This is the second part of my interview with Karen Brodkin. Part I is here.
Ryan Anderson: All of this has me wondering how this is happening in US anthropology. As a discipline, we have this sort of pride that comes with our Boasian legacy of anti-racism. But your work seems to indicate that something is terribly amiss. Despite all of our rhetoric about anti-racism, it turns out we have some serious internal problems when it comes to race and diversity. In your view, how has this happened and why do we tell ourselves such a different story?
Karen Brodkin: In its institutional profile, anthropology is not much different from other white-majority institutions, and like them, we also think we’re doing better than especially non-white anthropologists think we are. I’ve used “white public space” to highlight the different views that white and racialized minority anthropologists have about anthropology’s racial climate. But knowing that only raises two more questions. What are the specific practices and narratives that have led anthropologists of color give the discipline’s racial climate low marks over some 40 years? And, what are the positive changes anthropologists have been making within their departments and scholarly networks? Both these efforts and conversations about them need a bigger public profile within the discipline.
I think that the story about our Boasian anti-racist legacy is one of the (many) things we need to change. As you indicate, it’s part of what makes many of us think we’re doing well. It is also part of what attracts scholars of color to anthropology, even if they subsequently may become disappointed.
The story I learned eons ago, and that I also taught made Boas an exemplar of anthropology’s anti-racist potential, either as PR for the discipline or as encouragement to engage in social justice scholarship, depending on the teller. It was a story of Boas and his students as activists and scholars who challenged prevailing ideas that races were unequal and that white social supremacy was a natural and inevitable outcome of superior biology. Key points were that race, language and culture varied independently; that biology was changeable; that Africa had great kingdoms; and that there was no inherent or inevitable inferiority of black Americans or any other racialized group.
All that was true and good, but, as Lee Baker has shown, Boas had some serious limitations in his own era, and they loom even larger in today’s context. In their own time Boasians ignored the political economy of race and the sociocultural organization of African American communities. Political and economic oppression of black Americans was the “self-evident” confirmation of white supremacy. With 20-20 hindsight it’s easy to see how big that omission was. Nevertheless, the political economy of American racism was very much part of the analysis of progressive scholarship in Boas’ time. W.E.B. DuBois, whom Boas knew and worked with, and anthropologists like Alison Davis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, contemporaries of Boas’ students, were publishing politically and economically-informed analyses of Black America and of African American cultural communities.
Nevertheless, these scholars and the kind of socially critical analysis they generated about race/ism weren’t in the anthropological canon I learned, and I’m guessing they still aren’t. By ignoring this work, Boasians arguably established a pattern of marginalizing the study of race and racism—that it’s somehow not real anthropology–that persists today. That their view of culture in general didn’t include political economy is also a weakness. Marginalizing the study of rac/ism in the U.S. was in part a casualty of a larger exclusion of political economy. Anthropology ceded such things to sociology. Still, British social anthropology, and later, even Marx, made happy homes in U.S. anthropology. Less so the study of race and racism.
Racism is a shape shifter, and while Boasian anti-racism countered the white racist narratives of its time, today’s racism isn’t the racism of pre-civil rights eras. We’ve inherited three weaknesses from genuflecting to Boasians as anti-racist ancestors instead of analyzing their contributions in historical perspective.
First, as Lee Baker shows in “The Color-Blind Bind,” the political right wing has embraced anthropology’s signature contribution that race is not a biological concept to argue for erasing race from the civic vocabulary; if there are no races, there can be no racism. How do we as anthropologists counter that logic?
Second, there’s a hole in our traditional Boasian story. DuBois, St.Clair Drake, Cayton, and Alison Davis gave birth to a powerful stream of anti-racist social science scholarship, but I don’t think it’s widely embraced as part of our canon. Seldom are these scholars included as apical ancestors, even though we make disciplinary exceptions for Durkheim, Weber and more recently Marx.
Third, both Boasian and British colonial anthropology have left an exoticist legacy, which disparaged studying “us.” Boasians tended to treat Native Americans as cultural and ahistorical “others,” and African Americans as a biological race but otherwise culturally the same as whites. Happily dying, such traditions lived on well in the 1980s and ‘90s, and I suspect are alive still among some of us old folks. If anthropology’s reason for being is to understand society & culture, how trustworthy are we at understanding either in places we know not so well, if we assume incompetence at reflective analysis of our home places?
So what’s the point of this long meditation on Boas? I think that it’s just one (very small) example of the kinds of critical reflections we need to make on our disciplinary taken-for-granted cultural practices and narratives. We also need to move from reflection to changing the Boasian narrative and expanding the anthropological canon to include DuBois, Drake, Davis and Cayton as theoretical pioneers. Doing so would be one step in placing the study of race squarely inside the anthropological mainstream.