Bunche's Contributions to Political Science and the Study of Race
Instructor's Notes by Dr. Paula
Professor of Political Science and Law, Duke University
the film, "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey",
makes clear, the name Ralph J. Bunche is synonymous with international
relations, human rights, self-determination for former colonies,
and conflict resolution. Yet, there is another side to Ralph Bunche's
career that is just as significant, though less well-known
that of scholar/activist. As Professor Hill of the University
of California, Los Angeles mentioned in the documentary, many
scholars of the post-World War II generation are just now beginning
to understand that Bunche made monumental intellectual contributions
to the study of race and race relations in the disciplines of
political science and sociology. Bunche's scholarship is associated
with the development of the sub-field of Black politics, and more
broadly the area of race and politics domestically and internationally.
Bunche also coupled his scholarship with strong activism to push
the United States to live up to the American Creed, a commitment
to the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality for all persons.
These Instructor's Notes will highlight his accomplishments in
these areas and provide questions that may be used to generate
discussion around his ideas.
film refers to the fact that in 1934, Bunche received a Ph. D.
in political science from Harvard University. What it does not
tell you, however, is that he was the first black American to
receive a Ph. D. in political science from a United States' university.
As such, Bunche represents the first generation of black political
scientists in the United States, and his influence on the discipline
and his training of other black political scientists have left
their mark on modern-day political science. Ideas expressed in
his dissertation, "French Administration in Togoland and
Dahomey," would inform his approach to diplomacy and his
push for decolonization. He believed that: 1) European education
provided to Africans should allow for the teaching of native customs,
history, and languages; 2) that this flexible education should
not be based on stereotypes of Africans; and 3) that the knowledge
Africans gained should be used for their own independence, and
not for the good of the colonial power (Henry 1995:115). Clearly,
these themes were present in many of the video clips of excerpts
from Bunches diary, from his speeches, as well as from the
policies that he advocated and pursued in the decolonization of
was no accident that President Mordecai Johnson of Howard University
assigned to Bunche the responsability of developing and expanding
the political science department at Howard. Clearly, Johnson recognized
that this was a young man with a strong intellectual foundation
who would add to the already rich and stellar faculty. The video
chronicles Bunches intellectual and political activities
while on the faculty at Howard in the 1930s. As a scholar/activist,
he made a major contribution to the underpinnings of the modern-civil
rights movement that emerged in the 1960s. Also not mentioned
in the video was that in 1953, Bunche became the first black president
of the American Political Science Association. It is rumored that
initially, as with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, Bunche did not
want to accept the nomination, but that he was prevailed upon
to do so.
resistance of the political science discipline to consider black
politics a legitimate political science sparked an intellectual
battle that was begun by Ralph Bunche in the 1930s. At a 1941
conference on the Interdisciplinary Aspects of Negro Studies,
Bunche lamented that the publication prospects in political science
for works on the political behavior of Negroes was somewhat limited
(Holden 1983, 34). His contributions to the modern foundation
of black politics followed three pathsscholarship, university
administration, and political activism. As a young instructor
in the Division of Social Science at Howard University, Bunche
published a little-known, yet extremely significant, article in
1928, entitled, "The Negro in Chicago Politics." This
article represents the beginning of Bunche's scholarly writings
on the political condition of African Americans. In expressing
the importance of studying the political behavior of blacks, Bunche
felt that the nation could not ignore one-tenth of the population
and that, eventually, blacks were going to gain an "equitable
degree of influence in public affairslocal, state and nationalof
the nation "(Bunche 1928:64).
themes were prominent throughout Bunche's writingstrategies
for overcoming political exclusion, and the recognition that the
interaction of economic conditions and race were critically important
in understanding the situation of the American Negro. (This latter
perspective represents the early development of a Marxist analysis
of black politics with origins in what has recently been named
the Howard School of Thought [Henry 1992].) These themes are evident
in a 1935 article, "A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and
Programs of Minority Groups," and a 1936 piece, " A
Critique of New Deal Social Planning as It Affects Negroes."
In particular, the 1935 article describes the various approaches
by Negro organizations, e.g., racial separatism, economic passive
resistence, interracial conciliation, and so forth. Kirby (1990)
suggests that Bunche placed all of the "Negro ideologies
on the Negro question" into the category of "accommodationism."
