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Lee D. Baker Interview

Lee D. Baker is an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. 

Professor Baker specializes in the history of U.S. anthropology and has published articles about Franz Boas. 

He is the author of From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954.

Lee D. Baker

LEE D. BAKER Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology Duke University July 19, 2000 

QUESTION: Why is Franz Boas a significant figure in the field of anthropology? 

LEE D. BAKER: [Franz Boas left two major legacies. The first is that] he de-linked race, language and culture, making arguments that people and cultures do not go from savage, barbarian, to civilized. We see them in terms of relative to each other. And the second is the notion of culture. When you, I, and many Americans think of the term culture, we often think of it in terms of being cultures, opposed to culture, which implies higher or lower. 

QUESTION: How did Boas' early experiments begin? 

LEE D. BAKER: In the late 1890s Franz Boas gets appointed to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. At this time he develops a long-term research strategy into the development of children's growth. He's comparing immigrant children to Native American children he measured a number of years before. And he wants to simply do original research [at the Worchester public schools] in terms of measuring children's growth. [H]e secures the permission of the school committee, gets all the approvals from the principals, et cetera. 

However, the publisher of the Worcester Daily Telegram is up in arms: "This German immigrant want[s] to go into our school" - he uses that term - "and measure our children!" And he launches a campaign in the newspaper that railed against Franz Boas. It's actually quite comical in terms of painting Boas as this lecherous immigrant that wants to touch the heads of our Worcester girls and tell them to unlace their ribbons in their hair and take off their shoes just to get their measurements. What is this German with dueling scars up to? 

So he gets the whole community involved in the campaign against allowing Franz Boas to measure the Worcester school kids. Next the Worcester school committee says, "Wait a minute, this is science. You're not letting us conduct our studies. This is our school district, after all. And the people of Worcester want this to happen." 

Austin P. Christie, the publisher of the Worcester Daily Telegram, says, "Wait a minute, let's see what the public wants to do." He says that people should write in to the newspaper and vote, "Should Professor Boas measure the school kids or should he not?" [T]he votes came in and it was overwhelmingly against Franz Boas and his efforts to measure the kids of Worcester. 

But what happens is, the kids from Worcester - being indiscriminate teens as they were - said they wanted to be measured. They somehow thought it was interesting to raise the ire of both the press and parents alike to be measured by this exotic man from a far-away land. So they in a sense rebelled, forcing their parents to sign the permission slips and allow them to be measured. So thanks to the indiscretion of Worcester teens, Franz Boas got his first and important study of children's growth. 

[But] what Franz Boas was really up to was trying to determine whether or not these children looked more American than their immigrant parents, and indeed he found that out. He demonstrated that the students that were born in the United States looked and grew more along the same lines as their counterparts in the United States as opposed to their counterparts in, say, Italy, the Ukraine, or Lithuania. 

QUESTION: What was Changes in Bodily Form, and why was it a significant study? 

LEE D. BAKER: The Worcester study was a prelude to a much more extensive study entitled Changes in Bodily Form which was sponsored by the Dillingham Commission. The scope of the study was just awesome. [Boas] measured thousands upon thousands of New York schoolchildren to demonstrate one thing: he stated that immigrants in the United States after one generation look nothing like their parents in terms of whatever people were measuring in terms of head size before. So, immigrant children, their measurements were indistinguishable with their American counterparts that had been here for years. 

QUESTION: What's the implication of this conclusion in terms of the culture versus biology debate? 

LEE D. BAKER: I think that this is a very, very significant case. Remember when [the eighteenth century French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck had said that [when] giraffes hold their neck higher and higher, they get higher necks? Well, Boas is almost making a Lamarckian argument that just by being in America, you look more American. 

In many respects Franz Boas was demonstrating the plasticity of human potential in terms of in the right environment: individuals can look very much different than in different environments. 

It's almost intuitive now, but in war-torn Yugoslavia, those children are growing up different than children in Hope Valley, North Carolina. 

QUESTION: Describe the scientific landscape when Changes in Bodily Form was published. 

LEE D. BAKER: The context of Changes in Bodily Form comes at [a period of tension] within the scientific field. On the one hand, you have the biological determinants, who believed that nothing could change individual from a state of savagery or inferiority. That the Italians coming onto our shores were imbeciles and they were just diluting the American stock and nothing could happen to change them. 

However, missionaries, social workers, many people involved in religious education believed that people could change and that with the right Christian environment and the right temperate soul, could change and become civilized, could become an important part of the American polity. 

So this was almost a debate, you know, can people change or can they not? Are they doomed to a savage inferiority? Or with the right environment, can people become useful citizens? This was the sort of language they used in the late nineteenth century. Obviously, missionaries believed people could be changed, there could be salvation, they could become Christian and become civilized all in one fell swoop. 

However, others - Frederick L. Hoffman is a good example - believed that, no, they're doomed to inferiority. And all the philanthropy and all the education in the world is wasting money and precious resources that should actually be committed to the privileged because they're the ones who are going to progress and advance anyway. 

This was the debate. And Boas came squarely down on the side that, no, people can change. This is not only on the customs and behaviors side, this is on the brains and body size. Boas was actually at a loss of words to really explain this, but he was demonstrating that the actual shape of people's bodies changed in the environment of the United States, which was actually quite profound. 

QUESTION: In refuting the idea of biological determinism, what was Boas ultimately trying to prove? 

