Biracialism in American Society: A Comparative View

Biracialism in American Society: A Comparative View

American Anthropologist
Volume 57, Issue 6 (December 1955)
pages 1253–1263
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1955.57.6.02a00150

Ruth Landes

Our culture exercises certain values forcefully through our interracial arrangements, principally Negro and white. Comparison with other white-governed societies receiving Negroes reveals the uniqueness in American developments, above all in the operations of Negro status. Studies of American Negro life have been done chiefly by disciplines other than anthropology; American anthropological method has not contributed new insights to the already rich literature. No scholar employs intercultural comparisons of modern Negro groups.

There is, regarding the American Negro, Powdermaker’s study of the biracial functioning of a Southern town, giving the values of both segments of the community (1939); and anthropologists have participated in distinguished single- and multidiscipline presentations of Negro personality, culture, and society, of historical and culture origins, of separate institutions like family, church, and press. All the accounts are mutually elaborating and reinforcing despite some differences of interpretation, as reflected, for example, in the disputed terminology of “caste” and “class.” There are, however, hidden commitments to cultural valuations and personal philosophies in the work of individual scholars, which Myrdal shows need enunciation (Myrdal 1944: 1036-64); cross-cultural surveys of Negro place in other white-ruled societies show how substantial for method and theory are the value cautions stressed by this foreign observer.The present article rests upon the whole literature, since no real anthropological differentiation is apparent, and statements are pointed cross-culturally by my studies of Negro life in other societies.

American culture and society have a Negro or interracial aspect. It has shaped the life of each American Negro by rigid, clear formulas of relationships with whites, especially in the south and southwest, specifying conditions of residence, employment, schooling and burial, of sex and marriage, of separate conduct and speech for the races. The Supreme Court’s decision ordering against segregation in public education reveals again how Negro life rests upon assumptions of the host society. They have been most completely defined as the traditional South saw them, including reciprocal injunctions upon whites which have not held so fast in other regions. Other regions of the country before World War I actually knew Negroes as little as Indians, except for “northern” centers like New York, Chicago, Detroit.

Southern blacks began the Great Migration north during the first war, attracted by industry, and were later joined by demobilized soldiers, all groups equally footloose. Adrift from the clearly patterned South, the blacks conducted themselves essentially as they had at home, unrelatedly perpetuating fragments of the race-ways to which they were habituated in association with whites; there was no solid guidance to new speech, conduct, and interracial concepts…

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