Savage Minds has gotten a lot more sophisticated than we were when we first started this blog almost ten years ago: We have guest bloggers, comp’d copies of books for our book reviews, and polished, seven thousand word interviews. And for the past couple of years we’ve also gotten an increased amount of accolades and recognition for some reason — mostly because we’ve been able to stay around longer than most.
But I feel that somewhere in this mix of newfound coordination and respectability we’ve gotten away a little bit from our origins as bloggers: entries that represent raw, immediate, thought. Entries that don’t figure out what their point is until the end, entries where the reader can feel you writing the piece, thinking alongside them.
That’s why I want to write something now about Ferguson, Michael Brown, and Darren Wilson even though I don’t know what I want to say. I only know that I want — need — to say something.
In part, I don’t know what to say because I feel like events in Missouri are taking place in another country — and while there are many Americans who feel that way at the moment, I feel particularly estranged. I’ve lived and taught in Hawai‘i for over a decade, and here the biggest issue is not race in America but whether Hawai‘i is part of America at all. My blogging reflects this focus on indigenous issues, as well as my positioning in the university — at Mānoa, respecting Kanaka Maoli autonomy means not speaking authoritatively about what indigenous issues are or what indigenous positions should be. A lot of the time, the reason that I don’t perform liberal outrage the way some people think anthropologists should is that I’m listening, not talking.
I also made the choice long ago to give up mainstream media. I get most of my news through text and radio. I haven’t seen a single minute of video of events in Ferguson, much less cable or network news. This was a conscious decision and it has its drawbacks — events lack emotional immediacy for me now, and it gives me less in common with people who consume mainstream media sources. But ultimately I think this is the right decision because, frankly, I think it gives me a better understanding of how the world actually works than ad-supported media does. And of course I can always chose to watch videos — like videos of Ferguson — if I need or want to.
So what could I possibly have to add to what has already been said and done?
Some people think of anthropology as an inherently leftist discipline, one dedicated in principle with fighting for social justice. For some, that’s a bug. For others, it’s a feature. I personally disagree with this position. I don’t think anthropology is or ought to be inherently political. For many of our colleagues around the world, an essentially political anthropology seems a uniquely American obsession.
For that reason, I feel like I can’t state this clearly enough: You don’t have to be an activist to believe in pervasive, pernicious, institutionalized racism in American life. You just have to be paying attention.
The evidence for this kind of social injustice is crystal clear — in the ethnographic record, in census data, in firearm discharge reports. It’s in the lived experience of rage, exhaustion, and despair of the people protesting in Missouri. You don’t have to be on the left or right to understand why this is happening, you just need basic social science.
I’m not just an anthropologist, I’m also an American. American anthropologists often feel themselves to be too cosmopolitan for nationalism, but I think it’s important to recognize where we came from, what our country is supposed to stand for, and our role in it. Anthropologist America needs anthropology, just like it needs history and the other social sciences. We ask citizens to vote and serve on a jury of their peers, but too often produce an education system that does not give them the conceptual tools or ethnographic evidence to do so responsibly.
Anthropologists to be right to be skeptical of the easy triumphalism of much of American history. But American anthropologist need to emphasize that our viewpoint deserves a hearing not because it is ‘objective’, a view from nowhere, but because we come from somewhere. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to think the profound inequalities in American life are wrong. You just have to be an American.
It is easy for professorial elites like me to see Ferguson as a structural problem created by other people that someone else’s children will pay the price for. It would be easy to walk away from American identity as something that only the parochial right could love. It would be easy to look at the violence of protestors and overlook the violence that caused it. It would be easy to speculate about what Deleuze would say about Darren Wilson and call the resulting paper ‘political’.
But I think a responsible anthropology would do better to focus on the core of our disciplinary identity: To describe and explain how people live because we are anthropologists. And to denounce the structural, racist injustice we uncover because we are Americans.