Ferguson: Anthropologists Speak Out

Race and injustice and anger and fear. All of these and more in the wake of the grand jury decision in the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. What do anthropology and anthropologists have to say about all of this? What can we say? What must we do? We have research and writings, personal and professional experiences to draw upon, we have suggestions to make, students to teach, and together a world to remake into a more racially just society. With all of this in mind, we invited a group of scholars to share their thoughts on Ferguson, Michael Brown’s death, the legal process, police violence, racism, and being present right now as anthropologists. Below are responses from Lee Baker, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Lynn Bolles, Agustín Fuentes, and Alvaro Jarrin. Thank you all.

Lee D. Baker, “Obama, Race, and Privilege”

On the evening of November 24, 2014 President Barack Obama addressed the nation in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown to death on that fateful evening in Fergusson, Missouri last summer. President Obama had to strike a delicate balance between supporting the legitimacy of the grand jury decision and supporting the legitimacy of the anger and frustration ignited by police brutality that all-too often targets young black men.

“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law,” the President declared, “so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” He empathetically explained that he can understand why many will disagree with this decision, but implored that throwing bottles and looting will not solve any problems or lead to better police practices. He cited Michael Brown’s parents call for peaceful and constructive ways for voices of protest to be heard.

Many people will believe that the President did not go far enough describing this grand jury decision as one link in a centuries-old chain of racism perpetuated by government agencies against people of color, cloaked in the rule of law and due process. However, he was not dismissive and actually acknowledged that “communities of color are not just making these problems up. . . the law too often feels like it is being applied in a discriminating fashion.” Underscoring the reality of racism in America, the President explained that “these are real issues, and we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. We need to understand them and figure out how to make more progress.”

What the President did not say, but as anthropologists we have the tools to describe, is that privilege pays. The fact of the matter was Michael Brown could not testify. Darren Wilson’s testimony was structured to enhance the authority and privilege of the perpetrator, but it was Wilson’s repeated shots at Michael Brown that forever silenced the victim.  The grand jury testimony privileged the 4 hour testimony of Office Darren Wilson, which was situated within cacophony of eye-witness accounts that contradicted each other or were unreliable. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch allowed many voices and witness to be heard, but did not provide cross examination and there was no attorney who was able to craft a compelling narrative or develop an argument to defend Michael Brown. There is an appearance of equality of voices, but the reality of one privileged voice.

Whitney Battle-Baptiste, “From This Point Forward…”

My writing has been sporadic. My writing seems fragmented these days. I have deadlines that are slowly slipping by and cannot seem to catch up, I am just beginning to understand why, I think I have been writing from a place of uncertainty. Monday night I sat down and waited to hear the fate of police officer Darren Wilson. No television, only Twitter, I had to pay attention to my children and prepare for the next day.

The time slowly dragged on, yet, as I checked my feed every 20 minutes, there was no progress. I felt a growing anxiety, an increased anger, and tears. The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch started to talk and talk. I felt as if I could not understand his words. No indictment. I felt trauma. I felt more tears. I held my two sons extra tight that night, for I was so unsure of this country I call home.

And then there was daybreak. And I tried to return to routine. Those deadlines were still slipping away and my writing was unfocused. Yet, for the first time, I realized that I was writing about race and racism in a way that was separate from my reality. My writing should be about telling truths, my truth. As I think about my courses for the coming semester, “Race & the American Museum” and “Racialized Bodies,” I know this is what I have to do. For Ferguson is far from over and it has changed many lives, including mine. So colleagues and students, I may not be my usual self for a while, for I have much work to do. I have to process these events and bring my writing to the place where pain and scholarship meet. I will not be here forever, just long enough to make telling the truth my new reality.

Lynn Bolles, “I Wanted So Much…”

I wanted so much to hope that criminal justice system would work this time. But it did not. Michael Brown joins the mounting number of men, women and children killed by police leaving family members and the wider community with loss of love ones, with bitterness and heartbreak. My own disappointment comes in four ways. We live in a society ruled by laws, but that does not warrant social justice for all. Secondly one more time, to put it mildly racism blinded the law. The process was hamstrung from the beginning. The structure of modern society reminds us that the everyday lives of Black and brown people of Ferguson, and those from across the country, fear the laws and the system presumed to protect them. Everyday, mothers, as part of their socialization process, tell their sons and daughters the rules of behavior towards the police. The gist of the “talk” is not only about cultural deportment of driving while black, but also breathing, walking and basically being black in America. Those lessons are learned across class, gender and non-white ethnicity as rules of engagement. As a resident from Ferguson who called into the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” mentioned, if they (meaning greater predominately white society) disrespect the President of the United States, what chance did she and her son have? Even family members who are in law enforcement remind us to be careful of other fellow police officers that do not value everyone’s life on an equitable basis. Finally, from my perspective, the actions of the prosecutor did not demonstrate any semblance of fairness in guiding this grand jury. The result was what I feared as an outcome, no indictment.

