Remembering a Jewish Crusader Against Racism
A gruff old professor when the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s opened, Franz Boas was nevertheless an intellectual trendsetter during that youth-oriented decade.
Boas was born in Westphalia in 1858 to parents who were assimilated Jews. Though disinterested in Judaism, he loathed antisemitism, whose intensification led him to leave Germany. His career included founding the first anthropology department at Columbia University.
Boas was a magnet, attracting brilliant students, including extraordinary women such as Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American folklorist.
The story of Boas’ group is told in Charles King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (2019).
In 1907, the US Congress created the Dillingham Commission, whose prejudiced premise was the inferiority of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Commission ignored the findings of Boas’ research that it had funded.
Boas’ famous “skulls study” compared the crania of Jewish and Italian immigrants with those of their offspring. Boas did anthropometric measurements to prove that head shape and size were not determined solely by heredity. The children of Jewish immigrants who grew up in an American environment were healthier with larger cranial capacity than their parents. Boas’ 1911 book The Mind of Primitive Man helped convince a younger generation that racial determinism was wrong.
Up through World War II, Boas’ pupils carried on his work, often with support of Jewish-endowed foundations, some of whom also tried to support African-American scholars.
Hitler’s rise horrified Boas. In 1931, he lectured in Germany, where he criticized the antisemitic, racist Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. The Nazis burned his books and rescinded his doctorate. While dying of a heart attack in 1942, Boas uttered a warning against racism.
The Boasian school of anthropology championed cultural relativism and racial equality. It contended that no culture was superior to another; that “Negroes” were not biologically inferior to “Caucasians”; and that IQ tests were biased against African-Americans. American Jews rallied around Boas, an early champion of the NAACP and a critic of Nazism, as an apostle of tolerance.
Ironically, by the 1960s, radicals began accusing Boasian anthropologists of insinuating old prejudices under the cover of the new culture concept. Boas would have bristled at such criticism.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).