Lee D. Baker

Race and the American Agenda, part II. Clarence Thomas' Reinvention of Anthropology.

Anthropology Newsletter. January 1996:18-19.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently re-invented the role anthropology, sociology, and social psychology played in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education in his concurring decision to Missouri v. Jenkins last June. In so doing, he bolstered conservative ideas about race and culture as well as formulated a powerful revision of the once-sacrosanct ideal of racial equality embedded in Brown. It is incumbent upon anthropologists to be aware of how the history of our discipline is being selectively appropriated in an effort to articulate conservative political agendas and erode the strides toward racial equality made during the Civil Rights Movement.

In June of 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote three decisions that crippled federal legislation to equalize opportunity for people of color in public education, congressional elections, and federal contract procurement. While narrow majorities prevailed in each case (5-4), the decisions came on the heels of the Republican take-over of the House and Senate, the House-Republican's "Contract with America," a national debate over the merits of Affirmative Action, and the meteoric sales of the Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Society.

In Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court ruled that a Missouri federal district court improperly ordered the state to pay for a program to desegregate Kansas City's public schools. Initially, the district court found that Kansas City's school board failed to successfully desegregate the school system, and it ruled that both the state and the school district "defaulted in their obligation to uphold the Constitution." Because of White and Black suburbanization, the district court was compelled to impose an interdistrict desegregation plan, essentially creating a magnate school district in an effort to reverse so-called "white flight." The Supreme Court ruled last June (18 years after the litigation was initiated and 41 years after Brown) that the district court had overstepped its remedial authority because of the "interdistrict" nature of the plan.

In a concurring decision, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas skillfully reinvented the history of anthropology to buttress his opinion. Thomas framed his seemingly persuasive opinion by stating "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior. . . The mere fact that a school is black does not mean that it is the product of a constitutional violation." He explained that "this approach not only relies upon questionable social science research rather than constitutional principal, but it also rests on an assumption of black inferiority." This is where Thomas was wrong.

The "questionable" social science Thomas referred to was a synthesis of Boas' ideas about the lack of racial inferiority and Howard sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's ideas of Negro's so-called cultural pathology. These ideas form a body of scholarship articulated by a group of scholars at Howard University during the mid 1930s. These scholars, known as the Howard circle, included Ralph Bunch, Rayford Logan, Abram L. Harris, and E. Franklin Frazier, and they held the belief that cultural assimilation was the most effective way to obtain racial equality.

Essentially, members of the Howard circle unraveled Boas' tightly-knit discourse that no culture nor race was superior nor inferior to any another. While they used Boasian ideas about the equality of the races, they jettisoned Boasian notions about cultural relativity. For the cultural side of the equation, they substituted the idea that rural Black folk culture was borne from a condition of slavery and was basically a pathological version of the larger "American" culture. Subsequently, the Howard circle scholars shaped the theory and research of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, a herculean study of U.S. race relations published in 1944.

During the rising tide of the cold-war, members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) such as Thurgood Marshal, Robert Carter, and Kenneth B. Clark were forced to develop a strategy to convinced the Justice Department to support and the U.S. Supreme Court to accept their arguments for school desegregation. For a variety of reasons, the LDF used the theory and research in An American Dilemma as "Exhibit A." The LDF thus made the case that segregation itself was un-American by couching its arguments for equality within a discourse that emphasized the assimilation of American culture and values. Additionally, they argued that segregation denied African Americans the opportunity to embrace true American values, which implied African Americans were poised to embrace un-American values if not educated in White schools.

While LDF's strategy to use Gunnar Myrdal's and E. Franklin Frazier's ideas about Negro's pathological culture was effective in the late 1940s , Justice Thomas exploited the problematic nature of this research to forcefully articulate the Court's pernicious color-blind thesis. By criticizing the work done by the Howard circle, some sixty years earlier, Thomas advanced conservative ideals about "race neutrality," while he effectively closed the Court's door on any further contribution by social scientists on racial issues.

The district court that ordered the desegregation plan for Kansas City's schools cited Brown for its rationale that a racial imbalance in the school system constituted a constitutional violation that harmed African American children. Justice Thomas found this citation inimical to the principles of the Constitution. While Thomas was quick to point out that "under this theory, segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve," he failed to explain that this theoretical perspective is over 60 years old and that there were various political reasons why the NAACP LDF chose to employ that particular type social science. Thomas simply explained: "to my way of thinking, that conclusion [in Brown] is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black inferiority."

By only using the term "black," Thomas skillfully blurred the line between race and culture. As well, he side stepped explaining how the rational in Brown was based on Boas' ideas of racial equality and Franklin's ideas of cultural pathology. Thomas simply collapsed the concepts of race and culture into an ostensibly common sense argument about "black inferiority." Thomas' entire argument, however, falls apart when you put it in historic context or simply ask "what do you mean by black?"

Finally, by disparaging half-century-old social science, Thomas essentially muzzled contemporary social theorists who attempt to contribute to the juridical discourse on race, even in the lower courts. He decreed with sweeping authority that "the lower courts should not be swayed by the easy answers of social science, nor should they accept the findings, and the assumptions, of sociology and psychology at the price of constitutional principle."

There is little doubt that we are in the throws of an "historic moment" where the meaning and structure of racial categories in the U.S. are in flux. Anthropologists can not afford to let its progressive spirit be twisted and thwarted by people articulating conservative racial projects. The most recent example, of course, is Dinesh D'Souza who, in The End of Racism, provides a tortured account of Boasian anthropology to substantiate his argument that multiculturalism has failed. Anthropologists must assume the collective role as "watch dogs" over our contributions to society. More importantly, anthropologist must reclaim their historic role as academics who help insure racial equality through research, theory, and activism.


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