Anthropology after November 8th: On race, denial, and the work ahead

For some people, the election that just took place might seem like just another choice between the lesser of two evils. One more election that we all learn to deal with, but that won’t fundamentally change much about their daily lives. But this isn’t everyone’s reality. For many people around the country the results of this election, which was fueled by messages of hate, bigotry, racism, and intolerance, has devastating implications. It’s not a matter of if it will affect their lives, but when and how. It is a privileged position to see this as “just another election” that we lament, accept, and endure. Many people here simply do not and will not have this choice.

Shaun King’s Twitter timeline this past week was just one indication of what these election results portend: a surge of racist, bigoted attacks across the country. This election has empowered and emboldened many people to express their contempt, disdain, and hate. According to local news reports, a Muslim woman at San Diego State University was attacked and robbed by two men who made comments “about President-elect Trump and the Muslim community.” This incident took place at 2:30 pm on Wednesday (November 9th). In a separate incident on the same day, a swastika and the words “Heil Trump” were painted on the sidewalk at a UC San Diego bus stop. 

I mentioned the events in the San Diego area because that’s where I’m from. I grew up there and still consider it my home. But I’m also highlighting San Diego because it’s in the heart of a “blue state” that did not vote for Trump, and yet it’s important to realize that these kinds of hate-fueled events are not isolated to certain parts of the country. This is not just something that’s going to affect other people, communities, and places. No regions of this country are immune to the effects of this election, despite what we tell ourselves. Denial will get us nowhere. Some places, of course, may be far worse than others.

Here in Kentucky, where I am currently living, many people are worried and fearful as well. The day after the election was a long day. I teach on Wednesdays, so I was on campus by mid morning after staying up until about 4 am. On campus, some people seemed exhausted and worried, others seemed unfazed by the election results. Many were hard to read. My class was quiet that day. It was a strange, tense day. My wife Veronica, who is also an anthropologist, dropped by to pick me up from campus that afternoon. We decided to go to grab take-out dinner at one of our favorite restaurants here in town.

I stayed in the car with our son and Veronica ran in to pick up our order. When she came back, she turned to me and said that people were talking about Trump and the election. I asked her what they were talking about. She said there was a non-white family sitting at one of the tables. A mother and father in their mid to late 40s and their teen-aged son. They were in the middle of a conversation about the election, and the son was telling his parents about something that had happened at school. The teenager was concerned about what he’d seen and was trying to tell his parents just how bad things were. They seemed shocked or in disbelief about what their son was telling them. Then the waiter came over and brought them their food, and the father asked him if they have been talking about the election too. The waiter said yes, and that two of the waitresses who worked there were really upset about it. He also said that two of the people who work in the kitchen—both of them recent immigrants—are really concerned, and they asked him if they should think about packing their bags and leaving. The father immediately said “No no no—people are exaggerating, they don’t need to do that…it’s not going to get to that point.” The mother also added “No, they don’t need to think about leaving.” Veronica said it was difficult to tell whether they actually believed that everything was OK, if they said these words to comfort their son, or perhaps if they were trying to convince themselves that it wasn’t an immediate threat. Reminder: none of these people were white.

These kinds of fearful conversations are happening all across the country. Other friends of mine are reporting similar concerns—about their safety, what’s going to happen to them, and the future of this country. I’m seeing these stories online, in the news, and through my social networks. People feel vulnerable and threatened. This was made possible by the large block of primarily white voters who just made the collective decision to put Trump into power. Their more than 60 million votes should, finally, put to rest the ridiculous myth that we live in some mythical post-racial America.

Yes, this is about race. But this is a conversation that many (white) Americans seem to want to avoid at all costs. This avoidance and denial tells us something in and of itself. One of the most common rebuttals I hear when someone points out the role that race played in this election is that it was actually about class and economics (those Rust Belt voters). Of course, yes, this election was about class, economics, gender, ableism, and a whole range of other interlinked factors. To assert that race was a key, primary factor is not to say that there were no other factors involved. The strong denial and avoidance of discussions about race are a crucial part of the larger problem. We should be asking why, when white nationalists like David Duke are loudly cheering for Trump’s victory, people are so quick to deny the role of race. In a recent essay that compares pre-Civil War America to our situation today, Sarah Kendzior writes:

The tyranny of the mob is enabled by those who refuse to recognize the threat, who rationalize the mob’s aims, or who – like the elites of the 1830s – avoid discussion of the racial enmity at its core. That same deep denial is occurring today, over 180 years later. We have a moral obligation to oppose it and document it, as others have in dangerous eras, in the hopes of negating threats to the most vulnerable.

