Ferguson: A Blog Entry

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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “Ferguson: A Blog Entry

  1. An important source of support for the position Rex proposes can be found in the work of the philosopher Richard Rorty, especially in his Achieving the Country and Philosophy of Social Hope.

  2. “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.”

    Yes, the lived exhausyion. This is what so many don’t ‘get’ and don’t want to get. What kind of ethnographies could help change this? With what focus, on whom? This question, after all, is not separate from the issue of anthropology as ‘white public space’ and Ryan’s interview with Karen Brodkin.

    It’s about who we listen to, who he care about, who we allow to speak, who we silence, who we easily identify with, who we easily– often lazily, dubiously, and incorrectly– assume is ‘like us’ and who is The Other. It is, ultimately, about who we truly see as ‘human’, and why.

    It is easy for anthropologists to perform data, it is much harder for anthropologists to admit they can have the same biases as Darren Wilson. It is harder still for ‘American’ anthropologists to admit the methodological/ disciplinary/embodied (structural and phenomenological) limitations of producing empathy for the lived experience of Black rage and despair. It easy to see the rage but not want to see and understand the causes of despair. Rage animalizes, despair and grief humanize. To what are we as anthropologists oriented–in our bodies, in our disciplinary practices– and why? Because almost never producing ethnographies about the ‘everyday practices of White supremacy’ is very much a political act, and one with life-and-death political consequences.

    Some of us have to care about racial profiling: of ourselves, our families, our children. The ability not to care really is about privilege. A privilege which kills people who look like me. So no, I don’t need to perform outrage. I am outraged, and I am beyond exhausted.

  3. I applaud your pledge, at least nominally, not to drink the Mainstream Media Kool-aid. Yet, there’s a fundamental tenet assumed by most anthropologists, yourself included. That tenet has many corollaries, but essentially it’s the idea that different outcomes for a race proves that “structural racist injustice” exists. It doesn’t.

    Does the overrepresentation of blacks in the NBA or NFL prove that whites are discriminated against? Or might height and weight be both helpful characteristics of success in those fields, and inherently greater in the race with the greater outcome? What about Fields medals?

  4. There are those for whom race is an issue. There are those for whom race is the only issue, an issue so outrageous and urgent that all else should be dropped to address it. I confess that I belong in the first group. I also acknowledge that my being in that group is a privilege. Still, I do not think that anthropology should be all and only about race or exclusively focused on the varieties of racism found among white descendants of European imperialists. Anthropology’s topic is everything human, human biology, human languages, human societies, the customs and habits of people everywhere. Should Rex be asked to put aside his thoughtful studies of Melansian encounters with mining corporations? Should Kerim forget about the untouchable street actors in India whose lives are portrayed in his award-winning film? Both, I note, address issues clearly related to power, prejudice, and privilege. Should those of us who have spent years engaged on such topics as Mayan hierogyphics, Native American cosmologies, or Daoist magic be told to forget all that and focus on racial politics in the USA instead? To be able to study such things is, of course, a privilege. Is it, thus, necessarily bad?

    The police murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Marin and so many, many others are evil. So are the deaths of three Afghani women, all health workers, killed by the Taleban just yesterday, the horrors experienced by the thousands of men, women and children who have died in the endless wars of Sudan and Zaire. Palestianians, Tibetans, Rohingya, the list goes on and on. Why then should we focus on the plight of black Americans?

    The answer is clear, and it is the one to which Rex has pointed us. It is not because we are anthropologists, but rather because, for me and many like me here, we are Americans. It is our fellow citizens who suffer from prejudice that clearly contradicts the premise of equality under the law that is supposed to be one of the great foundation stones on which our country is built.

  5. If John McCreery’s comments about ‘there are those for who, race is the only and most important topic’ comments are directed at me, I say the following: given what I wrote above I harsly see how such a projection follows. Nor have I ever written anywhere on this blog that I believe such a thing. Projecting such assumptions on me is actually racial stereotyping, and why this stereotype has been deployed is worth thinking about, especially if one wants to be committed to equality.

  6. My remarks were not directed at anyone in particular. If they had been, I would have said so. I write as a participant in numerous discussions of racism marred by the assumption that anthropologists have a special interest in racism, when racism is an issue for every human being, and racially motivated police violence is an issue with which every US citizen should be concerned.

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