What in the Name of the Lord is Boasian Antiracism?

So, Tom Edsall shared my work on the overdose gradient in his column. Very happy to hold his attention and be cited on the pages of the paper of record. But he seems to have picked up one half of the story. This is reflected in the direct quote attributed to me. What I had written was:

The causal diagram underlying the strong correlations between education, population decline, and deaths of despair on the one hand, and the electoral swing to Trump on the other, is clear. There has been a breakdown in elite-mass relations of which Trump’s election and the counter-discourse to Boasian antiracism are merely symptoms.

Edsall quotes me as saying:

The strong correlations between education, population decline, and deaths of despair on the one hand, and the electoral swing to Trump on the other, is clear [sic]. There has been a breakdown in elite-mass relations.

The selective quotation was no doubt in good faith. But it had the unfortunate side effect of attributing a grammatical error to me that I did not make. That’s not a big deal. The main thrust of my argument comes across; there’s no misrepresentation. That Tom felt the need to quote selectively is also my fault—I’m working with shorthand that I find useful to think with, but that few readers grasp. This is really unfortunate because Boasian antiracism is the key to the present impasse of elite-mass relations in the United States, and perhaps more broadly across the West. And it connects directly to Tom’s diagnosis of 2020 that prompted my essay:

The 2020 election will be fought over the current loss of certainty — the absolute lack of consensus — on the issue of “race.” Fear, anger and resentment are rampant. Democrats are convinced of the justness of the liberal, humanistic, enlightenment tradition of expanding rights for racial and ethnic minorities. Republicans, less so.

Tom Edsall is absolutely right that 2020 will be fought on the absolute lack of consensus on race. Why is that? That brings us to Boasian antiracism. As @goffmania demanded on twitter:

Boasian antiracism is the hegemonic ideology of the elite. At first pass, it is an ideology of inclusion. It is something you get potty trained in at elite institutions. It extends well beyond race. For instance, the proliferation of acronyms like LGBTQI et cetera can be traced to its hegemony. It tells you what sort of things you can say in polite company. More importantly, it tells you what you can’t say. Put simply, if you want to appear civilized, you better learn the language of Boasian antiracism.

The core idea of Boasian antiracism is the negation of the core idea of high racialism, the hegemonic ideology of the Western world, and beyond, from the turn of the century to the anti-systemic turn after 1968. In order to understand the contours of Boasian antiracism, we must therefore begin with high racialism. The core belief of high racialism was that the world was composed of discrete anthropological races that sat in a natural hierarchy of ability, and it was these biological differences between races that explained why some nations were rich and strong and others poor and weak. As I explained last year,

What made racial taxonomy so compelling was what it was mobilized to explain: the astonishing scale of global polarization. As Westerners contemplated the human condition at the turn of the century, the dominant fact that cried out for explanation was the highly uneven distribution of wealth and power on earth. It did really look like fate had thrust the responsibility of the world on Anglo-Saxon shoulders; that Europe and its offshoots were vastly more advanced, civilized and powerful that the rest of the world; that Oriental or Russian armies simply couldn’t put up a fight with a European great power; that six thousand Englishmen could rule over hundreds of millions of Indians without fear of getting their throats cut. The most compelling explanation was the most straightforward one. To the sharpest knives in the turn of the century drawer, what explained the polarization of the world was the natural hierarchy of the races.

Ashley Montagu was the first to question the existence of biological races in 1942. But since before the turn of the century, Franz Boas, a physical anthropologist at Columbia, had been questioning self-satisfied perceptions of innate biological differences between the races. In the mid-1930s, his students at Columbia Anthropology, above all, Ashley Montagu, Margret Mead and Ruth Benedict, argued forcefully against Nazi racism—this was the first time the word “racism” appeared in public; ‘race prejudice’ was used before that.

race-prejudice.png

There are two important facts to note about high racialism. First, there was hardly any daylight between the German and Anglo-Saxon understanding of race. Both were, in the final analysis, anchored in the scientific discourse of physical anthropology—no one, including the Nazis, was free to reject the main claims of ‘the science of race’.

Second, high racialism did not die after Auschwitz. A lot of scholars have made claims to the contrary.

The 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race looms large in the historical study of “race” in the 20th century. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and others point to the 1950 Statement on Race as the key moment in which science was harnessed in the political battle to combat racism and overturn the philosophical underpinnings of European colonialism and Jim Crow. These scholars recognize how the UNESCO Statement was doubly significant because the newly formed United Nations called for such an effort along with its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because the Statement apparently signaled the triumph of anti‐racist anthropology over the science that had defined social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Holocaust (Baker 1998; Banton 2002; Barkan 1992; Graves 2001; Kohn 1995; Patterson 2001; Shipman 2002; Tucker 1994; Zack 2002).

