The Real Race Problem – Part 2

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 question that confronts us is not alone the question of the mental aptitude of the full-blood Negro, but also the question of the ability, vigor, and adaptability of the mulatto. In the course of time, since the Negro has been imported into America, a very large amount of influx of white blood has taken place, which has had the result that in those parts of the country where the Negro does not form a very great majority, full-bloods are presumably quite rare. Owing to the peculiar manner of development of this mulatto population, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to trace the exact amount of white blood and of Negro blood in the mixed races; but even a cursory examination of the prevalent types of the colored population shows clearly that the mixture is very extended. Here the point has often been raised that the mulatto population is inferior to either pure race, or, to use the popular form of expression, that they inherit all the evil characteristics of both parental races, and none of their good qualities. It is obvious that in this exaggerated form the statement is untrue. As a matter of fact, this theory is generally used only so far as it may suit our purposes; and the statement that a mulatto of exceptional ability and strength of character owes his eminence to the white strain in his blood is seriously made without being felt as a contradiction to this theory. Serious attempts have been made to investigate the social and vital characteristics of the mulatto as compared to the Negro race and to the white race; but here again we must recognize with regret that a sound basis for safe conclusions has not been gained yet. It is very difficult to differentiate clearly between those characteristics of the mulatto that are due to the social conditions under which he lives, and those that are due to hereditary causes. In order to determine the actual conditions with any degree of accuracy, extensive investigations would have to be carried through with this specific object in view. It seems to my mind that the assumption which is generally made is very unlikely, for it ought to be possible to find, either in history or in biology, parallel cases demonstrating the evil effects of intermixture upon mixed types. It seems to my mind that the whole early history of our domesticated animals indicates that mixture has hardly ever had detrimental effect upon the development of varieties. Practically none of our domesticated animals are descendants of a single species. The probable history of our European cattle will illustrate what presumably happened. In all likelihood cattle were first domesticated in Asia and came to Europe in company with a number of tribes that migrated from the East westward. At this period large herds of wild cattle existed in Europe. The herds attracted the wild native bulls, which belonged to a distinct species of cattle, and a gradual mixture of the blood of the domesticated and of the wild cattle took place, which had the effect of modifying the type of the animal that was kept.


In the same way domesticated cattle would from time to time escape and join the wild herds; so that admixture occurred also in the wild species. This gradual modification of the type of both wild and domesticated animals may be observed even at the present time in Siberia and in Central Asia; and a zoological investigation of our domesticated animals has shown that practically in all cases this has been the development of the existing types. It is a peculiarity incident to domestication that intermixture of distinct types is facilitated. Among wild animals, mixture of different species is, on the whole, rare; and mixture of distinct varieties of the same species does not ordinarily occur, because each variety has its own local habitat. If we want to understand analogous conditions in mankind clearly, we must remember that man, in his bodily form and in his physiological functions, is strictly analogous to domesticated animals. Practically everywhere human culture has advanced so far that the anatomical type of man cannot be compared to that of wild animals, but must be considered as analogous to the type of domesticated animals. This condition has brought it about that intermixture of distinct types has always been easy. The types of man which were originally strictly localized have not remained so, but extended migrations have been the rule ever since very early times; in fact, as far back as our knowledge of prehistoric archaeology carries us. Therefore, we find mixtures between distinct types the world over. For our present consideration the mixed types that occur on the borderland of the Negro races seem particularly interesting. I mention among these the Western people of the Polynesian Islands, who are undoubtedly a mixture of negroid types and of another type related to the Malay, a highly gifted people, which, before European contact, had developed a peculiar and interesting culture of their own. More interesting than these are the inhabitants of the southern borderland of the Sahara.