1939, the Republican National Committee asked Bunche to conduct
research on why black voters defected from the party in the two
previous national elections (Rivilin 1990, 8-9). Additionally,
between 1939 and 1940, Bunche became a major part of the Carnegie
Foundation study, "The Negro in America," directed by
Gunnar Myrdal. Bunche also recruited political science graduate
students from Howard University to go into the South and collect
data for Myrdals study. He produced a number of scholarly
papers on Negro leadership, ideologies, and tactics of Negro organizations,
the political status of Negroes, and conceptualizations of the
Negro problem, much of which was incorporated into the original
study. In 1941, he published an article, "The Negro in the
Political Life of the United States," which was based on
his research for the Myrdal study. Several of Bunche's themes
were prominent in Myrdal's 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro
Problem and Modern Democracy. Among them were Negro leadership
styles and the hypocrisy of American democracy in its treatment
of Negro citizens.
American Dilemma was the first comprehensive social science
study, ever conducted, of the situation of black Americans. It
vividly demonstrated the extent to which black Americans were
denied their Constitutional rights, existed under a "separate
system of laws" (McClain and Stewart 1999), and how the US
treated its black citizens in contradiction to its commitment
to equality, freedom, and justice. This study, of which Bunche's
work was central to its production, generated a new line of research
on race relations in the United States. Bunches insistence
that the inclusion of black Americans in the representative democracy
of the United States was essential for the legitimacy and maintenance
of that democracy was fundamental to his domestic work for civil
rights and his international work for human rights. Moreover,
his belief that the study of the politics of black Americans is
a legitimate area of study of political science led to the establishment
of the field of Black Politics, and is central to the study of
Can you identify common themes in Bunche's work on race and US
race relations and his approach to decolonization in Africa as
portrayed in the documentary?
How do you think the themes of his doctoral dissertation on Togoland
and Dahomey shaped his views of colonialism?
The film alludes to the connections Bunche drew between the
decolonization of Africa and the struggles of black Americans
for civil rights and liberties in the United States. What are
the connections and how do you think Bunche came to the realization
that the two were connected?
Bunche was a master of conflict resolution on the international
stage, as well as possessing the ability to work from the inside
for changes in the situation of black Americans in the United
States. Reflecting back on the Black Power phase of the Civil
Rights Movement, why do you think that the younger generation
of blacks did not understand or appreciate the role Bunche played
in the success of the Civil Rights Movement?
Given what you have been able to glean from the film of Bunche's
personality and strengths, do you think that he understood the
attitudes of the younger blacks involved in the Black Power Movement?
Do you think he understood the source of disagreement between
himself and younger blacks?
Ralph J. 1928. "The Negro in Chicago Politics."
National Municipal Review 18 (May):261-264.
Ralph J. 1935. "A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and
Programs of Minority Groups." Journal of Negro Education
Ralph J. 1936. "A Critique of New Deal Social Planning
as It Affects Negroes." Journal of Negro Education
Charles P. 1992. "Ralph Bunche and the Howard School
of Thought." Paper presented at the annual meeting of
the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, Houston,
Charles P., ed. 1995. Ralph Bunche: Selected Speeches and
Writings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Matthew, Jr. 1983. Moral Engagement and Combat Scholarship.
McLean, VA: Court Square Institute.
John B. 1990. "Race, Class, and Politics: Ralph Bunche
and Black Protest." In Ralph Bunche: The Man and His
Times, ed. Benjamin Rivlin. New York & London: Holmes
Paula D. and John A. Garcia. 1993. "Expanding Disciplinary
Boundaries: Black, Latino, and Racial Minority Group Politics
in Political Science," In Ada W. Finifter, Political
Science: The State of the Discipline, II. Washington,
D.C.: American Political Science Association.
Paula D. and Joseph Stewart, Jr. 1999. "Can We All
Get Along?" Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American
Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and
Modern Democracy. New York: Harper and Brothers
Some of the material is drawn from
Paula D. McClain and John A. Garcia, "Expanding Disciplinary Boundaries:
Black, Latino and Racial Minority Group Politics in Political Science,"
in Ada W. Finifter (editor), Political Science: The State of
the Discipline, II. Washington, D.C.: American Political Science
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