These scholars are mistaken. Not a single physical anthropologist contributed to the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race, which was authored by a small coterie of Boasian antiracists led by Ashley Montagu. It is fair bet that the vast majority of physical anthropologists disagreed with it. The dominant figure in the scientific understanding of race at midcentury was Carlton Coon. Coon’s magnum opus, The Origin of Races was published in 1962. He posited H. erectus and H. sapiens as stages of hominin development. He argued that some continental races achieved sapiens status later than others, and mobilized their differential time-depth to explain global polarization. The monograph, with its obvious racist implications, was seized on by southern racists, including Coon’s cousin Putnam, to contest school desegregation. It was also immediately contested by Boasian antiracists.

Ashley Montagu and Theodosius Dobzhansky debated Coon extensively on the pages of the October 1963 edition of Current Anthropology. Coon dispatched Dobzhansky with contempt: “But I am, as he is not, a physical anthropologist of forty years’ experience and I consider his rejection, without detail, of my criteria of grades and lines as professionally incompetent.” Montagu fared even worse.

Ernst Mayr in Science, George Gaylord Simpson in Perspectives in Medicine and Biology, William W. Howells in the New York Sunday Times, Wilton M Krogman in the Chicago Tribune, and Stanley M. Garn for the Library of Science; all have reviewed my book favorably and have seen nothing wrong with its main thesis that, in the case of Homo as with other genera, one polytypic species evolved into another without losing the identity of its geographical races. … Neither I nor anyone else I know has ever claimed a one-to-one correlation between brain size and intelligence and Montagu should know better than to pull this Freshman argument out of his bag of tricks.

Montagu states that he has been under the impression that the more one gets to know people of different races the more fundamentally alike they appear to be. His impression is of no validity, and less interest because he has done no field work. … With one statement of his I agree, at least concerning the junior author: “Dobzhansky and Montagu need never have written their paper on ‘Natural Selection and the Mental Capacities of Mankind'” (1947).

Coon’s status as the dominant figure of mid-century physical anthropology was attested to by the fact that, in 1963, he was reelected president of the American Association of Physical Anthropology. Physical anthropologists remained convinced racialists even as cultural anthropologists, already overwhelmingly Boasian antiracists, reigned supreme at the American Anthropological Association. At the annual meeting, Washburn blasted Coon’s monograph. But the notion that Boasian antiracism had triumphed in the Ivory Tower at this time, not to mention American society at large, just does not hold up to scrutiny. Usage of the phrase “the races of man” do not begin to decline until after 1972, the year that Lewontin published his famous result that 85 percent of genetic variation is within populations.

races.png
The rise of Boasian antiracism and the revival of racialism. Source: Google Ngram.

The rise of Boasian antiracism took place on the backs of the rise to hegemony of cultural anthropology. As I documented on the basis of prestige school data,

What actually happened was more like a Thirty-Year War. Simply put, physical anthropology was gutted. Boasian cultural anthropologists mounted relentless attacks on their colleagues in physical anthropology, who they regarded as overwhelmingly racist, whatever their politico-ethical stance. Relatively fewer and fewer were given tenure. Many were driven out of the Ivory Tower. Ever fewer were hired to replace retiring professors. This one-sided warfare unfolded between the 1960s and the 1990s, until Boasian anthropologists established unchallenged supremacy in anthropology departments.

I witnessed the final triumph of Boasian antiracism at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, long the home of the resistance. At the meeting, they voted to rename themselves the American Association of Biological Anthropologists and issued a second statement on race debunking neoracialism. But we are getting ahead of the story.

Over the course of the two decades, the hegemony of Boasian anthropology expanded out to cognate disciplines. This was part of a general intellectual movement towards postmodernism, post-structuralism, constructivism, the cultural turn, &c, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the late-1960s. The central idea that anchored the whole intellectual movement was anti-reductionism. This was the direct implication of the emerging commitment to Boasian antiracism: Since biological reductionism led one down the path to racialism, and materialist reductionism left subjects at the mercy of larger structural forces, reductionism was to be abandoned wholesale. Everything was to be regarded as socially constructed.

socially constructed.png
Boasian antiracism in the thick sense became hegemonic in the early-1990s. Source: Google Ngram.

