Commentary Magazine

Race and Nationality as Factors in American Life, by Henry Pratt Fairchild

A Prisoner of Democracy
Race And Nationality As Factors In American Life.
by Henry Pratt Fairchild.
New York, The Ronald Press, 1947. 216 pp. $3.00.


This book is obviously meant to be taken seriously. It appears as a volume in the “Humanizing Science Series,” edited by a well-known scientist, and it has a distinguished author—fellow of the American Geographical Society and of the Association for the Advancement of Science, president of the American Eugenics Society and of the American Sociological Society, and for twenty-six years Professor of Sociology at New York University. Yet, I must confess, this work seems to me significant only insofar as it demonstrates that a living, sentient human being can keep new thoughts out of his head for thirty-five years.

There is a sort of old-fashioned air about this work, written in the manner of the years before the First World War, years when earnest men wondered whether the Greeks and Poles and Italians and Jews would ever assimilate to American life. Mr. Fairchild wrote books then too, books which are almost identical with the one before us. For this author values consistency; if experience will prove him wrong, why then he will refuse to look at experience.

Here is Mr. Fairchild’s thesis. Race and nationality both exist, but they are two different phenomena. Race is a purely biological division of mankind; nationality, a division based on culture. A nation is something else again, but strong nations are homogeneous in race and nationality, and are distinguished by uniformities of language, religion, and customs.

Obviously, the United States then confronts a problem, or rather, two problems, one of race and one of nationality. The latter, involving the Jews, is the simpler. The Jews as a nationality refuse to assimilate because, in the absence of a national homeland, assimilation means loss of group identity. The solution is a Jewish state in Palestine which would relieve American Jews of the care of perpetuation of their nationality and allow them to be digested by the dominant culture. Anti-Semitism would then disappear since it is provoked by the Jews who insist on remaining different and refuse to intermarry with the Gentiles.

The case of the Negroes (the racial problem) is, alas, more difficult. To deport them to Africa would be not nice. Amalgamation might be eugenically unwise. Education does not help much, and laws against discrimination only intensify antipathy. We (the Nordic Americans) should wish them well (only they should not boast about their achievements—and anyway most of the well-known colored people have a saving tincture of white blood).

A conscientious reviewer could, no doubt, subject this argument to sober analysis; on the evidence, however, there seems little hope of converting Mr. Fairchild. For the rest, it will probably be more profitable to point to some of the types of intellectual dishonesty perpetrated in this work, for not the least of victims is the author himself.

Witness the “this is not to say” tactic. Here the writer disarms his opponents by giving all the arguments against his own position, then blandly takes it anyway. For instance, a long discussion leads to the conclusion “that there does not exist as yet any conclusive scientific evidence as to the actual genetic mental equipment of the various racial subdivisions of mankind.” But then we go on to learn “it will nevertheless be interesting, and to some extent illuminating, to examine some of the results of the most objective instances of racial mental testing . . . taken at their face value they are significant.” Then come the tables, with the Negroes at the bottom, which “show at once a striking inferiority in intelligence of the colored recruits.”

Similarly Mr. Fairchild gives all the reasons why it is unlikely that there is a Jewish race, then concludes: “This is not to say, by any means, that there is not probably a heavy racial predominance—naturally Semitic—in the total body of Jewry today.”

Or, take the maneuver by elegant omission. Back in 1911 Franz Boas made hash of one of Mr. Fairchild’s favorite notions, the immutability of physical racial traits. Boas showed that the cephalic index, regarded by anthropologists as one of the most permanent of racial characteristics, changed among the children of immigrants within a single generation. Writing in 1913, Fairchild sidestepped these inconvenient facts with the hope that “they will be subjected to the most careful scrutiny by anthropologists qualified either to verify or correct them.” In 1947 he is still sidestepping, only now a slur, characteristically generous, accounts for the failure of anyone to produce the desired verification or correction: “Boas’ very eminence and his high standing as a scholar have created a certain reluctance among his colleagues to launch a really destructive attack upon his edifice.”

When these means fail, there is always the method of the apt cliché. “De gustibus non est disputandum. . . . Once this truth is fully grasped, the whole controversy over race relations takes on a new aspect, clearer, more intelligent, and purer.” Not infrequently does Mr. Fairchild call to his aid the dubious exception that proves the fictitious rule.

Nor should we overlook the ingenious analogy. How convincing to make a point by explaining that “the child of a couple of pure Swedish Nordics” raised as “an orphan from birth in the midst of a tribe of African Negroes” would have “fair hair and blue eyes” but “his whole concept of the cosmos would be those of his foster group.” Go prove the contrary! I would put into the same category the chain of reasoning by which Fairchild proves the existence of races out of anthropological “evidence” about the way primitive man moved out of the plateau of central Asia.

Finally there is the pose of lofty impartiality. Not for Mr. Fairchild, “mere undiscriminating goodwill.” He will criticize both the racist (less than one page) and the antiracist (at least twenty-five pages).

The whole is held together by confident assertions, confident because they rest upon an absolute lack of consequential thinking and upon a stolid refusal to regard the world of facts. Here is a logician who defines race in purely biological terms and who then shows that “the notion of race is almost as old as humanity” because all men have in-group feelings. Here is a scholar who has not changed his discussion of assimilation in thirty-five years, all the evidence from the experience of that generation to the contrary notwithstanding. But then was he not also the author, in 1926, of a book called The Melting Pot Mistake?

Fortunately, Mr. Fairchild cannot argue away the past by insisting it should not have been so. Nor is he likely to influence a future that is fast running away from the quality of mind he represents; we do seem to be getting laws against discrimination in employment and for more equal educational opportunities.

But one can afford to be a little sorry for him personally. A quarter of a century at New York University (what difficulties for a teacher when Jewish students stay away from class on their peculiar holidays)! So many years to have lived in New York City (where the Irish still persist in parading on St. Patrick’s Day and where one is constantly subjected to the “acute irritation” of hearing foreign languages spoken in the streets, to say nothing of “multitudinous varieties of tortured and mutilated English”)! No wonder a vein of bitterness runs through this book.

What a fate—to be a life-prisoner of democratic America with less and less hope of parole as the long years go by!



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