This avoidance, which has been ongoing for decades, has led us to the present moment, in which white nationalist and white supremacist movements have not just resurfaced, but taken an overt hold of our political process.

Where is anthropology in all of this? This is not the part of my essay where I reassuringly argue that now is the time when we need anthropology more than ever. Despite what many anthropologists tell themselves, the discipline is not automatically anti-racist, and being an anthropologist does not exonerate one from the need to critically reassess their understandings of race in the US. This is the part of the essay, however, where I argue that it’s time for anthropologists to collectively re-examine our approach to questions of race, racism, difference, and diversity. This is certainly not the time to stand by in silence. There is much work ahead.

In the final pages of a book that was published back in 1998, Lee D. Baker asks, “Can anthropologists contribute to a meaningful progressive discourse in the United States? And why have anthropologists failed to bring the lessons learned abroad home to help expose problems in the United States?”[1] Eighteen years later, here in 2016, Baker’s questions remain just as relevant and as ever. It is certainly time for anthropology to make studies of race and racism a central, vital concern, one that requires deep scholarship and, ultimately, public engagement. Baker closes his book by pointing out that scholarly critiques of race had not, by that time, “successfully curbed the political force of ideas of racial inferiority.” Publications such as The Bell Curve made this all too clear. This is a political struggle, Baker argues, and anthropology is not exempt:

Anthropologists have consistently engaged in advancing a liberating political agenda in the United States even though … national politics often limits their impact. Anthropologists and other scholars must nonetheless continue to advance research that exposes the contradictions is U.S. society in an effort to reconcile the ideal of racial equality with the nagging, persistent, and seemingly perpetual forms of oppression.

Where to begin? Anthropology’s re-engagement with questions of race and racism should start with the work of all of the scholars—within the discipline and beyond it—who have been focusing on these issues for decades. This engagement can begin, perhaps, with a reconsideration of not just how we teach about race and racism, but whose voices we include in our classroom readings and discussions. A syllabus that emphasizes scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Vine Deloria, Jr. (among so many others) would be a good first step.

[1] Baker, Lee D. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954, pp. 227-228.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Anthropology after November 8th: On race, denial, and the work ahead

  1. I agree wi th many of th points Ryan makes but the hysterical reaction of the left to the election is not helpful. The has already been a case of a totally made up case of an anti-Muslim violence by its ,”victim,” (see NYT) and I personally witnessed a old man wearing a Trump cap kicked and shoved by a young “progressive”, and what about demonstrators in Oaklnd burning property and telling a journalist ,”we will have a revolution and people will get hurt”. My point is that there is plenty of disrespect and condescension on both sides of the political spectrum. The attitude of the Democrats towards blue collar whiets(aka deplorables) cost them them the election. It is time build bridges (while righty bigotry on all sides) . President Obama said so, after all.

    let us be honest: the kind of disrespect and elitist condescending attitude the Democrats showed

  2. To equate a few accounts of violence against Trump supporters to the countless acts of violence against Muslims and other minorities (both seen and unseen) is doing exactly what Ryan states; it is avoiding the real problem. Your argument is just an excuse that implies to me “hey, don’t regard violence against Muslims as a big deal because it is the same for Trump supporters. It is definitely NOT the same. Secondly, your comment about a fake instant of anti-muslim violence is irrelavent because it does nothing to further the argument that the reaction of Democrats is hysterical. Just because there is one occurrence of fake violence does not mean that anti-muslim violence isn’t happening on a large scale. It is, and it will continue to happen with a Trump administration.

  3. This is a great post, and much needed perspective. I also enjoyed reading the series of posts on decolonising anthropology, which I think also speak to some of the concerns raised here. One suggestion for the editors of the blog: The name of the blog is problematic, using the word “savage” sends the wrong message and does not align well with the important content and messages it carries in its pages, including this post. I strongly suggest you change the name.

  4. With infinite love for the discipline i say that I think that anthropology needs to pull its head out of its ass–or stop navel gazing, whichever you prefer–and start talking to and writing for people. Currently it’s an elite discipline that studies people but isn’t for the people. That will change when universities and departments start counting publishing in the public sphere as tenure-worthy and insisting that the work we do in academia is accessible to more than just the people who pay for that access. Only then can we hope to have a broader impact around the issues that we dedicate our lives to studying.

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