Neoracialism, what’s called the alt-right, has a label for this movement. They call it Cultural Marxism. That’s mistaken. If anything, the cultural turn is as hostile to Marxian structuralism as it is to biological reductionism. The reigning ideology of Western elites is not Marxism, cultural or otherwise, but Boasian antiracism.


Thanks for the history nerd-out, Policy Tensor, I can hear you think, but what the hell does it have to do with 2020? The answer is plenty.

Given the role that prestige schools play in elite American culture, once it gained hegemony in the Ivory Tower, Boasian antiracism spread out across elite society. This was no mere consensus on inclusion of minorities of all sorts—the United Colors of Benetton. Boasian antiracism came to acquire a definite bite. The contours of the new disciplinary force in American culture became evident in the controversy surrounding the publication of Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve in 1994. As I’ve explained before:

Although most of the book examined intelligence test scores exclusively for non-Hispanic White Americans and explored the implications of relentless cognitive sorting on the social order, critics jumped on the single chapter that replicated known results on racial differences in IQ [as we should expect given that IQ measures health status]. Responding to the hullabaloo the American Psychological Association came out with a factbook on intelligence that was largely consistent with the main empirical claims of the book. Herrnstein passed away around the time when the book came out. But, ever since then, Murray has been hounded by protestors every time he makes a public appearance. At Middlebury College last year, a mob attacked Murray and his interviewer, Professor Allison Stanger, who suffered a concussion after someone grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

Boasian antiracism is more than potty training, more than the Overton Window, more than a politico-ethical position of race relations, more than a certain stance in the politics of difference. It became at the same time a virtue signaling or status signaling device. Some time in the late-1980s or early-1990s, America’s wannabe elites started competing with each other on who is more Boasian antiracist than the other.

That is not to say that elites are the villains of this story. The rise of Boasian antiracism in the thick sense is the result of a genuine intellectual revolution at the hands of well-meaning people. But it did come at a price.

The most obvious price has been the rise of liberal intolerance on college campuses and more widely in elite American society. Kids are getting banned from the Barnard campus for asking innocent questions about global polarization, twitter mobs are destroying the lives of the less than careful, and actual student mobs are beating up people in defense of Boasian antiracism.

But beyond the rise of liberal intolerance, there is an even more insidious price being paid for the rigidities of Boasian antiracism: It has exacerbated the breakdown of elite-mass relations. Recall that elite-mass relations have been in secular decline since the 1970s, and fell precipitously in the early-1990s. There is good reason to believe that secular stagnation and the attendant vanishing of broad-based growth since the 1970s has played an important role in the breakdown. But the smug cultural superiority of the elite discourse in the grip of Boasian racism also played its part. For what is perceived as the obvious, the civilized way of thinking and talking in elite culture has its obverse: the blue-collar way of of thinking and talking and making meaning, is by implication barbaric. The contempt is not lost on anyone.

As David Brooks has “Flyover Man” say:

We can’t have productive conversations if every time I open my mouth you call me a bigot. You may not realize this, but you have Trump supporters around you all the time. It’s just that we’ve learned to keep our mouths shut in your presence. The crushing climate of blue cultural privilege is too strangulating. [Emphasis mine.]

How do we keep the key insights of Boasian antiracism and escape the grip of Boasian antiracism in the thick sense — rightly perceived as the language of class oppression — is the central challenge facing American elites. Unless we honestly grapple with this challenge, there’s little hope for restoring elite-mass relations. And without a restoration of elite-mass relations, there is no way out of the present impasse. If the Democrats want to win convincingly in 2020, gut the GOP, and stabilize a new party system anchored on the Democratic Party, they need to start paying attention to their own blind spots.

 

 

14 thoughts on “What in the Name of the Lord is Boasian Antiracism?

  1. Very helpful analysis. You might be interested in two books and a paper which are congruent with what you say here and in other posts.

    The books are “The Road to Somewhere” by David Goodhart and “The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity” by Ben Cobley.

    The paper is “Brahmin Left v Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict” by Thomas Piketty where he documents how centre-left politics has become increasingly dominated by the educated elite in US, UK and France, alienating many working class voters.

    1. My pleasure. Serious intellectual effort should be supported and encouraged. (Sorry for the half-arsed comment on your Industrial Revolution post: I have attempted to post an apology clarification which seems to be stuck in moderation or something.)

