How did racial science fall out of fashion in America?
What led to the triumph of “antiracism” in the 1930s and 1940s?
The following excerpt comes from Philip A. Klinker and Rogers M. Smith’s book The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America:
“That shock led to an intellectual battle in 1938 that was less publicized but in some respects as significant as Joe Lewis’s second clash with Schmeling. That year the American Anthropological Association, the leading organization in a profession that had done so much to legitimate notions of natural racial hierarchies in the late nineteenth-century, considered a resolution denouncing racism. Anthropologists and scholars in the related disciplines of psychology and sociology had been debating race differences intensely through the 1920s and 1930s, but by the late thirties the conflict was one-sided. The resolution passed unanimously. It was a resounding triumph for the longstanding campaign of anthropologist Franz Boas, his student Ruth Benedict, his admirer Otto Kleinberg, and others to establish that apparent racial differences were fundamentally matters of environmental influence, not biology.
Despite tireless efforts by egalitarian-minded social scientists in the journal wars of the 1920s and 1930s, sadly the triumph cannot be traced (HW: emphasis added) to the discovery of decisive scientific evidence sustaining Boas’s view. Instead, as the resolution indicated, the results of volumes of research were inconclusive: significant differences between the races “have not been ascertained by science,” but neither had they been disproved. Instead, more and more social scientists had simply decided in face of continuing uncertainty to presume that the races, were essentially equal in genetic endowments rather than hierarchically arranged. Social scientists had done so in part because the notion that differences among the races were environmental suggested that social scientists might play a vital role in redesigning environmental conditions to promote human flourishing. They did so, also, because many more were now themselves of immigrant origins and inclined to oppose racially and ethnically based immigration restrictions. Some were impressed by the cultural accomplishments of blacks during the Harlem Renaissance. Some were moved by black suffering in America.
But American scholars adopted premises of racial equality most of all, the historian Carl Degler has concluded, as a result of “the impact Nazi practices had on American scholarly thinking about race and biology in human affairs.” Even a formerly ardent eugenicists and defender of Nazi racial science, Paul Popenoe, later said “the major factor” in the declining popularity of his views “was undoubtedly Hitlerism.” Degler contends this “impact can hardly be overestimated in explaining why during the 1930s and 1940s concepts and terms like ‘heredity’, ‘biological differences’, and ‘instinct’ dropped below the horizon in social science.”
So that is how it happened?
There was never any evidence discovered which decisively debunked racial science in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, it was the immigrant origins of social scientists, the political opposition of liberals to Hitler and the Nazis and the fact that social scientists could play a larger role in social engineering by going along with the idea of a purely environmental explanation of racial differences.