same thing he had experienced in traveling through the American West - that is, he understood what it was like when noble creatures could suddenly be brought down by invading species or their environment changing, and suddenly, the bison, the elk, the wolf were in danger.

And when he walked across lower Manhattan, of course, he saw all of what to him were invading species as well - people from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe who had come into the U.S. as part of this great wave of migration. And in 1916, he wrote a very famous book called "The Passing Of The Great Race," which people don't talk much about now but was a bestseller at that time - hugely influential. Roosevelt - Teddy Roosevelt and others read it, commented on it. And he became a national celebrity and an authority on race and immigration.

MARTIN: Well, given that Boas' point of view here was not popular at the time - or rather that Grant had much more currency than Boas did, I mean, you make the point in the book, you say that Boas was making a point that required readers to make a difficult conceptual leap. He was asking Americans and Western Europeans to suspend their belief in their own greatness. Grant, for his part, had something simpler and more powerful on his side - the deep self-confidence of Western society founded upon the observable reality of the Anglo-Saxon dominance around the globe. OK.

So how is it that now, you know, I think we've established that there are still some people who believe in racial hierarchy, that white people are better than everybody else. I mean, that's just a fact. But would it be accurate to say that among most educated people, it is understood that race is a social, not a biological concept, that people are much more similar than they are different and, you know, all the other things. How did that happen?

KING: I think the idea that racism is bad, that you should treat people as if there is no such hierarchy in the world, is a widespread idea. We grow up with it as part of the American creed now in a way that we might not have at some point. But I think many Americans still deeply believe in the idea of race, that race is biological and is not socially constructed, that there's some deep genetic difference between people across racial categories. I even find this in classrooms when I'm teaching or lecturing on these things, where students, I think, come into even - come into university still struggling with some of the things that Boas was trying to teach more than a century ago.

And, you know, the reality, of course, of American history is that we have a set of foundational documents that speak about the inherent equality of all people, but of course there's the entire history of racial segregation, of hierarchy. And what this book tries to do, I think, is to talk about that braided history. It's not a set of dark chapters in American life. This is a strand of American history that continues up to the present moment that we need to understand.

MARTIN: Reading the book, I was very much struck by how many of the themes of the book are resurgent, you know - your city is bad, my city is good, arguments about unconscious bias, arguments about erasing your own immigrant history and - or even if you don't erase it, sort of implying that there's some sort of hierarchy here. I was just - I'm just wondering, does that say something to you?

KING: Well, that era can teach us a lot because the things that we're experiencing in this country now aren't particularly new. They're actually part of American history, and understanding the ways in which they're part of American history is absolutely critical, I think. But I think the other thing that comes out of the book is a kind of moral code that ran alongside the social science that these folks were trying to do. You know, they were trying to teach us not to give much credence to any theory that just happened to put people like us at the top of some heap. Be critical of the society you're living in at the same time you're trying to be an expert in living in it. And that's a very hard thing to do.

Boas said, you know, there's no real progress in morality. In every society that he had studied, there were people you could kill and people you shouldn't kill, people you should have romantic relations with, those who you shouldn't have romantic relations with. The thing that changes, he said, is the circle of people to whom we owe ethical behavior, whatever we think it is. Is it your family? Is it your tribe? Is it your village? Or is it humanity? And that's the worldview that he and his students tried to impart, and I think it makes as much sense now and is as urgent now as it was in their day.

MARTIN: Charles King is the author, most recently of "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Circle Of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, And Gender In The 20th Century." He was kind of to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Professor King, thank you so much for joining.

KING: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.