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  • Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900–1954 by Zoe Burkholder
  • Samuel Byndom
Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900–1954. By Zoe Burkholder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xi plus 252 pp. $34.95).

Zoe Burkholder has taken an innovative direction delving into the topic of race and the contributions of social scientists during the twentieth century, specifically anthropologists. In her book, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900–1954, Burkholder argues that educators and anthropologists of the 1930s were at the forefront of one of the most “audacious antiracist initiatives ever undertaken in American History” to revise what they termed the “race” concept in public schools (5). Moreover, she asserts that the social construction of race in schools was not simply a reflection of society but the product of an active struggle waged by “social scientists, professional educators, and teachers with the power to influence how schools mark particular ideas about race as defining characteristics of an educated citizenry” (14). Burkholder focuses on two distinct overlapping historical processes: the anthropological movement to reform race in schools during WWII and the social construction of race culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

The author implements an interpretive methodology using a variety of sources to substantiate her claim including journals, manuscript collections, periodicals, pamphlets, and an array of secondary sources. Burkholder provides a general and mostly convincing historiography regarding the construction of race throughout the five chapters of her book. The first chapter discusses the “race-as-nation” construct (16). Her next two chapters examine the ideology and practices of Franz Boas and his former students Margret Mead and Ruth Benedict, providing a balanced analysis of both women’s involvement in reforming conceptions of race in public education. Burkholder chronicles Benedict’s ideology as she eventually embraces the notion of a colorblind ideal (83). The author pays close attention to detailing the ideological differences between Boas, Benedict, and Mead, particularly Mead’s approach to reforming the conceptualization of race. The author further highlights Mead’s crafting of an alternative anti-prejudice education model. Burkholder states, “while Mead valued and promoted scientifically accurate understandings of human difference, she was more interested in changing attitudes that she believed were formed through personal experiences” (87). These sections are informative; however, placing the anthropological scholars’ intellectual developments within the broader context of racial discourse throughout the twentieth century would offer a more complex and comprehensive historical narrative. Burkholder does produce an informative account of the progressive education [End Page 1123] reforms inspired by Rachel Davis DuBois and points out a few contradictory aspects of race reforming organizations by noting the discriminatory policies and practices imposed on non-Euro American participants (132). The fourth and fifth chapters outline the paradigm shifts in the understanding of race in American classrooms during periods of anticommunism and the initial stages of the Cold War. The author describes educators and teachers initially advocating “tolerance education” then realizing its limitations and exploring other solutions (117). This leads to the conclusion of Burkholder’s book where she surmises that the Brown decision failed to “meet the educational needs of disadvantaged minority students” through integration (175).

Burkholder’s work has merit in its ability to present a narrative history regarding anthropologists’ collaboration with K-12 administrators and teachers. She masterfully injects the experiences and sentiment of teachers and their reflections of students. For example, she writes, “Mr. Subarky reported that a fourth grader in one of his classes defined tolerance as ‘when you put up with certain people but you don’t like them around anyhow’” (62). These insights are significant to understanding the dynamic and challenging process of reforming the construction of race through public schools. Burkholder marshals evidence to draws strong correlations to the shift in race conceptualization induced through scholarly publications and collaborations between scholars, teachers, and national organizations. A major contribution of this work is the documentation of teacher’s differing experiences regarding race consciousness within the classroom as a reaction to political ideology and federal initiatives. These observations are illuminating; however, there are several aspects of the book that warrant further...


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pp. 1123-1125
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