  2. Your Boasian Anti-racism argument is very interesting. I have to admit that I was / am mostly unfamiliar with it.

    What do you mean by “the cultural turn….” ? Are you referring to the replacement of High Racialism by Boasian Anti-racism within the Elite culture or emerging replacement of Mass culture by Elite culture? Or perhaps both? You write that this cultural turn….” is as hostile to Marxian structuralism as it is to biological reductionism. The reigning ideology of Western elites is not Marxism, cultural or otherwise, but Boasian antiracism.” And that therefore Cultural Marxism cannot be the dominate hegemony of the Elites. But I thought that the whole point of moving to “Cultural” Marxism (as opposed to “Economic” Marxism) was to do away with the”disappointing ” and never fulfilled “structure” of the “Vulgar” Economic Marxism. Cultural Marxism was a way to achieve Marxism, but attacking the broader (Christian) culture first, and then the economic parts would follow naturally.

    The cultural aspect of Marxism has been there from the beginning. What did Marx (probably Lenin actually) call religion? The opiate of the people. Something that gives the poor and working class succor and hope that keeps them from marching bravely into the coming glorious Socialist Paradise. That’s why the communists in Russia attacked the Russian Orthodox Church directly. Killing Priests and burning Churches. And turning some Churches into “museums of Atheism”. The problem with the Cultural Marxists in our country is that they could not directly attack the Churches with out first de-legitimizing them. It seems to me that Boasian Anti-racism could just as well be a tool of the Cultural Marxists as it could be the dominate hegemony itself.

    1. I’m talking about the hegemonic ideology of the West in the twentieth century. I told you the story of high racialism and the rise of Boasian antiracism. This is not a story of Marxism. It is the story of grappling with the trauma of the mid-century passage.

      1. Yeah, I got that. And you make a very informed, cogent argument. I am just not quite convinced that the whole Elite / Mass culture dis-function can be placed at the feet of Boasian Antiracism and the reaction thereto. However I went back and reread your original article (printed out, on paper. It is always better to read a physical copy of something in my opinion), and came across the part where you mention that the proliferation of the LGBYTQI etc….etc….. acronyms are basically an offshoot of Boasian Antiracism. And now I can see how that can all fit together.

        However, still I do not think that this cultural dis-function (sound better than a “war”, right?) has less to do with Race and Antiracism as many people would like to think.
        I may be wrong, but I don’t think that the “Elites” are as quite sincere in their Boasian Antiracism as they are portrayed. I think it more likely that they have have found a useful tool to use bludgeon their way into cultural hegemony (as first used in the Anthropology Departments of Elite Universities and mixed in with a little Cultural Marxism later). That they have done so, you have at least tacitly admitted to in these two articles that you have written. To me the only thing that is really arguable is what is the true motivations for doing so.

        Anyway, great writing here, and fascinating research and articles. I will make sure to keep checking back to what else you have written.

        1. Gee, thanks. On the question of elites’ ulterior motives. There may be some strategic reasoning going on. But, for the most part, these beliefs are genuinely held. I come across it in reading and conversation all the time — people making arguments that they think sound bulletproof but only because they expect all concerned to be on the same page, ie convinced Boasians. If you make any argument that challenges the implicit premises of Boasian antiracism, the most common reaction is blank dismissal — obviously, this fellow hasn’t gotten the memo and that sort of thing. At Columbia, where I am based, it’s like the air you breathe. Virtually everyone is on the same page. I’m risking my career talking about this. It helps that my skin is brown. I imagine it would be much harder to call out the self-congratulation if I were White.

  3. Anusar,
    I may be missing the mark widely in my reading of you, but is your position that the “masses” never really “got the memo” on what you term Boasian anti-racism (or that they did, and rejected it)? I.e. most people in America still basically (if secretly) think about race along High Racialist lines – that different races have different traits and capabilities, and that’s that? Historians like Matt Lassiter (in his book The Silent Majority) have argued that the anti-racialist idea actually played a large role in the GOPs Southern Strategy. Conservative, suburbanized, and blue-collar white Americans began articulating a political view point which was broadly anti-black – but on the basis of “colorblind” ideas about culture and fairness. They did this while endlessly asserting that, since they did not believe in the biological/High Racialist paradigm, their positions couldn’t fairly be called racist. To me, it looks like the conservative-leaning masses playing the anti-racists at their own game.

    1. Very interesting. Thanks for the tip-off. Haven’t read Lassiter yet. But I quite like the idea. There must be some way of making sense of what the hell the elites are up to. It has to understood in a specific way, rationalized in a particular way. I would not be surprised to find myself nodding along. Particularly interested to see how such stories vary by economic and cultural regions.

