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In 1909, anthropologist Franz Boas conducted a massive study entitled “Changes in Bodily form of Immigrants.” In this study, he demonstrated that Eastern and Southern European immigrants to the United States were not racially different from other Europeans because of what he called “the marvelous power of amalgamation.” Boas’s scientific study dealt a blow to scientific racism because he demonstrated the plasticity and instability of racial types.
To prove that the so-called races of Europe were not legitimate, Boas chose to emphasize the enormous gulf between the white and non-white races, which the press extensively covered. Boas’s scientific work and advocacy were viewed as anti-racist, even though he based much of it on assimilation and amalgamation.
The next year W.E.B. DuBois invited Franz Boas to give the final lecture at the conference where the N.A.A.C.P. was officially incorporated. Boas presented “The Real Race Problem” and argued that the real problem was the “difference in type.” To solve it, the Negro needed to amalgamate by “encouraging the gradual process of lightening up this large body of people by the influx of white blood.”
American Anthropology joined other progressive era reform efforts committed to assimilation like the Orphan Train and Indian Boarding School movements. They were each striving to be anti-racist but went off the rails contributing to the consolidation of whiteness and the perpetuation of racism.
Lee D. Baker is the Mrs. A. Hehmeyer Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He received his B.S. from Portland State University and his doctorate in anthropology from Temple University. He has been a resident fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Johns Hopkins’s Institute for Global Studies, The University of Ghana-Legon, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Humanities Center. His books include From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (1998), Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience (2003), and Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (2010).
Although he focuses on the history of anthropology, he has published numerous articles on a wide range of subjects from socio-linguistics to race and democracy. Baker also received the Richard K. Lublin Distinguished Teaching Award and the American Anthropological Association’s award for Distinguished Achievement in the Critical Study of North America. From 2008-2016, he served as Duke’s Dean of Academic Affairs.
Part of the Virtual W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture Series