Racial Hybridity, Physical Anthropology, and Human Biology in the Colonial Laboratories of the United States

Racial Hybridity, Physical Anthropology, and Human Biology in the Colonial Laboratories of the United States

Current Anthropology
Volume 53, Number S5 (April 2012)
DOI: 10.1086/662330
pages S95-S107

Warwick Anderson, Research Professor of History
University of Sydney

In the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. physical anthropologists imagined Hawai‘i as a racial laboratory, a controllable site for the study of race mixing and the effects of migration on bodily form. Gradually a more dynamic and historical understanding of human populations came to substitute for older classificatory and typological approaches in the colonial laboratory, leading to the creation of the field of human biology and challenges to scientific racism. Elite U.S. institutions and philanthropic foundations competed for the authority to define Pacific bodies and mentalities during this period. The emergent scientific validation of liberal Hawaiian attitudes toward human difference and race amalgamation or formation exerted considerable influence on biological anthropology after World War II, but ultimately it would fail in Hawai‘i to resist the incoming tide of continental U.S. racial thought and practice.

In 1920, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the forceful president of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote to a young physical anthropologist on his staff telling him how to conduct research into pure Polynesians and mixed-race people in Hawai‘i. Osborn had recently returned to New York from the islands—the territory of the United States—having found their exotic beauty enthralling and their inhabitants amenable to racial study. Like many other visitors, Osborn took surfing lessons on Waikiki with Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer, whom he regarded as a “model chieftain type.” “Do not fail to make the acquaintance of Duke,” the keen eugenicist Osborn urged Louis R. Sullivan, “and secure his measurements, ascertaining if you can, without giving offence, whether he is full blooded.” In particular, Osborn wanted the diffident, frail anthropologist, a student of Franz Boas at Columbia University, to “obtain any data regarding swimming adaptations in the limbs and feet.” He hoped, too, that bathing and surfing in the refreshing climate would improve Sullivan’s consumptive tendencies. Additionally, Osborn demanded measurements of other types, including “fishermen,” “poi makers,” “tapa makers,” and “hula dancers.” He heard that the “Hawaiian and Chinese blend is an excellent one; in the schools, intelligent, upright, persistent.” Collecting “primitive” types was compelling because Osborn planned a Polynesian hall at the American Museum; the United States boasted a “historic connection” with Hawai‘i, and the evaluation of racially mixed peoples might offer insight into contemporary social problems on the mainland, including New York.

During the 1920s, physical anthropologists from the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard University treated Hawai‘i as a racial “laboratory,” a controlled site where they might assess an experiment in human biology (MacLeod and Rehbock 1994). They came to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu to study the origins of Polynesians and the process of contemporary race formation in the islands, presumably the result of environmental adaptation of newcomers and hybridization between different groups. In this sense, anthropologists such as Sullivan and his successor Harry L. Shapiro pursued a Boasian program in physical anthropology, elaborating on their mentor’s earlier work on race mixing and the modification of the bodies of immigrants, and producing dynamic and historical accounts of human difference (Boas 1910; Herskovits 1953; Kroeber 1942). Even though conservative eugenicists such as Osborn and his friend Charles B. Davenport initially had promoted research in the islands, the Pacific soon became a Boasian laboratory—to their consternation—a workshop for investigators skeptical of racial typologies and fixities. Most of these rising anthropologists arrived in Hawai‘i already discontented with the complicated and contradictory typological enterprise, and experiences there propelled their drift toward racial recusancy. The vast sea of islands, with Hawai‘i in the middle, proved an exemplary site where physical anthropology could be refashioned and a new human biology might emerge…

