Scientific racism criticized

Ross’s contemporary Franz Boas (1858-1942), was one of the founders of modern anthropology. Of German descent, this student of physics and geography settled in America in the late 1880s, after fieldwork in the continent’s arctic regions. The referenced article reveals his increasing intolerance of, and reasoned opposition to, the way the notion of race was used in national socialist Germany and the writings of its propagandists.

In his brief article, published in the influential magazine The American Mercury, Boas takes issue with the so-called scientific racism. Until that time the term was gospel in academic circles, while its popular versions were widely, and often self-servingly, accepted. Boas refutes the  identification of physical traits with mental capacities and attitudes that forms the backbone of the concept.

The very circumstances of migration and interbreeding that led Ross, in his 1935 book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde, to speak of a “brown” race would, in Boas’s view, in actual fact be arguments against the term. If there were a such a thing as race, or a “fixed type”, it was merely a matter of physical traits being developed in a species’ isolation. But after obstacles to movement had been removed or overcome, and the prevalent condition of human life—intercultural contact—restored, these traits became part of the variegated human genetic pool again.

Given Boas’s opinion in this article, it is sadly ironic that The American Mercury, a monthly magazine of literature, criticism, political analysis, and cultural comment, became after a second change of ownership in the early 1950s virulently antisemitic and racist. It is unknown to what extent this was a result of the magazine’s erstwhile liberal co-founder and literary critic H.L. Mencken’s pro-Nazi leanings.1

Nico de Klerk

Franz Boas. Aryans and non-Aryans. The American Mercury: 1934 June 26; XXXII (1),;view=1up;seq=3.

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys

See also


1 Klaus Mann. Der Wendepunkt. Ein Lebensbericht. erw. Neuausgabe. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt; 2014 [2006]; 254.

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