LEE D. BAKER: In some respects Franz Boas had a master plan in terms [of] trying to unseat this notion that there [are] real hierarchies in terms of culture, races and language. What he's trying to demonstrate is that cultures are not better nor worse than any others. They're just equally complex and equally important on their own merit. So therefore, the Shoshone should be seen in the same way that the Quatiutl should be seen in the Northwest, should be seen in the same way the Iroquois is seen in New York. 

People are saying, "that's fine," when one Native American group is no different than any others. But the implication of that is suggesting that the Australian aboriginal be seen up against the Laplander, or the Scandinavian should be seen in the same light as the person from Papua New Guinea. Which is also, people might say, "okay, that's understandable. Each culture has its own merits, on its own terms." 

But what's the implication when they start to see the African American school child in Roanoke Rapids, Virginia alongside the white school girl in Roanoke Rapids, Virginia? What happens if you start to see the Jewish boy on the Upper East Side in New York next to the Irish boy in midtown Manhattan? Well, [there] were long-held beliefs that these types of cultures were different. [So,] even though Franz Boas was looking at different Native American groups, the implications for this had larger ramifications in terms of comparing one group with another group within the United States, within the urban environment, within the institutions of American society. 

QUESTION: But, to clarify, Franz Boas wasn't exactly an advocate of cultural relativism as we conceive it today, right? 

LEE D. BAKER: In recent years Franz Boas has been associated with the notion of cultural relativism, and people oftentimes think cultural relativism means there's no good, there's no bad, that there is just the way people do things. This is not entirely true on two fronts. One, Franz Boas was not technically a cultural relativist. His work against the Nazis in Europe demonstrates that. And second, his perspective on cultures was not necessarily advocating a notion of cultural relativism. 

What Franz Boas advocated was looking at cultures relative to each other, opposed to organizing them in a hierarchical fashion, from savage, to barbarian, to civilized. So this linkage of Franz Boas with modern-day notions of cultural relativism is somewhat erroneous. 

It's important to understand: [the Boasians] weren't going to say, oh, lynching someone is okay because that's the way they do it in the South. No. That wasn't the sort of cultural relativism. It wasn't moral relativism in that sense. It was, if you want, relative cultures, not cultural relativism. 

QUESTION: How did Boas' ideas on culture and race influence African American intellectuals at the time? 

LEE D. BAKER: At this time, organizations like the NAACP involved Franz Boas in their publications [and] symposiums - as well as [in] their efforts to organize and lobby Congress [on] behalf of this idea of equality. [They wanted] to demonstrate that America needs to live up to its creed, this notion of equality for all Americans. The pillars of democracy should stand for all. That was their argument. But they didn't have any scientific data to back that up. So they turned in many respect to Franz Boas. 

In 1905 Franz Boas wrote his first public piece on African American bodies, demonstrating that they're not inferior than any other bodies, in a special issue of Charities in 1905. Two weeks later after this first public piece, W. E. B. DuBois writes Boas saying, "Hmmm, we can use this sort of research in my studies in Atlanta." 

What happened after that was a long and fruitful relationship between Franz Boas, W. E. B. DuBois and many other scholars in the African community. Even though Franz Boas was not embraced heartily during this first decade of the twentieth century by other scientists, he was embraced heartily by African Americans and other reform-minded folks arguing for equality. And it was his research that provided the initial scientific underpinning for their claims for equality. 

QUESTION: How did Franz Boas' work influence the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954? 

LEE D. BAKER: During Brown v. Board of Education, one of the important briefs that was used was a social science statement on race. [The] important brief that convinced Earl Warren to bring a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court forward on the Brown decision was based on Franz Boas' earlier work. One could argue you found Changes in Bodily Form - in this notion that races are not necessarily static, and races cannot be seen as superior or inferior - in that 1954 statement. So in many respects it was Franz Boas' work on Changes in Bodily Form that enabled the social science statement in Brown to move forward. 

In a more tangible matter, it was actually Franz Boas' students - Otto Kleinberg in particular - that helped to write and draft that social science statement, taking what they learned in school as well as in his writings and moving forward. 

QUESTION: How did the book American Dilemma - which greatly impacted the Brown decision - borrow from Franz Boas? 

LEE D. BAKER: One of the most important documents in that Brown decision was Gunnar Myrdal's immense book American Dilemma. What's important in that book, American Dilemma, is that you see Franz Boas' work on race throughout. What they use is this idea that there is no difference between the races. This is where much of Franz Boas' work crystallized. 

QUESTION: But Myrdal only incorporated part of Boas' theory, right? 

LEE D. BAKER: What's also interesting is that Myrdal, as well as the NAACP legal defense fund, took only half of the Boasian equation. They only wanted to demonstrate that the races were no different. What they didn't want was this notion that one culture is just as good, just as important, just as rich, just as historical as any other. In many respects the NAACP was making an assimilationist argument and did not want to have the justices consider the rich and important folklore, how unique African Americans were in terms of rich cultural heritage because they were trying to say that segregation was un-American. 

So it's a complex, very interesting argument the NAACP was trying to make. What they only wanted was Boas on race. They threw away Boas on culture, if you will. [Boas'] big legacy would be his racial stuff. But not his cultural stuff. Because during this period, up until the 1960s at least, many people that were fighting for equality were also fighting for assimilation. That was a very complex and interesting argument to make.


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