Teaching About Systemic Racism: An Anthropological Pedagogy

When I was ready to write up my dissertation fieldwork, I was stymied by conceptual perspectives for organizing my data. What I thought about data collection before entering the field of anthropology had been overwhelmed by the reality of fieldwork.

That was in the mid-1970s, when the concept of the ‘web’ of society was giving way to network analysis. The metaphor of a web now required an operational framework, especially if one was going to analyze a squatter settlement at the edge of a large metropolis. For anthropologists, this meant moving from a study in a city to a study of the city; not merely locational, but theoretically connected to the urban environment.

There was also a choice of academic ideologies: Should I be concerned that the flow of rural to urban lower-class individuals will lead to a hotbed for communism? Nope. How about the problem of urban design and infrastructure? Not that either. What about the effect of race on community organization? I was still unmoved.

Perhaps I was a coward for not taking up a partisan cudgel. From our 21st-century hindsight, I failed to impose a social justice ideology to understand the ‘reality’ of las paracaistas, those who parachuted into land owned by the landed gentry.

All of those ideologies—the fear of communism, the fear of a haphazard urban layout, the anger toward a racial divide—had empirical referents in the data I collected. Yet they seemed awkward and only partially useful when imposed on the people I interviewed, the behavior I observed, and the documents I read.

I decided to go with the insider realities, multiple and often conflicting with each other, to let those threads of the city—operationalized by the networks that were driven hither and thither by the squatters, the politicians, and the city planners—to form a web of their making, not my own. Yes, I edited the data, but now I could follow several dozen individuals who gave texture to making their community better rather than a just-so ideology.

Standpoint Epistemology

As an anthropologist confronted by the debate over racism, particularly systemic racism, I gaze upon individuals and institutions in the United States in much the same way as I did on the community development of a squatter settlement in Cali, Colombia. Those using the positional semantics of ‘standpoint epistemology’ would describe my ‘gaze’ as typical of a white academic. A racialized point of view, they would say, often with a lack of consciousness or sensitivity to those who were victimized by the legacy of white, capitalist, and heteronormative oppression.

I admit that I always smile at this characterization of myself. As anthropologists, we are taught to be aware of our biases. That was perhaps the wisdom of Margaret Mead when she addressed us graduate students at a private faculty party at UC San Diego: “You are not a real anthropologist until your second fieldwork.” That bothered me since I had just finished by first fieldwork. Now, many fieldworks later, I see Mead’s point: the repetition of fieldwork in different cultures allows us to better see ourselves in those other realities.

I gleaned another bit of wisdom from a theory of anthropology class. The professor spoke about a British colleague who had attended an Asian conference in the Pacific, some time in the 1960s. A Chinese anthropologist stood up and challenged this Britisher, proclaiming that “only Chinese anthropologists can study Chinese people,” to which the Britisher replied—and with the wit of the British—“I agree. And only a two-year-old Chinese male can study two-year-old Chinese males.” The reduction ad absurdum counterpoint strikes at the heart of the standpoint epistemological criticism: by focusing on aggrieved groups, identity loses sight of important individual variation and how such grievances are distributed in different ways, and perhaps not at all, within that society. There are no longer individuals, but cookie-cutter stereotypes caught up in power and virtue. That understanding makes sense for the Twitterverse, but it fails to describe how individuals and social groups actually interact. And yes, there is often oppression; yes, there is often value in studying one’s own community. But if standpoint epistemology is used as a preemptive filter to observing and listening to others, our understanding will likely be truncated.

How Much of ‘Systemic’ Racism is Metaphor?

To say that racism was ‘systemic’ during slavery and Reconstruction is unremarkable. No special theoretical lens is necessary since other such lenses are in agreement. It is easy to pinpoint racism when it is de jure, such as in housing discrimination before Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). As civil rights housing laws have been implemented over the past fifty years, even de facto housing discrimination faded. The question of systemic racism in housing requires empirical attention, not a metaphor for the legacy of slavery, especially if one believes that institutional social change is possible. I grew up in a Brooklyn housing project during the 1940s and 50s and witnessed white flight; my family stayed. The fear of the other was sufficiently real to motivate white flight.

Perhaps the more tendentious arena for racialized squabbling is policing. The arguments for systemic racism jump out and demand attention, more so since the killing of George Floyd. Notably, Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of murder, was not tried for racism, but discussions about systemic racism often imply that he was. Here we reach the fork in the road where one path says ‘systemic racism’ and the other says ‘bad apple, bad policing.’

For anthropologists, the important inquiry should be separating illusion and metaphor from pragmatics and empirical data—unless one is intent on adopting a social justice ideology and imposing that lens into framing what is seen and what is not.

Let’s begin with the community response. During the period of mass protests and calls for defunding the police, the systemic-racism focus failed to convince black Americans that the police were the problem. Indeed, an August 2020 Gallup Poll reported that an overwhelming majority of black Americans wanted to keep police presence in their communities (81%).

If one takes political labels as a starting point, we still observe an illusion-and-reality effect with respect to seeing violence in policing. Nearly fifty percent (44%) of liberals and twenty percent of conservatives estimated that between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed blacks were killed by police in 2019. The actual number? 27.

Some might argue that this distorted understanding of police violence is just as much an effect of today’s news and social media overload as it is of the go-to explanation of systemic racism.

