Conversation with Dr. Mark A. Brandon about his book The Perils of Race-Thinking, A Portrait of Aleš Hrdlička

July 24, 2023

As a cross-disciplinary historian, you have extensively written about race and human equality. What made you choose this field of research in history and anthropology? What made you explore the history of race?

I think the concept of civic equality, guaranteed constitutionally by the state for all its citizens, is perhaps the greatest ideal that liberal and enlightened civilization has produced. I believe race-thinking was (and is) an attack on that liberal ideal. The race-thinkers brashly claimed that modern science validated their world view as a fact of “nature,” which made traditional liberal ideals seem irrelevant and outdated. Anthropologists played a big role in giving scientific authority to race beliefs (although I don’t mean to criticize all anthropologists because some also helped to debunk race beliefs). I think this bullying rhetoric of scientific authority was fallacious because when one examines racial claims critically, one finds that they were stunningly imprecise and speculative. Nobody could clearly say what race was, how many races there were, or how to tell them apart - not even Aleš Hrdlička, who was a world-renowned anthropologist. I think my study of Hrdlička’s race-thinking offers one specific example illustrating this broader current in modern thought.

What drew you to Aleš Hrdlička? How did you first start engaging with his life and career?

My first specialty as a historian was the religious beliefs of the sixteenth-century Czech nobility. At some point I scribbled Hrdlička’s name on some of my lecture notes as a subject to explore for fun. Eventually I realized that Hrdlička’s life and ideas brought together many things I was interested in: American history, Czech History, European History, World History, eugenics, and race. It turns out that all those years of struggling with sixteenth-century Czech-language manuscripts made reading modern Czech easy for me.

I soon realized that Hrdlička’s mindset told a bigger story about modern history. His life and work are a commentary on immigration, imperialism, two world wars, nationalism, and Communism, to mention a few themes. Of course, when it comes to understanding the historical meaning of race, who better to consult than a super-star physical anthropologist who spent his life measuring people and looking for racial characteristics?

You state in your book that as America’s top physical anthropologist, the public looked to Ales Hrdlička as an authority on racial issues. Can you tell us something about the questions asked about race at that time in history?

Racial ambiguity is a major theme of my book, and I think it was a bigger issue than most people realize today. Everyone knew there was “racial mixing.” If mixing existed, then there must also be mixed individuals. In practice, this suggested that someone might look White but still have some Black or Brown “blood” in them. (Of course, as Marcus Garvey often pointed out, one could also look Black and have some White blood, but people usually did not talk about this due to the racism of the time) Any lack of clarity was a big problem for a culture and a legal system that needed to file individuals definitively into racial categories. So, all kinds of people, from government officials to private citizens, wrote to Hrdlička wanting to know the secret scientific formula for sorting ambiguous-looking individuals into accepted racial categories. I even found several letters where people asked him if there was a blood test for determining race.

I want to give credit to anthropologist Jonathan Marks, whose works I admire. He once used the term “racial diagnosis” to describe what anthropologists like Hrdlička were doing when they tried to divine a person’s race. I think it would be great to do a research project exploring this problem more broadly by comparing the papers of important anthropologists from several different countries. I am guessing they all got similar letters from the public and that some of them remain in the archives. It is fascinating to see what people expected from science, and how science struggled, unsuccessfully I think, to satisfy their need for racial clarity.  

What was your method of research? How long did it take to write the book? Were there any areas that were hard to find sources about? Can you tell us some details and interesting finds about your work with the Smithsonian archive?

Two main approaches guided my research. I knew that the Hrdlička Papers contained a large amount of Czech-language documents that no one had ever studied, so I wanted to focus on those. Second, I wanted to find out how Hrdlička understood race. I gradually became convinced that his comprehension of race was largely determined by his own sense of Czechness. So, I used his Czech identity as the code for explaining what the concept of race meant to him.

There were a lot of surprises in the archive. There were many days I went home smiling because I knew I had seen something no one else ever had. I think the biggest surprise was finding out that Hrdlička was such a huge fan of Stalin’s Soviet Union, yet he was not a Communist and not very interested in politics. I never expected this, and I had to think a long time about what it meant. I argue that for him, the Soviet Union was all about race.

