Ferguson and the Decline in Anthropology

Peter Wood

According to my card, I’ve been a member of the American Anthropological Association since October 1969.  That’s a fiction.  I was a junior in high school at the time and several years away from taking my first undergraduate anthropology course.  But at some point, for reasons I can’t remember, the AAA awarded me several years of retrospective membership. 

Indulging in fiction presented as fact is, in a way, the hallmark of the AAA today.  A jarring reminder came in this month’s AAA publication, Anthropology News, which is devoted in great part to “Ferguson.”  What do anthropologists have to add to the national discussion of Michael Brown, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” Officer Darren Wilson, and the ensuing riots?  The Anthropology News provides four answers.  They are each a retelling of what might be called the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson:  facts submerged in a sea of fiction.  

Death by Hegemonic Normalcy

These synopses will tax the patience of many readers.  I urge you to pay your tax cheerfully.  You will be better off knowing that these essays say, and I have pared them down to the barest minimum. There is smooth sailing on the other side.

Pem Davidson Buck, a faculty member at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, writes in “The Violence of the Status Quo” that the importance of Ferguson is that the events there “make it impossible for the rest of the country” to ignore the violence with which white people routinely oppress blacks.  That violence is typically ignored, but it is pervasive because it is “a violence that is critical in maintaining the privilege that accompanies whiteness.”  “Continuous low-level violence [is] required to maintain inequality.”  The people of Ferguson, according to Buck, refused to accept this status quo and in so doing have “torn off the mask that hides these truths.”  Buck has a lot to say about masks, and mask-removal turns out to be what anthropology is good for as well:  “Anthropology can furnish analysis of the state, of the use of force, of whiteness, of structural inequality, segmented labor forces, and structural violence.”

Steven Gregory, professor of anthropology and African-American Studies at Columbia University writes in “Ferguson and the Right to Black Life” that Michael Brown was “gunned down” in Ferguson for being “a black male walking.”  The restoration of peace in the city means a return to conditions that led to Brown’s death in the first place. “It was this peace and this normalcy that killed Michael Brown.”  Brown had merely been engaged in the “right to assert and defend” his “humanity.”  He was killed because he was among those black people “who had the audacity to comport themselves as if their rights as citizens were inalienable and protected by the full weight of the law.” Gregory’s lessons for anthropology are more specific than Buck’s.  “We must be critical of how discourses of black violence, chaos and criminality are mobilized to delegitimize black resistance while conferring carte blanche to police repression.” But Gregory rises to the larger point as well:  “We must fight this battle with and not against those who agitate for freedom, democracy and human rights.” 

Raymond Codrington, anthropologist in residence at the New York Hall of Science, writes in “Ferguson:  An American Story” that, “apparently, a struggle of some kind ensued” after Brown “ignored” Officer Wilson’s order to move out of the street.  But this concession to the facts is immediately followed with the fable that Brown was shot “with his hands and arms raised in the air in surrender” – or so “witnesses state.”  What followed demonstrated “the impact of racism and inequality in this country.” Codrington characterizes Brown’s caught-on-video strong-arm robbery of a convenience store as “shoplifting” that would have been excused as “youthful indiscretion” if done by a white teenager.  Then it is on to the deep analysis:  “the events in Ferguson demonstrate the cumulative impact of structural and individual racism.”  Codrington recommends that anthropologists compare what is happening in the U.S. to treatment of minorities in the UK and Brazil as a step toward “developing strategies and frameworks for dismantling structural disparities.”

Lydia Brassard, a graduate anthropology student at CUNY, and Michael Partis, an instructor in the Center for Ethnic Studies at CUNY, contributed the last of the articles, “Standing Their Ground in #Ferguson.”  They explain “#Ferguson can be used for our anthropology students as a way to analyze the relationship between contemporary power structures and the trajectories of sociopolitical mobilizations over time.”  (“#Ferguson” is the Twitter hashtag used by many of the protesters.)  Brassard and Partis are especially interested in “digital sharing and exchange” as part of the protest movement.  “Digital activism,” they argue, is a way to escape the “hegemonic narratives” of the “hegemonic news outlets.”  They welcome brevity and “sentence fragments,” not least because “rather than nailing down ‘facts,’’’ they create “the most nuanced landscape of understanding.” 

