The comments section from my last post about the Napoleon Chagnon controversy eventually led into a discussion about race, racism, and anthropology. If you read more about the debates surrounding Chagnon, it’s pretty clear that they bring up some important (and complex) issues about race, power, the academy–and anthropology’s place within all of this. Near the end of the comment thread, one of our readers mentioned an article that’s well worth reading (thanks, Kat): Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology, by Leith Mullings (Annual Review of Anthropology, 2005).
I thought that would be a good place to start for a discussion about some of these issues. So I read the article and jotted down some notes. I am just going to go through some of my own questions and responses to the piece by Mullings, and then I’ll open things up for discussion. Please feel free to jump in whenever you want.
First of all, the article was written in the Annual Review of Anthropology, so it’s a broad overview of the subjects of race and racism as they pertain to anthropology. The article starts off by noting that the concept of “racism” is actually fairly new (she says it came into more common use during WWII), and that there are plenty of debates about: 1) what it means; and 2) how useful it is as an analytical category; 3) what kinds of experiences should the concept of racism cover; 4) when does racism emerge; 5) how is it reproduced; and 6) how does racism intersect with class and gender?
She mentions two distinct “perspectives” about racism from the literature (in the US): 1) The “natural racism thesis” that basically links racism to a sort of innate or primordial human nature (i.e. prejudices and beliefs about “others” are deeply ingrained in humans); 2) the perspective that links racism to “structures of power that emerge through processes of accumulation and dispossession within local and transnational processes” (Mullings 2005: 668. Mullings notes that the roots of this perspective can be found in the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney, among others. She also explains that this perspective is the one that’s most common in recent anthropological, historical, and archaeological work on racism. It’s also the one she focuses on throughout her review.
Mullings makes an interesting point right at the start that gets to the heart of anthropology: Compared to the “sister disciplines” of sociology and history, “anthropology’s contribution to the study of racism in the past several decades has been modest” (669). “At the same time,” she continues, “key anthropological concepts of race and culture have been central to rationalizing inequality.” Mullings then explains that her goal with this review is not to rehash debates about the social construction of race, but instead to “consider how scholars have grappled with racism” (669).
So why has anthropology’s contribution to the study of race been relatively modest? Mullings suggests this could be due to the “contradictory heritage” of the discipline. She mentions anthropology’s ties to “scientific racism” as one particularly troubling skeleton in the closet (specifically how scientific racism was used as a rationale for everything from slavery to eugenics). She also mentions the “significant antiracist tradition” in anthropology, which peaked during the years surrounding WWII. She specifically mentions Franz Boas, Gene Weltfish, Ruth Benedict, Ashley Montague, and Robert Redfield as examples of anthropologists who directly challenged the racism of the 1940s and 1950s.
Mullings then highlights a current of anthropological work that focused on the structures of racism (this work is generally not as well known as the work of Boas et al). Here she mentions the work of St Clair Drake and Allison Davis, as key examples of an anthropological tradition that critically examined “the structures of racial inequality in the U.S. north and south” (670). This strain of anthropology was further bolstered by the work of Hortense Powdermaker and Eleanor Leacock. Despite all of this work, Mullings explains, “anthropological analysis of racism failed to become a major current in anthropology” (670). As a side note, this is clearly the case, since the names Powdermaker, Leacock, St Clair Drake, and Davis are certainly not dominant figures in the canon of US anthropology. It might be worthwhile to ask why.
Mullings then moves forward to discuss some of the reasons why racism and race have not become central focal points in anthropology as a whole. One reason she brings up is the deep internal disagreement about the place of “race” and “racism” within the discipline itself (and within society). She notes that about 40 percent of physical anthropologists use the category of race in data collection and analysis (citing Cartmill 1999 here). Some anthropologists, she continues, “continue to defend the concept of biological race as an important mechanism for understanding human variation” (2005: 670). So, when it comes to the “is the race concept even viable” question, anthropologists are decidedly split (to update this discussion a bit I recommend reading this 2009 special issue from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology).
As for the cultural anthropological side of the equation, many have become “race avoidant” (here she cites Brodkin 1999). Well, what does that mean? It’s a sort of after-effect of the attempts of many anthropologists to disassociate themselves from the histories (and consequences) of biological racism. This has led to arguments that focus on the socially-constructed nature of race, yet less attention on the problems of racism (racism tends to get ignored, says Mullings). Part of this situation undoubtedly stems from the controversial and contentious nature of race and racism in the US. Quoting Shanklin (1998), Mullings says that when it comes to these issues, “American anthropology won the battle and lost the war.” Along with shift to focusing on ethnicity rather than race, this has led to a serious undertheorization of both race and racism in anthropology.