Why do you think Hrdlička was so fiercely devout to his Czech heritage? You also have American and Czech roots. How do you define your identity? How did your personal experience affect the book?

This is a deep question. He was a US citizen and lived in the US since the age of 13, so why did he feel so connected to a faraway Czech national agenda? I don’t think all Czech immigrants felt this way. Since he was born in Bohemia and was a native Czech speaker, he might have just felt a nostalgic pull toward his native land. However, I believe that in the modern era many immigrants began to imagine themselves as belonging to a mystical diaspora united by what they called “blood,” which signified some vaguely biological essence. I think this is important for understanding modern concepts of racial identity more generally.

And this relates to your next questions. Yes, I have Czech roots – my grandparents and all my old uncles and aunts spoke Czech. But they did not teach it to their children or to their grandchildren (me). When I came to the Czech Republic, I realized there was nothing Czech at all in my “blood.” There are plenty of immigrants in the Czech Republic, who look “racially” less Czech than me, but who grew up in the culture and speak perfect Czech. They will always be more Czech than I could ever be, no matter what we look like. My ancestors were Czech, but I don’t have any magical Czech “blood” running in my veins, nor do I believe in such things.

As to my own “identity”: A long time ago I stopped believing that I have, want, or need some sort of innate “identity” (like racial or national), aside from the peculiarities of my own individuality. Growing up in the United States gave me a very American identity, but that has faded due to so many years of living in the Czech Republic. I have never raised kids, bought a home, or had a serious full-time job in the US, so I know very little about these practical things that make a person American. My “identity” is not Czech either, but I am far more Czech now than I was 25 years ago! I know more about the practical details of adult life in the Czech Republic than in the United States. 

The Perils of Race-ThinkingThe book is part of CEU Press’ History of Medicine series and The Perils of Race-Thinking makes a highly anticipated addition. What do you think about remarkable historiographic transformation that the history of medicine is currently undergoing? Do you see any trends?

I think the role that medicine played in Hrdlička’s career is very interesting. In his time, anthropology was an entirely new discipline. No one “majored” in anthropology back then. Hrdlička had to make a special trip to France to get any formal training in the subject. Although he never even went to a university (very few people did), he earned two medical degrees. Medicine gave him the platform he needed to get involved with anthropological research. Both he, and his Czech friend and fellow anthropologist Jindřich Matiegka, believed that no one should ever become an anthropologist without first earning a medical doctorate. They were both very strict about this. Some anthropologists from the next generation criticized Hrdlička and Matiegka for stubbornly insisting on the necessity of a medical education for a career in anthropology.

Hrdlička held two medical doctorates, but I suspect he felt a little insecure about the fact that he had no humanities education beyond primary school. I didn’t speculate much about this in the book because such things are too hard to confirm. In the book I only argue that he viewed human beings mostly from a physical and “biological” perspective and was not interested in less measurable things like culture. When it came to discussing big moral and philosophical problems, all he seems to have had in his mental toolkit was drawers of crania, huge lists of anthropometric measurements, and fairly simplistic “Darwinist-survival-of-the-fittest” theory. I think he was very smart and well-spoken, but I also think he was largely missing out on a couple thousand years of highly nuanced religious and philosophical discussion about humanity’s biggest moral problems.

What have you enjoyed reading recently in the field of 20th century history? What are your future research plans?

When I have some spare time, I like to read about modern world history. One of my favorite historians is Frank Dikötter, who has penned wonderful books about modern Chinese history. But I feel very grateful to any scholars who can make “non-western” history available to us in English. I think a more global perspective might help refocus our discourse about the history of race in unpredictable ways.

I would like to do more research on Czech-American immigrants and their ideas about race in the first half of the twentieth century, and especially in the years around World War I.

Listen to our podcast episode with Mark A. Brandon where he talks extensively about his book along with the editor of Studies in the History of Medicine series, Marius Turda.

Read more about the book here and you can buy it here