Nuancing the Landscape

I have no reason to think that Buck, Gregory, Codrington, Brassard, and Partis represent fringe views in my discipline.  Their declarations sound entirely within what is now the mainstream.  For instance, I just received an announcement of a meeting in April in New York of the Society for Anthropology of North America.  The topic is “Inequality, Equality and Difference,” and is rooted in the idea that “many have come to doubt the ability of the present social system to produce an equitable, sustainable society.”  North American anthropologists have “a great deal to say about inequality.”  They do, they do. 

But is what they say reliable?  Is it true?  And is concern over reliability and truth a matter of indifference to those who treat “facts” as mere encumbrances to deeper truths—“a nuanced landscape of understanding”—or strategies for combating oppression?

The editors of Anthropology News plainly saw no need to present alternative views of what happened at Ferguson, including any views that match with reasonable accuracy the record of events established by the grand jury.  Those matters aren’t even dismissed by the five contributors.  They are simply ignored. The point of all four of the articles is to reaffirm a mythic narrative:  An innocent black teenager was murdered by a white cop in an exercise of the structural violence that is part of America’s system for maintaining racial inequality.  The event stands out in significance only because the people of Ferguson spontaneously rebelled.  We anthropologists can use the murder and the subsequent rebellion to further our own activist agenda aimed at recruiting our students to the larger struggle against inequality.

Every part of this myth deserves to be challenged.  Michael Brown, who had physically attacked Officer Wilson, was neither peaceable nor innocent. Officer Wilson fired his weapon in self-defense.  “Structural violence,” and kindred terms such as “structural racism,” “structural inequality,” and “structural disparities” are intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances.  The appeal of such phrases is political.  They remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as the victims of violence, racism, inequality, and disparity.   An anthropology that simply erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces is no anthropology at all. 

The only motive attributed to the supposed victims is their heroic decision, at long last, to rebel against their “structural” oppression.   But the five authors seem oblivious to the numerous reports that the protests and the subsequent riots were mainly instigated by activists from outside Ferguson who saw an opportunity to exploit for their own political gain.  (One of the writers, Gregory, alludes to this dismissively by citing a riot in Harlem in 1935 in which police blamed much of the violence on the Young Communist League—which indeed played a major role. But Gregory’s point is ‘don’t blame outsiders.’)

Masks Beneath Masks

The “anthropology” on display in these four articles and in a great many more such declarations is a profound misappropriation of an intellectual discipline.  Anthropology, rightly understood, is an effort to understand human nature through systematic study of those qualities in us that vary in time and place—and those that don’t.  Anthropology looks at how we emerged as a species and how we have diversified into thousands of languages, tribes, and civilizations.  The field became a “discipline” by sternly demanding of itself rigor in how it went about this inquiry.  Mostly that rigor required a steadfast determination to stand outside the myths people tell themselves and, by standing outside, to see things as they really are.

Buck’s references to “tearing away masks” are, in this sense, pertinent.  Anthropology, at its best, does reveal things about human nature that are not easily seen by the people who are busy living their lives.  But therein lies a temptation.  Anthropologists can also adopt an oracular mode in which they present their personal and political preferences as what really lies behind all those masks.  Margaret Mead made a career out of such pseudo-profundity.  She made up stories and grossly misreported ethnography to back up her views—and it all played extremely well with an audience primed to hear what it wanted to hear. 

Anthropology, in other words, learned the trick of promoting new myths in the name of demythologizing.  Rip off the mask in order to promote a new mask more in keeping with a different political agenda.  This breeds a great deal of cynicism within the field and a feeling that the masking never stops.  Everything is a mask, and if that is the case, why not devote your effort to the mask you like best?  That’s how devotion to facts and the pursuit of truth withers away.

Today we have anthropologists eager to lend their intellectual authority to the just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege. This is, quite plainly, a myth.  There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.  But it is, of course, a politically useful myth for those seeking to obtain power and influence by marshalling social resentments. 

The American Anthropological Association can retrospectively add years to my membership.  I’m flattered, but I know the date on my card is false.  How much fictionalizing can an academic discipline bear before it altogether loses its credibility?

A version of this article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on January 18, 2015. 

Image: Metta Refuge

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