Our anger and dismay must be channeled in a way that demands that this case and others like it will not be repeated. For those of us who cherish justice and human rights, it warrants a comprehensive racial justice agenda that ensures full systems of reform. African American Policy Forum asks us to join them and other national civil rights organizations demanding concrete reforms to curb state violence.

Agustín Fuentes, “Race, Racism, and Inequality”

Ferguson is not a surprise. Ignorance of what race is, and is not, and the increasingly separate and unequal lives in the USA creates a pervasive culture of fear, apathy, and sometimes rage.

If people believe that race is biology, that it is natural, they see differences, conflicts, and relationships between us as patterned in our nature. And that assumption of naturalness enables our society, through ignorance and fear, to ignore its responsibilities.

It is our responsibility that the infant mortality rate is twice as high for Blacks as for Whites, that the net household worth for Whites is 20 times higher than for Blacks and Latinos, that Blacks are incarcerated at 6x the level for Whites and Latinos at 3x the level of Whites, and that Blacks and Latinos at 30 percent of the general population account for 58 percent of the prison population. It is our responsibility that that the US census has only one race category defined as being from a “racial group” (Black) when every other race is defined as being from an “original peoples.” Difference, and inequality, is not due to our nature, it is due to what we have done, and do, as a society.

Increasing inequality, separation from one another, racism and the structural violence they bring are our responsibility. We cannot continue to wait for horrendous events like the killing of a young man and the destruction of a community to act for change. The events at Ferguson are not isolated nor are they simply about Black and White. They are about who we are as a nation and until we break the cycle of race(ism), fear, and ignorance they are not going away.

Alvaro Jarrin, “On Disconnections Post-Ferguson”

I have been battling on Facebook for days now, shocked and saddened by the uncaring responses I have read to the Ferguson protests (portraying protesters as stupid, unreasonable, and even as “savages”), while being at the same time immensely inspired by those who see this moment as a call to struggle, to have their voices heard and produce change. The naysayers keep arguing that this is not about race, that justice has had its say, that Ferguson has no connection to other cases of young black men being killed by police across America. For we who see the connections to race as clear as day, who say that it was not only Michael Brown who died unfairly but also Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Trayvon Martin (the list goes on, and on, and on) – we stare at our computer screens in disbelief that the people who we respect and love refuse to see the larger picture: the horrifying reality of systemic racial profiling embedded in our very system of policing and justice.

At first, I thought it had to do with people not having enough information on their hands. I thought, that as an anthropologist, I could provide them some context, some social analysis of the larger forces at play. But social media does not lend itself to thoughtful commentary – most of my discussions devolved quickly into battles about who has the last say, who has the most supporters on their feed, who best portrays the other side as being unbalanced, unfair and irrational. The two sides on this issue seem to be quickly congealing into inflexible positions, speaking past each other. When I taught about Ferguson in class, I had a similar feeling: that most students were receptive to the critical analysis of racism in the US, but others were more interested in who was “correct”: Wilson or Brown. They wanted simpler answers, and when in doubt they prefer to side with the cops, with the rule of law, and with order. Our polarized political landscape certainly contributes to that divide.

I do not have the answer for how to undo this dichotomy. I do not know how the reality of black experience can be “felt” by those outside of it. But I think noticing this crippling divide is a step to try to bridge it, in order to find creative ways to generate empathy for those who have led different lives from us. Is that not anthropology’s most important contribution? Can anthropology go beyond critique and build bridges once again?



Lee D. Baker is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Dean of Academic Affairs at Duke University.

Whitney Battle-Baptiste is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts.

A. Lynn Bolles is Professor of Women’s Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland.

Agustín Fuentes is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Notre Dame University.

Alvaro Jarrin is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the College of the Holy Cross.

Carole McGranahan

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.

3 thoughts on “Ferguson: Anthropologists Speak Out

  1. We must get everyone to ignore things like those written by people like Nicolas Wade! An Alternative is The Myth of Race.

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