Again, this might leave many of us asking why this is really the case. It’s pretty understandable that anthropologists would be wary of the histories of their own discipline, and that they would want distance themselves from some of the ways in which anthropologists (not to mention other scientists) engaged with the concept of race in the past. But why would this lead to a situation in which anthropologists have avoided the subject, by and large, altogether? Here Mullings cites anthropologists (Baker 1998, Brodkin 2001, and a few others) who argue that this may be due to certain inherent theoretical weaknesses in “Boasian liberalism.” The main point here being that Boas and at least of his students basically “interpreted racism as a matter of ignorance, rather than as a fundamental element of the social structure” (Mulling 2005: 670). The result of this Boasian view was a focus on educating people (specifically white people) to combat racism, rather confronting the deeper structure and histories of racism in US society. Now, while I see the point about this weakness in the Boasian project, I do not think it really explains why the subjects of race and racism have been ignored and avoided. This may explain why the Boasian project failed to adequately address or challenge racism, but it does not explain the lack of attention to or engagement with racism–in my opinion at least.
But Mullings brings up another issue that I think gets much more to the root of the issue: A lot of the overtly antiracist work undertaken in anthropology during those years, was spearheaded by people who were marginalized by the discipline and the academy: women and people of color. To me, this is a point that really stands out, and something to really think through when we talk about the histories (and canonical literature) of anthropology. Who gets left out? And more importantly: Why?
A final factor that Mullings highlights is this: There was tremendous financial and institutional support for research that supported biologically deterministic perspectives (here she cites Baker 1998, Blakey 1994, and Tucker 2002). So overall we have internal marginalization of particular views/research (which focused on challenging racism), in combination with overt support for another avenue of research coming together to create a situation in which racism gets relegated to the back burner in anthropology. Mullings ends this section of her review on a somewhat positive note, saying that the 1994 publication of Roger Sanjek’s Race “represented an important milestone in renewing anthropologists’ attention to the study of racism” (670). She also argues that anthropology has plenty of potential to contribute to critical studies of racism–despite its troubled history and “late entry into the field.”
This is a point that she comes back to in the conclusion, when she specifically discusses what anthropologist can do to address racism (Mullings 2005: 684). There is no shortage of potential in anthropology–this is a point that Mullings makes more than once. So what should anthropologists do? What needs to happen? First, she argues, “we must critically scrutinize our own discipline” (684). This means that the history of the discipline can’t just be dismissed or denied–it makes sense to take it on directly than to try to hide it out of sight in some closet. The point here is that anthropology needs to confront its past, rather than ignore or avoid it. But it’s not just about the past, as Mullings makes clear when she argues that anthropology is “one of the least integrated disciplines” (685). Here she implores anthropologists take account of the differences between diversity and affirmative action, noting that while both goals are valuable, “diversity measures do not necessarily address the historical injustices of racism” (685).
Further, Mullings argues for the need to “confront the manner in which race, class, and gender shape the production of knowledge.” In other words, we need to pay close attention to whose work gets valued, and whose gets dismissed–and what factors/biases could be behind these kinds of decisions. This includes the kinds of material that gets chosen for textbooks, which helps to pass down anthropological practices to new generations. Another key issue, argues Mullings, is the status of the concept of culture, which she thinks needs some radical rethinking in order to address issues like racism. In short, the Boasian approach to culture needs to be updated with a conception of culture that confronts both political economy and power. This is especially important, considering the ways in which Boasian or “culture and personality” notions of culture get incorporated into mainstream political discourses, often using “culture” as an easy tool for explaining away complex issues. Like this, for example.
Mullings ends her review by once again reminding us of the tremendous potential of anthropology to contribute to critical discussions about the causes, structures, and consequences of racism. She writes: “Anthropological research has the potential to uncover the systemic and dynamic nature of racism and to identify the subterranean mechanisms through which racial hegemony is both perpetuated and deconstructed” (685).
Her article is meant to both encourage and provoke. She encourages anthropologists to push their discipline forward in order to confront the pressing, pervasive issue of racism. She also provokes us rethink our past and critically examine the practices and patterns of our discipline in the present. One of her final points is about public engagement:
No matter how well we research racism, it will remain largely irrelevant unless we are able to get our analyses out of the academy and into public discourse.
A powerful point. Keep in mind that she wrote this article nearly a decade ago. And here, I would argue, is another key part of the problem: The collective anthropological disengagement and silence regarding these issues persist. No wonder folks like David Brooks can get away with their less-than-stellar-arguments about “culture” and poverty. That’s where silence gets us. Maybe it’s time to end it.
(for the complete list of references see the full article by Mullings)
Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brodkin, Karen. 1999. Race, class, and the limits of democratization in the academy. In: Transforming Academia: Challenges and Opportunites for an Engaged Anthropology, ed. LG Basch, JWSharff, J Peacock, pp. 63–71. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
Mullings, Leith. 2005. Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34: 667-693).