Meanwhile, Glenn Loury articulates a penetrating analysis of violence affecting the black community, both by police and blacks:

To put it in perspective: There were roughly 20,000 homicides in the United States last year; nearly half of them involved black perpetrators. The vast majority of these perpetrators took other blacks as victims. For every black person killed by the police, more than twenty-five others meet their ends because of homicides committed by other blacks.

The claim that something called “white supremacy” or “systemic racism” has put a metaphorical “knee on the neck” of black America is a lie being told daily by prominent black spokesmen and repeated uncritically by the media. Let me speak plainly: The idea that I, as a black person, dare not leave my house for fear that the police will round me up, gun me down, or bludgeon me to death because of my race is ridiculous. The lifetime odds of a black man’s being killed by law enforcement are 1 in 1,000. The presentation of violent conflicts between police and African Americans as latter-day lynchings is preposterous. Fear of cancellation keeps many white people from saying so out loud—but it doesn’t keep them from thinking it. “White silence” is not “violence,” as the social justice warriors would have it.

Teaching About Systemic Racism: An Anthropological Pedagogy

Data alone will not settle the argument over systemic racism—whether the concept is overinclusive and therefore more metaphorical than empirical. As instructors, we can offer students a clearly defined two-paradigm approach. Students should develop a skill set to argue the data from both paradigms and should be able to identify the logic of each: on the one hand, we find critical thinking, a systematic approach that does not preemptively rely on one explanatory framework; on the other hand, we find ‘critical consciousness,’ an approach that overlays critical thinking with the ideology of social justice, putting blinders on what data takes priority.

Those who are familiar with teaching anthropology at the college level might find this suggestion odd. In one respect, we like to think instruction in any subject should be guided by critical thinking, including systemic racism. But there is an important difference to understand, especially as one moves out of the college level and into K-12 education.

The K-12 curriculum is more structured and more influenced by the school district’s Board of Trustees. The national debate over whether to teach ‘critical race theory’ or its sister curricular frameworks (‘critical ethnic studies,’ ‘culturally responsive teaching,’ etc.) is not about the label ‘critical race theory’; it is about the concepts that frame the ensuing instruction, such as hegemony, oppressed-oppressor, victimhood, white privilege, and intersectionality.

Since anthropology is rarely a subject taught at the high school level, the default pedagogy for teaching about culture is ethnic studies. Unfortunately, ‘ethnic’ studies is often racialized and favors a critical rather than a constructive methodology. This is a major debate at the K-12 level and is too easily ignored from a college-level vantage point.

Social and economic disparities frequently motivate discussions about racism. Students can be presented with a disparity and asked to analyze it from both Paradigm A and Paradigm B.

Paradigm A: Critical Thinking (systematic, methodical, empirical, robust comparison of explanations)

Paradigm B: Critical Consciousness (critical thinking with ideological blinders imposed on the data)

Paradigm A would look at a variety of causes—economics, socialization, poor government policy, or discriminatory bias. In this view, disparities are not only caused by race, and they can be significantly reformed as we have seen over the past half-century.

Paradigm B would favor explanations that look to the history of the United States in terms of the oppression of minority groups by institutions, presumably by those with white privilege—even if they are not white.

Students should be able to put on the ideological blinders of critical consciousness and take them off. With critical consciousness we narrow the range of explanation, forcing students to channel their understanding into a Marxist or race-conscious model. Critical thinking can include those concepts, but it also tests reality with a broader reach of explanations and empirical data.

Joe Nalven

Joe Nalven is a Lecturer of Anthropology and Research Associate at the University of San Diego.

2 thoughts on “Teaching About Systemic Racism: An Anthropological Pedagogy

  1. This is a well thought out article. I taught college students for 40 years. Most were white, most naive. I taught in economically diverse areas from $28k to $110k average family income. The wealthier college indeed had many times more minority students (5-10 per class to in most case none). Scholarships both merit but mostly athletic explained the difference along with suburban vs rural demography.

    I usually began my intro classes having students reflect on ascribed vs achieved status and how the rolls attached got them to college.
    I think this got them to begin to realize something about the social construct of their lives.

    Being white, Black or otherwise was of course one of those social constructs.

    To call racism institutional implies just this – socially constructed race can gain advantage or disadvantage in American society. Slavery is of course at root of racism. But wealth differential is the continuing saga.

    One last thing: the relationship between the institution process of racism and its methodological tool race as Coate’ describes. And here the Anthropologist is central, for after all the races of Morton were created to confirm racism. The intentional bogus cranial capacities of Morton’s skulls have poisoned humanity for more than a century. The image of Stephen Jay Gould’s reenactment of Morton stuffing skulls with squeezable organic pellets is not a metaphor but a physical, observable, empirical measure of racism.

    1. Many of our academic betters have abandoned their charge in exchange for taking cover when the identitarians begin looking for evidence in support of their existence, and work to ferret out the racists among us. I very much appreciated the important difference between a critical curriculum and a constructive one. That’s the distinction I’ve been making without the right term to describe the mistakes we’re making in our K-12 schools. Nothing wrong with critical curriculum. . . at the right point. But stuffing race-critical ideologies into the heads of 5th graders does actual long term harm. Finally, speaking of stuffing, the 19th century view of race completely ignores a century of neurobiology, where intelligence is about neural complexity, not mass or volume and culture has no genetic markers. THAT’S cutting edge science today, and too few teach or are even aware of it.

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