In olden times this was the home of the darkest Negro races; but immediately north of them were found people of much lighter complexion, which, in descent, belong to the group of Mediterranean people. They belong to the same group which developed the ancient Egyptian civilization. For long periods these people have made inroads into the Negro territory south of the Sahara, and have established the empire of the Sudan, whose history we can trace about a thousand years back. In this manner a mixed population has developed in many of these regions which has proved exceedingly capable, which has produced a great many men of great power, and which has succeeded in assimilating a considerable amount of Arab culture. It is quite remarkable to see how, in some of the more remote parts of this country, where intermixture has been very slight, the pure Negro type dominates and has developed exactly the same type of culture which is found in other regions, where the North African type predominates. The development of culture, and the degree of assimilation of foreign elements, depend, in this whole area, not upon the purity of the race, but upon the stability of political conditions, which during long periods have been characterized by an alternation of peaceful development and of warlike conquest. The history of East Africa, with its extended migrations of people from north to south, is another case illustrating the infusion of foreign blood into the African race without in any way modifying the cultural conditions of the continent, except so far as the introduction of new inventions is concerned.


I think, therefore, that biological analogy as well as historical evidence do not favor the assumption of any material inferiority of the mulatto. The question, however, deserves a painstaking investigation. The simple facts that Negroes and Europeans live side by side in our country, that the European receives constant large additions from abroad, while the amount of Negro blood receives no additions from outside, must necessarily lead to the result that the relative number of pure Negroes will become less and less in our country. The gradual process of elimination of the full-blooded Negro may be retarded by legislation, but it cannot possibly be avoided. It seems to my mind that a very serious misunderstanding of the actual conditions of intermixture between Negro and white prevails in many parts of our country. The fear is often expressed that by intermixture between whites and Negroes the whole mass of the white population might be infused with a certain amount of Negro blood. This is not what has actually occurred, but what would result if unions between white women and Negro men were as frequent as unions between Negro men and white women. As a matter of fact, however, the former type of unions—that of the Negro male and of the white female— are exceedingly few in number as compared to the others. It therefore follows that our mulattoes are almost throughout the offspring of Negro mothers and white fathers. Now, we must remember that the total number of children born in the community depends upon the number of mothers, and that the number of children born of the Negro or mulatto women would be approximately the same, no matter whether the fathers are Negroes, mulattoes, or white men. It thus appears that in all cases where mixture between whites and Negroes occurs, as long as this mixture is predominantly a mixture of white fathers and colored mothers, the relative proportion of Negro blood in the following mixed generation becomes less, and that therefore a gradually increasing similarity of the two racial types may develop. I think we may say with safety that the intensity of racial feeling always depends upon two important causes. The one is the relative number of the two races which come into contact. Where one of the races is overwhelmingly in the majority, and the other race is represented by a few individuals only, intensity of race feeling is generally rather slight; while in all cases where both types are so numerous as to form large social divisions, characterized by habits of their own, and representing a strong economic influence, intense race feelings easily develop. These feelings are strongly emphasized by a second consideration: namely, the amount of difference of type. This is true, at least, in all countries inhabited by north European, particularly by Teutonic, nations. As long as the general emotional state of our society persists— and there is no reason to assume that our general attitude will change to any appreciable degree within a measurable time —it seems obvious that our race problems will become the less intense, the less the difference in type between the different groups of our people, and the less the isolation of certain social groups. From this point of view, it would seem that one aspect of the solution of the Negro problem lies entirely in the hands of the Negro himself. The less Negro society represents a party with its own aims and its own interest distinct from those of the members of the white race, the more satisfactory will be the relation between the races. On the other hand, it would seem that the inexorable conditions of our life will gradually make toward the disappearance of the most distinctive type of Negro, which will again tend to alleviate the acuteness of race feeling. It may seem like a look into a distant future; but an unbiased examination of conditions as they exist at the present time points to the ultimate result of a levelling of the deep distinctions between the two races and a more and more fruitful co-operation.


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


One thought on “The Real Race Problem – Part 2

  1. Emmanuel Joyner

    Interesting article one hundred years removed from present day realities. I think more important than skin color is the social/spiritual consciousness impacting present day USA. I do however agree that full integration of the Negro in American society would lessen the racial conflicts that seem to capture the headlines today. If that were the case we would have nothing remaining but the color and the total annihilation of the self. It appears to me that the numbers are stacked in favor of the eradication of the white race as the various populations return to the origins in Africa.


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