…Race Crossing in America

Louis Sullivan, Osborn’s young emissary, was not the first mainland expert to evaluate racial diversity and mixture in Hawai‘i. After studying the decline of the northern “Negro,” the punctilious statistician Frederick L. Hoffman traveled to the islands to investigate the effects of Pacific “miscegenation.” Not surprisingly, his analysis of vital statistics revealed the supposedly baleful results of “Hawaiian mongrelization,” thereby confirming his prejudices (Hoffman 1916, 1917, 1923). Alfred M. Tozzer, the Harvard anthropologist, was rather more sympathetic. From 1916, he visited his wife’s (haole) family on Oahu each summer and measured the bodies of Chinese-Hawaiian and white-Hawaiian neighbors. After struggling with the statistics of race crossing, Tozzer, a close friend of Boas, handed over his data on 508 subjects to Leslie C. Dunn, a progressive young geneticist. While lamenting the unreliable “pedigrees,” Dunn could find no signs of “degeneracy” among the mixed offspring—by which he meant no obvious physical disharmony or mental deficiency. He noted that the first generation of European-Polynesian crosses showed native pigmentation and lacked hybrid vigor, but supposedly Hawaiian corpulence disappeared and finer European features emerged. Dunn complained of the difficulties calculating white hybrids: whites seemed too heterogeneous to fit one type or even to sort neatly into conventional Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean divisions (Dunn 1923). After further analysis, Dunn (1928:2) decided that Hawaiian-Chinese crosses generally reverted toward their Asian ancestry in what he called “this great experiment in race mixture.”

Race mixture or miscegenation excited considerable scholarly interest and public indignation in the continental United States during the early twentieth century. According to the 1910 census, the number of self-identifying “mulattoes” in the U.S. population had risen to two million, more than 20% of African Americans. This development prompted concern among some white social theorists. In 1918, Madison Grant (1918) predicted the passing of the great white race: “mongrelization” across the globe was leading to dilution and degeneration. A few years later, Lothrop Stoddard (1921) echoed Grant’s predictions. Through the 1920s and 1930s, marriage between African Americans and European Americans remained illegal in more than 40 states but not in the insular territories (Hollinger 2003; Kennedy 2003; Moran 2001; Pascoe 1996; Sollors 2000; Spickard 1989; Williamson 1980). In 1924, Virginia promulgated the “one-drop” rule to define more rigidly the boundaries of white identity. The following year, Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander scandalized New York when he sued Alice Jones for passing as white and deceptively luring him into marriage. Black men accused of lustful behavior toward white women were still being lynched in the South. In 1935, the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois observed that fear of race mixing was “the crux of the so-called Negro problem in the United States” (DuBois 1980 [1935]:99). Nonetheless, in places such as Harlem, New York, a self-conscious and assertive “mulatto” culture emerged during this period (Huggins 1973; Watson 1995).

American physical anthropologists and scientists tried to elucidate the biological principles of this controversial social issue. Even in the 1890s, Franz Boas, a liberal Jewish-German émigré inspired by the environmentalism of his mentor Rudolf Virchow, was scouring American Indian reservations and boarding schools looking for “half bloods” to measure. He noticed that rather than blending their ancestry, mixed children manifested features favoring one or the other parent, but he thought this segregation of heredity scarcely constituted “degeneration,” however defined. Indeed, mixing seemed to have a “favorable effect upon the race” (Boas 1902, 1940 [1894]; Stocking 1982). Miscegenation also intrigued less sympathetic physical anthropologists. “I am seeking information concerning the offspring of mulattoes,” Charles B. Davenport wrote in 1906 to Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian Institution. “That is, I wish to learn if white skin color and black are produced as well as mulattoes. Are such pairs of mulattoes perfectly fertile and are their children vigorous?” The anatomist Hrdlička was stumped. He suspected three-quarters of the people of color in Washington, DC, were part white, but the “question of the mixed bloods of white and Negroes and of their progeny still awaits scientific investigation.” Over the following years, Hrdlička frequently urged the aging eugenicist to use the resources of the research station at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to look into this question. But not until the late 1920s did Davenport enlist Morris Steggerda to measure and assess sociologically mixed-race people—and then in Jamaica. By this time their condemnation of disharmonious race crossing would appear exceptionally vehement and absurd. The scientists worried that Jamaican “hybrids,” inheriting the short arms of whites and the long legs of blacks, had trouble stooping and picking things off the ground; browns became “muddled and wuzzle-headed” (Davenport and Steggerda 1929:469)…

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