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Otto Klineberg: Anthropology Faculty

By the time Otto Klineberg took the stand in Delaware to testify against school segregation in one of the cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, he had been arguing the scientific basis of racial equality for 20 years.

In research conducted during the 1930s, Klineberg administered IQ tests to black and white children in Northern and Southern schools. He discovered that black children in poorly funded, Southern schools had the lowest scores of all the groups; however, when they moved North and attended superior, integrated schools, their scores came up to par with their Northern-born cohort, indicating that the quality of the schools—not the ability of the students—was responsible for the difference.

Although he earned doctorates in both medicine and psychology, Klineberg was drawn to anthropology and did research at Columbia University with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. From 1934 to 1943, while a full-time professor at Columbia, Klineberg taught anthropology, mythology, and religion at Sarah Lawrence. Joan Ehrman Avenali ’40, a student in his 1938 “Comparative Religion and Mythology” class, remembers his great sense of humor and says, “He opened doors to a whole new culture we were not aware of in those days. He broadened our perspective.”

Klineberg’s classes and open talks fit in well with the campus-wide discussion of race and race politics in the 1930s. The American Student Union, a group that campaigned for “universal educational opportunity,” actively condemned discrimination, while discussions of racial prejudice, lynchings, the plight of Arkansas sharecroppers, and the highly controversial Scottsboro Case in Alabama animated lectures, roundtables, and the student newspaper throughout the decade.

Progressive activism on campus ran counter to the prevailing sentiment among whites that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior. According to the New York Times, in 1931 Klineberg denounced established ideas about racial superiority and interracial marriage as unscientific, and the New York Herald-Tribune responded with an editorial stating that “his assertions ran counter to most ethnologists, ‘any intelligent farmer’s knowledge of barnyard biology,’ and ‘American experience.’”

Klineberg authored numerous books, among them the unprecedented Race Differences and Negro Intelligence and Selective Migration, both published in 1935. In 1951, Klineberg provided key evidence in the Delaware case Belton v. Gebhart, one of several cases consolidated to form the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation in 1954. The Delaware case was the only one that was successful at the state level. Klineberg not only conducted the research upon which the integrationists based much of their case, but he testified in court as well. Ultimately, Klineberg’s work played a critical role in American politics, the civil rights movement, and a nationwide shift in consciousness about race.

Otto Klineberg passed away in 1992. In a campus talk titled “Origin of Race Prejudice” he told students, “Race prejudice does not develop from experience or contact with different people, but from situations where one group can gain advantage over another group by belittling them.” Klineberg used his work as a scientist to help turn the tide of popular opinion, speaking out against bigotry in all forms and labeling Hitler’s Aryan race a fiction. He told Campus nearly 70 years ago, “Anthropologists declare that there is no race but the human race.” Nowadays, this statement seems only logical. In large part, we have Otto Klineberg’s work to thank for our perspective.

by Gillian Gilman Culff ’89

Otto Klineberg portrait

Photo courtesy of the Columbia University Archives

“There is no race but the human race,” declared anthropology teacher Otto Klineberg in 1935. His field studies on children’s intelligence helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.