The Real Race Problem – Part 1

On the eve of the one-hundred and eighth anniversary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ newspaper The Crisis, we are presenting, in its entirety, a lecture from the distinguished anthropologist, mentor and head of the Anthropology Department at Columbia University for many years – Dr. Franz Boas on the subject of the “race” problem.

By FRANZ BOAS, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

[Professor Franz Boas, who writes the leading article this month, is a member of the Department of Anthropology in Columbia University. The editor of Science reports that the leading scientists of America regard this department of Columbia as the strongest in the country. This gives a peculiar weight to Dr. Boas’ words, which were first delivered at the Second National Negro Conference in May, 1910.]– W.E.B. Du Bois

The essential problem before us is founded on the presence of two entirely distinct human types in the same community, and relates to the best possible correlation of the activities of these two types. On the whole, the answer to this problem has been based on the assumption of the superiority of the one type and the inferiority of the other. The first question to be answered by scientific investigation is, in how far the Negro type may be considered the inferior, the white type as the superior.


The anthropologist recognizes that the Negro and the white represent the two most divergent types of mankind. The differences in color, form of hair, form of face, are known to all of us. Other differences, better known to anthropologists, are those in the proportions of the limbs and of the trunk of the body, and in the size of the brain. When we consider inferiority and superiority from a general biological point of view, it must be interpreted as meaning that one type is nearer to certain ancestral forms than another. In this sense, the anthropologist must say that in certain respects the Negro resembles the hypothetical ancestral forms of man more than does the European; while in other respects the European shows greater similarity to the supposed ancestral form. Among the Negro race it is particularly the form of the face that reminds us of the ancestral forms of man, while in regard to the proportions of the body, and particularly the length of the limbs, the Negro is more remote from ancestral forms than is the European. On the whole, the morphological characteristics of the two races show rather a specialized development in different directions than a higher development in the one race as compared with the other. Ordinarily, however, the question of inferiority and superiority is formulated in a different manner, based essentially on the capacity of mental achievement; and much stress is laid on two points—the lesser size of the brain of the Negro, and the supposed shortness of the period of development of the Negro child.


It is true that the average size of the Negro brain is slightly smaller than the average size of the brain of the white race; but it must be borne in mind that a wide range of brain-forms and brain-sizes occur among the white race, beginning with very small brains and extending to very large ones; that the same is true of the Negro race, and that the difference between the averages of the two races is exceedingly small as compared with the range of variability found in either race. Thus it happens that the brain-weights of the bulk of the Negro race and of the bulk of the white race have the same values, with the sole exception that low brain-weights are slightly more frequent among the Negroes, high brain-weights slightly more frequent among the whites.

Elaborate studies of brains of great men, criminals, and normal individuals have proved that the relation between mental ability and brain-weight is rather remote, and that we are not by any means justified in concluding that the larger brain is always the more efficient tool for mental achievement. There is presumably a slight increase of average ability corresponding to a considerable increase in average brain weight; but this increase is so slight that in a comparison of the mental ability of the Negro race and of the white race, the difference in size of the brain seems quite insignificant. The second point of which much has been made is the question of the difference in period of development between the two races. It has been claimed that the Negro child develops favorably, but that its development is arrested at an early date. Unfortunately, these statements are not based on careful examination of facts; and while I am unable to refute these views by bringing forward actual anthropometrical statistics bearing upon the subject, I am also not in a position to sustain them by any reliable evidence. The question is an important one, and should receive serious attention. But even if the observation had been made, its interpretation would not be an easy one without the most painstaking investigation of the social conditions with which the phenomenon is correlated. We know that in the white race the most favorably situated social groups show the most rapid growth in early childhood and an early completion of development; while the poor, who live under more unfavorable social conditions, show a slow and long continued development, which, however, in its entirety, does not equal the amount of physiological development attained by better-situated individuals of the same race. It appears, therefore, that the simple fact of an early completion of development does not by any means prove mental inferiority, because the better-situated element of our white population furnishes a disproportionately large number of capable and efficient individuals, as compared to the less favorably situated groups. The whole anatomical and physiological comparison of the Negro and of the white race may be summed up in the statement that certain differences between the two races are so fundamental that they seem to form two quite distinct groups of the human species, the characteristics of which, notwithstanding the great variability of each race, do not overlap; while, in regard to other characteristics, the differences are so slight that the difference between the two races is insignificant, as compared to the range of variability exhibited in each race by itself; and that there are hardly any anatomical or physiological traits developed in such manner that we are justified in calling one race anatomically or physiologically higher than the other. The existing differences are differences in kind, not in value. This implies that the biological evidence’ also does not sustain the view, which is so often proposed, that the mental power of the one race is higher than that of the other, although their mental qualities show, presumably, differences analogous to the existing anatomical and physiological differences.


The objection will be raised that the low stage of culture of the African race in many parts of America, as well as in Africa, shows clearly a lack of mental power, because otherwise the Negro race might have developed a civilization similar to that of Europe. In answer to this objection, we must remember that, on the whole, our conception of African conditions is based altogether too much upon the condition of the uneducated descendant of the American Negro slave. Anyone who is familiar with ethnological facts will recognize that the conditions under which the American slave population developed is apt to destroy what little culture may have existed. The complete break with the African past; the imposition of labor, in the results of which the slave had no direct interest; the difficulty of assimilating the elements of civilization by which they were surrounded, all tended equally to reduce to a minimum the amount of independent cultural achievement of the group. On the other hand, the general impression of African conditions is based altogether too much upon our knowledge of the American Negro. It is not sufficiently well known how highly advanced is the industrial and political organization of aboriginal Africa. Villages that have not been ravaged by Mohammedan or European slave hunters, and which have enjoyed a period of peace, are characterized by high industrial development.


Agriculture flourishes; men and women are engaged in pottery making, weaving, blacksmith work, and metal casting; trade between the different villages is well organized; and in many cases the political organization, owing to the force of character of great men, has led to the establishment of states which cover territories comparable in size only to large sections of our American continent. I think it is not saying too much if I state that among the primitive people of the world, the natives of Central Africa are by far the most advanced, and that the type of their civilization belongs to the same level of culture which was found a few thousand years ago all over the western part of the Old World, including Europe and Western Asia. If the Africans have not shared in the development which, after many vicissitudes, gradually extended from Egypt and Babylonia over the Mediterranean area, and from there later into Northern Europe, this is due to the fact that Africa occupied a much more remote position in relation to these’ countries, and that the current of civilization was carried with much greater difficulty through the virgin forests and deserts of Africa than along the shores of the Mediterranean and across the forests and meadow lands of Europe. Thus it may safely be said that there is no anthropological evidence showing inferiority of the Negro race as compared with the white race, although we may assume that differences in mental characteristics of the two races exist. (to be continued…)


Boas, Franz. “The Real Race Problem.” The Crisis: a record of the Darker Races Dec. 1910: 22-25; Photo: Courtesy of


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