We all knew it was going to happen. For a couple weeks, we kept hearing about how the Grand Jury decision was going to happen at any moment. The governor called in the National Guard and declared a state of emergency; businesses in Clayton, MO (a small affluent suburb of St. Louis) started boarding up windows and blockading the streets. And then came Monday morning: as I left home for school, I saw the news. The city was wrapping monuments to keep them from being vandalized. As Michael Che commented on SNL: That’s like your lawyer telling you to show up to court in something orange.
It’s all people could talk about at school. “When do you think they’ll announce it?” The conversation even veered into “Ferguson” in my seminar on reproductive health issues. It gave us a chance to talk about how #BlackLivesMatter is a reproductive rights issue, something I had hoped to discuss for the last several weeks.
Hours later, I was back home watching the local news on my television, @AnonCopWatch on my laptop, and listening to the STL Police Scanner. McCulloch’s speech, calculated from the beginning, was chilling, especially in the context of his background. No one was surprised. President Obama’s speech was a disappointment, as if he was running for re-election. The police moved in with smoke and then tear gas and we all know the rest of the story.
The Grand Jury decision has come on the heels of the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer for carrying an Airsoft handgun without the orange tip, and I had just spent about a day fruitlessly arguing with people on Facebook about whether or not this was a “race issue.” Because I’m a sucker for being drawn into these things, I gave up yet another day of valuable time trying to convince a brick wall to bend.
The most astonishing part about the discussions that I’ve had is that half of the people with whom I sparred are trained in anthropology (and the other half, closet racist relatives; but you almost have to expect that). I apparently believed – naively so – that we (anthropologists) are on the same page, especially about things like structural violence (or vulnerability), governmentality, state-sanctioned violence, privilege, méconnaissance, social reproduction and so forth; I assumed that we could all discuss things abstractly in order to flesh out a conceptual framework of why the sudden rash of “justifiable homicides.” Nope. I shouldn’t have been surprised, and here’s why.
“Race is a biological myth.” The AAA should tattoo it on our faces when we buy lifetime memberships. We say it all the time and don’t pretend that you don’t get some satisfaction from the look of shock when your students hear this for the first time. The problem is, it lacks a very crucial corollary: “[But] race is a social reality.”
Another friend – a non-anthropologist woman of color – messaged me privately. “Why don’t your friends get it? Why do they insist on telling me that my experience as a black woman is wrong?” I told her: They are (or were) anthropology students. We are taught that “race is a myth,” and therefore it follows that race cannot be implicated in the issues that they were happy to identify as “structural” or “systemic.” They just weren’t willing to take the next step and see that even if the whole system is flawed, it affects people of color much differently than it affects white people; that parents of black children worry differently than parents of white children. Additionally, I told her, students of anthropology are implicitly taught that anthropology is done outside of the United States and sociology is done inside the United States, and so were aren’t exactly receptive to the idea of viewing “justifiable homicide” through an anthropological lens, and I’ll be damned if we even know what a sociological lens looks like. I suggested that some of my friends read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and one friend replied that they didn’t need to read to learn about “the real world.” I assume “the real world” in this case means “America,” because as an anthropologist this person had no trouble reading literature related to their research.
Professors of anthropology, you need to sit down with your students and hash this out. I don’t need to tell you that if we deny the social reality of race, we will continue to reproduce this lacuna of empathy in the next generation of anthropologists. The “race card” can be a powerful tool for us. Don’t let anthropology persist in being a white public space.