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A Bend in the Color Line | The Nation

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A Bend in the Color Line

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Policy talk about a racialized "underclass" rests on social science research that often reproduces notions of racial difference, in an enormous tautology. The Bell Curve, with its layers of quantification regarding race, intelligence and academic achievement, evokes a history of racial difference in its implications

About the Author

Gerard Fergerson
Gerard Fergerson, a social historian of science and medicine, teaches history and public policy at the Robert F. Wagner...

for educational policy. Like many other neoconservative social science works that incorporate reductive ideas about cultural, environmental and biological factors (variously defined but all deemed unchangeable) to explain the social status of urban Americans, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's tract exemplified how discussions of race and difference are linked with policy preferences. And such linkages are encoded even as references to race are erased--the debate over welfare policy is a prime example. (And this is not to mention the important role the media play as legitimizers of rumor as social science.)

Lee Baker's From Savage to Negro explores how debates on race and culture have informed the positioning of anthropology as a social science discipline in the United States. He plumbs the period between 1896, when the Supreme Court sanctioned de jure segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, and 1954, when the Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, appeared tooverturn its 1896 decision with the declaration that segregation is unconstitutional. Baker is primarily interested in how anthropological formulations of racial and cultural difference influenced these decisions, as well as how the Court's actions in 1896 and 1954 were shaped by historically specific contexts.

Between 1896 and 1954, the rise of cultural anthropology in particular supplied legal theorists arguing Brown with an arsenal of theory and research about culture and race that challenged older ideas about racial difference. According to Baker, that fifty-eight-year period produced a "transition from an understanding of race embedded in evolutionist notions to a view grounded in concepts of racial equality and cultural relativity." Desegregation would become the objective for an interdisciplinary team of legal scholars and social scientists who embraced cultural-anthropological ideas that undermined belief in racial progress and hierarchy.

Along the way, Baker unmasks the theoretical underpinnings of race in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. By tying anthropological discourses about race and culture to specific policy contexts, he offers an assessment of how anthropology and other social sciences emerged as applied disciplines in public policy during the early twentieth century. Basically, anthropology schools legitimized ideas about racial difference and underscored the denial to blacks of rights that were prescribed in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments--of due process and equal protection under the law.

Baker delineates the social and political contexts in which an emergent, more professionalized school of American anthropology helped define US race relations and sanction segregation. A belief in the inferiority of blacks and other ethnic groups (many of whom were not yet "white," or were at least defined in ethnic formulations as "not black") pervaded public discourse on segregation. Public lynchings through the mid-twentieth century would also present blacks as evolutionary specimens not fit for inclusion in democratic processes.

As anthropologists developed evolutionary paradigms with detailed stages of civilization and racial progress for whites--stages that, many argued, blacks could never theoretically attain--state legislatures sanctioned segregation. Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who spoke often of "uncivilized savages" and whom Baker describes as a "decipherer of science for the nation," represented the intersection between older scientific traditions that contributed to the increasing disciplinary unity and professionalization of anthropology and newer evolutionary studies shaped by a social Darwinism that stressed how racial, social and political hierarchy expressed the processes of natural selection and the "survival of the fittest." Shaler, a geographer, would later become a dean of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, where he would teach future President Theodore Roosevelt. A champion of American imperialism during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt declared that "a perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane." Such ideas no doubt provided the United States with a scientific rationale for the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Samoa, the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii.

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