      I picked up the term Boasian antiracism from Proctor (2003), “Three Roots of Recency” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/346029). There the context was how Boasian antiracism had structured the debate in paleoanthropology. Brilliant paper. It led to my tentative incursion into the intellectual history of paleoanthropology (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329660028_Paleoanthropology_in_the_Neanderthal_Question_1987-1998). But the story Proctor tells of Boasian antiracism is wrong. As I discovered, the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race is a false dawn. Boasian antiracism was marginal until the anti-systemic turn, and in no way hegemonic until the 1990s, if not even later. So that was my discovery of the Recency of Boasian antiracism itself. Initially, I was interested in neoracialism; particularly on the question of population variation in IQ scores. What I discovered was that IQ is just a measure of health status; that population differences in IQ track other measures of health status. (https://policytensor.com/2018/09/27/cognitive-test-scores-measure-net-nutritional-status/) Later still, I waded into peak high racialism at midcentury (https://policytensor.com/2019/04/11/climate-and-world-order-revisited/). But it was not until I attended the annual shoulder-rub of the physical anthropologists that I discovered the lived reality of the Anthropology Wars at the losing end. (https://policytensor.com/2019/02/17/notes-on-the-anthropology-wars-evidence-from-prestige-school-phd-placements/)

      Through all these investigations what began to come into view was the hegemonic ideology of the West. So I’ve been engaged in a bit of archaeology of the recent past. Part of the reason why it took so long to uncover the basic storyline is the thickness of the discourse of Boasian antiracism itself. I can feel the strength of the discourse is my own thinking and writing.

      I wouldn’t say everyday folk are high racialist. I don’t think they ever were. Even at its peak, high racialism was an elite discourse. It surely enabled vulgar racism. But it was very much a business of the sharpest knives in the drawer. The epicenter was Harvard Anthropology, and Columbia Anthropology was the home of the resistance. In general, Anthropology is absolutely at the front and center of this intellectual history. The question is how these elite discourses shaped elite-mass relations in American culture through the modern era. I have tried to take a stab at that for the present impasse.

  4. Let’s imagine elites read this, en masse, and are all persuaded by it, but wish to remain anti-racists because they still hold that racism simpliciter is a first-order moral mistake. Imagine the nation’s elites then asked you: “How, Policy Tensor, can we become non-Boasian anti-racists, such that our expressions of antiracist sentiment no longer offend our fellow non-elite white Americans? How would the antiracist policies we support have to change to be sufficiently non-Boasian such that they would no longer generate offense among non-elite white Americans?” What would your response be?

    1. I don’t think we should jettison the Boasian legacy. The question in not one of tempering our commitments. The problem is not antiracism per se but antiracism as a language of class oppression. What sounds offensive and casually racist to our ears is simply the language of the toiling masses. They are not cheering his racism because they are racist, although some surely are. They are cheering his racism because they perceive antiracism as an oppressive elite discourse that, explicitly or implicitly, condemns them as bigots.

      How do we thread this needle? This is a very hard problem because language itself is moralized. We must figure a way to talk about Trump country and Trump supporters, and the working class more generally, without the overbearing cultural superiority that is so marked today.

      I don’t have a clue how this may be accomplished. But I have spelled out the nature of the cultural impasse. We must put out wits to solving this problem. And we must do that soon. I hope at least that the progressive political campaigns are listening.

      Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

      1. Thanks for the reply. It leaves me somewhat puzzled about the point of the original post (which, again, I found interesting and informative). It seems like you’re now saying the problem isn’t Boasian anti-racism, but people being overconfident, snobbish, and lacking empathy for another group they perceive as their political enemies and cultural others. If the problem is the manner in which they express their Boasian anti-racism and their lack of interpretive charity for those who haven’t accepted the good word of their gospel, I’m not sure what real work Boasian anti-racism is doing in your theory. The account you’ve offered in this comment suggests the problem is a very general ‘human all too human’ kind of problem about communication and empathy across cultural and ideological divisions, and Boasian anti-racism as a specific ideological edifice isn’t really doing much of the work here.

        1. The diagnosis of an impasse may not necessarily offer a solution. The point of the original post is to explain the impasse of elite-mass relations. I think the history of Boasian antiracism as an elite discourse reveals why we are here — that’s the work it’s doing. I don’t have a satisfactory solution to the problem other than to suggest that tempering the smug cultural superiority of Boasian antiracism in the thick sense is essential.

  5. Have you read any of Adolph Reed’s essays? My first impression is that what you’re calling Boasian antiracism should be broken down into distinct phases—identity reductionists like Derrick Bell and Kimberle Crenshaw show up in the ’70s and ’80s with the rise of neoliberalism. But I will ponder your argument.

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