Jim Cullen, Review of Zoe Burkholder's "Color in the Classroom; How American Schools Taught Race" (Oxford, 2011)






Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

In the liberal imagination -- and in more than a little Civil Rights scholarship -- the story of race relations in the first half of the twentieth century is a long arc that bends toward justice. It is a progressive tale, one in which belief in the power of ideas to shape society gets battered, but ultimately affirmed, as evidenced by the most cherished dimensions of the welfare state, among them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many, the keystone of this arch is the Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board (1954), upon which rested hopes for future generations.

One might think, then, that a chronicle of racial education in this half-century would be one of ascent to this plateau. But for Zoe Burkholder, professor of education at Montclair State University, Brown signifies a lost opportunity, a fork in a road that led away from meaningfully grappling with the the complicated reality of structural racism. Instead, she says, we've inherited a post-multiculturalism regime which, for all its putative embrace of nuanced diversity, is little different than the the static, simplistic "cultural gifts" curricular approaches that characterized attempts to manage demographic pluralism at the turn of the last century.

Though the subtitle of this elegantly conceptualized and executed little book suggests her narrative runs from 1900 to 1954, her analysis really gets underway in earnest with the First World War, when Progressive intellectuals sought to contain the simmering hatreds unleashed by the conflict. In the prewar years, an enlightened approach to ethnographic pluralism accepted the widespread assumption that the term "race" was virtually synonymous with that of "nation," so that it was common to speak of "the Italian race," "the Scottish race," and so on. Insofar as intercultural education progrrams were implemented, they were almost entirely a white affair. Yet this was nevertheless a vanguard of sorts, given the intensity of anti-German fervor and the long history of American nativism.

The key intellectual innovation in this fight against prejudice was anthropology, particularly that of Columbia University professor Franz Boas. Armed with the certitude of scientific research, Boas promoted a vision of racial difference that was less segmented and more egalitarian, one that explained it more in cultural rather than biological terms. Boas called for spreading this message to a key constituency: the nation's schoolchildren.

If Boas was the Moses of this movement, however, it found its Joshua in Boas's student, Ruth Benedict. In pamphlets like The Races of Mankind (1943), Benedict and her collaborator Gene Weltfish promoted a dynamic analysis of race relations that focused on African, Asian and Caucasian peoples: race not as nation, but color. It was coupled with a relatively nuanced approach to culture that moved away from static celebrations of foodways and dress and situated racial difference in a dynamic context of integration and change. It's clear that this approach is the one Burkholder finds most compelling, and one that gained significant traction during the war year, when the avowedly racial hierarchies of Germany and Japan made tolerance education a high national priority.

It was a different Boas student, however -- Margaret Mead -- whose approach proved most durable. Though Mead's outlook was broadly consonant with that of her mentor as well as Benedict, she was more comfortable with a milder stance toward race education, one marked by less overt proselytizing. Such an approach was consonant with an emerging Cold War order, when any form of social engineering smacked of Communist subversion. But the cultural shifts of the late forties and early fifties were not all political. Burkholder emphasizes a larger intellectual paradigm shift away from anthropology toward psychology, where less emphasis was placed on a collective approach toward social problems than a more individualistic one. In such a climate, minimizing racial difference could seem like a form of egalitarianism, and an emphasis on social adjustment and good racial manners was the locus of any explicit initiatives that were undertaken. Burkholder emphasizes that such currents were decisive in the logic of the Brown decision, which steered away from longstanding economic and political forces, instead emphasizing the importance of access to opportunity. As she points out, this is not surprising, as Civil Rights leaders themselves pointed in this direction. But following the lead of scholars like Lani Guinier and Clayborne Carson, she believes this set the bar too low, leading to racial education curricula that substituted cultural awareness for more thoroughgoing social reform.

Burkholder's position has an undeniable clarity and logical consistency, but one wonders about its realism, given the hostility that even mild forms of racial education elicited, as she skillfully documents. (There is, indeed, a dense body of research packed into the less than 200 pages of this volume, richly illustrated with revealing illustrations.) One also wonders about her confidence that scientific affirmation about the biological inconsequence of racial difference will hold firm. True, its status as a social construct has long been scientific common sense. But scientific common sense is always provisional. By way of contrast, the notion that homosexuality isn't hard-wired is widely regarded as a source of ridicule among the enlightened middle classes. Truth can be slippery.

To read Color in the Classroom is to be reminded, even sobered, by how little has really changed in our confidence that children can be taught not to engage in invidious distinctions, in the techniques by which we've done so, and in the tensions, even contradictions, involved in embracing differences while asserting they don't matter. Makes you wonder if the scholarship of millennia has improved upon authority, insight, and value of the Golden Rule.


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