From #EbolaBeGone to #BlackLivesMatter: Anthropology, misrecognition, and the racial politics of crisis

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Adia Benton. Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers University, 2014). Her work on race, health, and inequality in the US has appeared in Medical Anthropology and Human Organization. Adia Benton is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015). Her writing on the West African Ebola outbreak has appeared in Dissent, The New Inquiry and Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots series.]

Almost five months into the epidemic, on August 8, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “public health emergency of international concern.” Military and police responses — both international and national — played a crucial role in responses to the epidemic. A few weeks later, on August 20th, the Liberian military quarantined residents of West Point in the capital city of Monrovia without advance warning, essentially cutting them off from food and supplies and causing thousands of residents to clash with troops and riot police. Images surfaced of troops firing live rounds and tear gas and viciously beating back residents who challenged the lockdown. Military-enforced quarantines around entire districts of Sierra Leone and the shift of power from the ministry of health to the ministry of defense were key features of its Ebola response.

Across the Atlantic, on August 9, 2014, 18-year old unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful protests and civil disorder ensued in the following weeks, prompting the governor to declare a “state of emergency” and call on local police and the National Guard to control protests and maintain curfews. Greater public attention was placed on the increasing militarization of local police forces as the grand jury, which was convened to hear evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, reached a decision not to indict Officer Wilson.

Despite public discourse about the increasing militarization of the police and the political frame of ‘crisis,’ the most notable recent incidents of police brutality in Ferguson, Staten Island, Saratoga Springs, Los Angeles and the subsequent deaths of Black Americans like Tanisha Anderson, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Aiyanna Jones, Roshad McIntosh, Dante Parker, and Kajieme Powell, are rather ordinary and predictable events in America. These incidents and precious lives lost represent the enduring legacy of American white supremacy and pervasive racism that structures the US criminal justice system and our broader society.

For the region most affected by the West African Ebola outbreak, fragmented and slowly rebuilding health systems, coupled with a delayed response by international agencies have precipitated a serious public health crisis and humanitarian emergency. But, as in the US case, this crisis must also be understood in historical context — and in particular, in relation to empire-building and racial projects. Legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, European (and US) colonialism, post-colonial aid dependency, and civil wars have contributed not only to patterns of the disease’s spread, but also to earlier failures of government and international actors to mount a coordinated response.

This year seemed especially difficult for those of us trying to make sense of these events from afar and for those of us who have deep and intimate connections to these places. During the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in early December 2014, therefore, the theme “Producing Anthropology” took on a distinctly activist and political charge. Anthropologists organized protests, drafted resolutions, and put together ‘breaking’ panels to discuss the most pressing issues facing us in the moment: the West African Ebola outbreak; Ferguson and police violence in black communities in the US; divestment from Israel and other progressive social movements with which anthropologists currently align themselves.

There was, however, a stark contrast in the support extended to these issues by the association-at-large, subsections and interest groups, and individual members. And this contrast is at the root of our sense that mainstream anthropology — and its practitioners — reproduces injustices it claims to expose and, at best, the ones it seeks to correct. This contrast is at the root of the discipline’s failure to recognize divisions between minority and non-minority anthropologists as a crisis within its ranks and to misrecognize enduring systemic failures as discrete time-framed crises for the sake of justifying anthropology’s relevance.

Two weeks before the annual meetings, just a couple of miles away, the AAA co-sponsored a two-day emergency meeting at the George Washington University, in which it convened more than 25 social scientists — specialists of the region and/or in infectious diseases — to provide concrete recommendations to aid international responders to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. While the impact of this intervention remains to be seen, the financial and logistical support from AAA and Wenner-Gren was notable; the executive director presented this meeting as a way for the association to appear “relevant.” Anthropologists were asked to “take critique off the table” as a condition of their participation; for it was to be the primary means by which anthropologists could effectively engage with policymakers and front-line responders.

Whereas initiatives related to Ebola were generously supported (and funded) by our main anthropological institutions, “minority” interest groups like the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) were told that they were expected to pursue an agenda on Ferguson, racism, and violence on their own and with little support from executive leadership. The ABA’s statement brilliantly and explicitly calls out this marginalization and what it represents — global and national anti-black racism and anthropology’s complicity with racializing and colonizing projects, including the production of particular black and brown subjects. (AAA president Monica Heller later released a statement on police violence on December 19).

AAA leadership’s disparate focus on these two issues of concern raises questions about where anthropology locates its “objects” of inquiry, its impetus for protest, and its ideological commitments to social justice and critical analysis of power. It had the two of us — medical anthropologists who engage in global health research in the US and West Africa — wondering which black lives matter for the ‘production of anthropology’ and how such deliberations are a function of anthropology’s fraught history with colonial projects; and its alignment with institutions that sometimes indirectly, sometimes quite perniciously, devalue black and brown lives in the discipline and our society at large.

Taken together, the two official responses by executive leadership mirror the two types of misrecognition that facilitate and embolden endemic racism within the discipline. The ordinariness of these events — the possibility that we are not witnessing discrete events but, rather, spectacular instantiations of enduring injustice — forms the basis of two types of misrecognition. One is forced misrecognition, in which anthropologists are asked to put aside their critical faculties to assist in an epidemic crisis, willfully ignoring or tabling questions of health systems, international political economy, and local governance, while also, paradoxically, engaging with them as something anthropologists (alone) know best and can change. The other form of misrecognition is unconscious, ideological: one in which an African crisis is a ‘natural’ node for anthropological intervention and insights, but a North American normal requires no global comment, no provision of financial resources, no gathering of “great minds.” Both kinds of misrecognition are functions of how anthropology positions itself vis-à-vis “the other” but fails to acknowledge and is complicit with anti-black racism in its ranks and in its professional practice.

This time next year, we will again gather at the 2015 AAA annual meeting in Denver, giving and attending talks centered on the theme of “Familiar/Strange.” Perhaps this thematic focus will prompt wholescale reflection, discussion, and plans for action around questions of our collective misrecognition and the racial politics of crises. Meanwhile, global anti-black racism lives on as an ordinary defining fact of life for many of us.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “From #EbolaBeGone to #BlackLivesMatter: Anthropology, misrecognition, and the racial politics of crisis

  1. I am responding in my capacity as AAA’s Executive Director. While it is always good for our members to push their association to work hard on our priorities, I have some concerns about the account provided by Drs. Benton and Sangaramoorthy here. First, they report that “’minority’ interest groups like the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) were told that they were expected to pursue an agenda on Ferguson, racism, and violence on their own and with little support from executive leadership.” I do not know who might have told ABA this; it wasn’t me, it wasn’t the President, it wasn’t the Executive Board. On the contrary, we worked hard from the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment decision was announced to create spaces for discussion at the meetings for the entire membership. I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that the AAA leadership’s first statement was posted on November 25 (http://tinyurl.com/ngjw57w); the December 19 statement to which this blog post refers was the second (http://tinyurl.com/nshty4w).

    AAA has commissioned a Task Force on Race and Racism, and we have a standing Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology, and so have already institutionaized on a permanent basis ways to move forward on chronic injustices, as well as to respond to crises. We can do better, of course, and we are always open to working with our members on ways to do so.

    Further, as Dr. Benton knows well (because she has been active in this effort), our Ebola response has been the result of a small number of members requesting our help, willing to roll up their shirtsleeves and help us, in turn, to secure outside funding, and following through with timely, substantive, and constructive support. Along this model, or others that might be equally effective, I am eager to work with members who can point me to appropriate extramural funding sources and an agenda that highlights anthropologists contributions to overcoming injustice, and who are willing to work alongside me in building our capacity to do so.

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