by GENE DEMBY
Richard Henry Pratt was the first person the Oxford English Dictionary records using the word "racism," in a speech decrying it. But his own legacy on race is checkered.
The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded utterance of the word racism was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902. Pratt was railing against the evils of racial segregation.
"Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism."
Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian...save the man.
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
We're still living with the after-effects of what Pratt thought and did. His story serves as a useful parable for why discussions of racism remain so deeply contentious even now.
But let's back up a bit.
Beginning in the 1880s, a group of well-heeled white men would travel to upstate New York each year to attend the Lake Mohonk Conference Of The Friend Of the Indian. Their primary focus was a solution to "the Indian problem," the need for the government to deal with the Native American groups living in lands that had been forcibly seized from them. The Plains Wars had decimated the Native American population, but they were coming to an end. There was a general feeling among these men and other U.S. leaders that the remaining Native Americans would be wiped out within a generation or two, destroyed by disease and starvation.
The Lake Mohonk attendees wanted to stop that from happening, and they pressed lawmakers to change the government's policies toward Indians. Pratt, in particular, was a staunch advocate of folding Native Americans into white life — assimilation through education.
He persuaded Congress to let him test out his ideas, and they gave him an abandoned military post in Carlisle, Pa., to set up a boarding school for Native children. He was also able to convince many Native Americans, including some tribal leaders, to send their children far away from home, and leave them in his charge. ...
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School would become a model for dozens of other unaffiliated boarding schools for Indian children. But Pratt's plans had lasting, disastrous ramifications.
He pushed for the total erasure of Native cultures among his students. "No bilingualism was accommodated at these boarding schools," said Christina Snyder, a historian at Indiana University. The students' native tongues were strictly forbidden — a rule that was enforced through beating. Since they were rounded up from different tribes, the only way they could communicate with each other at the schools was in English.
"In Indian civilization I am a Baptist," Pratt once told a convention of Baptist ministers, "because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked."
"The most significant consequence of this policy is the loss of languages," Snyder says. "All native languages are [now] endangered and some of them are extinct."
Pratt also saw to it that his charges were Christianized. Carlisle students had to attend church each Sunday, although he allowed each student to choose the denomination to which she would belong.
When students would return home to the reservations — which Pratt objected to, because he felt it would slow down their assimilation — there was a huge cultural gap between them and their families. They dressed differently. They had a new religion. And they spoke a different language. ...
"For his time, Pratt was definitely a progressive," Snyder said. Indeed, he thought his ideas were the only thing keeping Native peoples from being entirely wiped out by disease and starvation. "That's one of the dirty little secrets of American progressivism — that [progress] was still shaped around ideas of whiteness."
Snyder said that Pratt replaced the popular idea that some *groups *were natively inferior to others with the idea that some *cultures *that were the problem, and needed to be corrected or destroyed. In other words, he swapped biological determinism for cultural imperialism.
Given the sheer scale of the physical and cultural violence he helped set in motion, was Pratt himself a practitioner of the very ill he decried at the Lake Mohonk convention? Was he a racist?
Obviously, Pratt was a Boasian culturalist avant-la-lettre. But he was a white man, so that makes him, despite being anti-racist, racist. (This stuff really isn't all that complicated.)
Of course, it's now evident that some of the problems of American Indians are biological -- specifically, they lack Darwinian adaptations for dealing with alcohol and some infectious diseases. In Australia, Aboriginals were dying so fast of novel infectious diseases such as tuberculosis that liberal reformers' hopes were focused on children of mixed parentage. The goal was to educate them so they could marry whites and have children with strong immune systems. Of course, this government-sponsored miscegenation campaign was racist.
The infectious diseases have been reasonably well controlled with vaccines and antibiotics, but alcoholism remains an immense problem for aborigines. Perhaps someday somebody will come up with a medical remedy for this tragic problem. Or would researching that be racist?