Lee D. Baker, Duke University

1995 Reflections in the National Mirror. Anthropology Newsletter. February 1995: 1,6.

(Response to Sheldon Hackney, National Endowment for the Humanities)

President Clinton, in his speech in Austin, explained when Americans have failed historically to live up to democratic principles "we looked in the national mirror and were brave enough to say, this is not who we are; we're better than that." Citing the Civil War, women's suffrage, and civil rights movement, Clinton suggested that the U.S., as a nation, grows stronger by moving forward in making democracy work for all Americans. Both Clinton and Sheldon Hackney are right: We need to do that again-- now.

I was at the Million Man March when President Clinton delivered his thoughtful remarks in Austin. Engulfed by a throng of Black men and boys, I listened to the Reverend Jesse Jackson recount the chronic disparity between Black and White prison sentences and implore "The state of emergency in which the black community finds itself -- our pain, our predicament -- is driving the march. In many ways, the key organizers are Clarence Thomas and Newt Gingrich." From where I stood, the reflection in the national mirror was the same W.E.B. DuBois saw nearly a century ago. The Negro, DuBois eloquently surmised, sees "a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world," a reflection veiled by "that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem."

Other Americans see a different image. When Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition, Rush Limbaugh and his ditto-heads, Newt Gingrich and his army of freshmen, and William H. Rehnquist and his Supreme Court majority look into the national mirror, they all see the fruits of the so-called Republican revolution. They see a better America with eroding affirmative action programs, draconian welfare reform, punitive immigration policies, erasure of majority-minority congressional districts, and sharp reductions in financial aid, the NEA and NEH, school lunches, and the like.

As the OJ verdict made clear, Americans do not share the same worldview. Frankly, when Clinton holds up the national mirror, each American sees an image refracted through the lens of their lived experienced. Clinton himself explained that "white Americans and black Americans often see the same world in drastically different ways." While race, class, and gender structure those experiences, the image is blurred by high-paid opinion makers across the political spectrum. We need the National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity sponsored by the NEH now more than ever. It is an effort to widen the lens, if you will, so the Unum in the national motto becomes the panorama of social and cultural experiences. It is also an effort to focus on the shared values, beliefs, and ideals that comprise that amorphous thing called American culture.

Sheldon Hackney illustrates how the "pilot conversations" have been fruitful and that the project will provide a much needed exploration of civic nationalism. Although Hackney demonstrates that most Americans gravitate toward the ideals expressed in the Constitution to form an American identity, he also highlights the important contradiction between principles of equality and liberty. The one principle of democracy not mentioned is justice. Americans hotly contest what constitutes justice in U.S. society. Whereas federal and local governments protect the freedom and liberty of individuals, specific institutions ostensibly establish justice within U.S. society.

Defining institutional roles for establishing economic and racial justice opens wounds inflicted throughout American history to reveal how Americans are divided. Admission guidelines to universities, voucher programs for private schools, prison sentencing guidelines, minimum wage freezes, and expenditures for public schools, are just a few interrelated issues transforming how institutions establish racial and economic justice. While these are vieled in so-called democratic ideas of a color-blind society and personal responsibility, poor people and people of color are losing in these battles that are reconstituting how we establish justice in the United States. The old African American adage that justice means for White folks "just-us," is again ringing true.

Anthropology's Contributons

What can anthropologists do to mitigate the common problems and help attain the common goals Hackney addresses? One of many ways is to insert and assert within class rooms, publications, or public arenas, the unique ways race and racism persists as integral aspects of U.S. society and culture. While anthropologists still must explain that biological categories of race are meaningless, they also must explain how social categories of race are very real, meaningful, and dictate life chances and access to opportunity. In short, we must join the efforts of the National Conversation and other projects to find better ways to explain why democracy does not work for all Americans and explore options ways to make democracy work for all Americans.

Faye V. Harrison recently provided a poignant analysis how anthropologists are "overcoming denial." In "The Persistent Power of 'Race' in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism" (Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1995 24:47-74), Harrison argues that a decade ago the no-race posture, employing ethnicity as a surrogate for race, tended to euphemise, blur, and even deny how racial categories emerge and persist. Harrison shows how anthropologists have revitalized their interests in the complex structures and dynamics of racial inequality and have begun addressing the power and persistence of racism-- so critical to understanding life experiences around the world. In my opinion, this revitalized interest can also help counter the naive and pernicious rhetoric that we live in a color-blind society.

While most anthropologists have the opportunity to address the problems raised in Hackney's address at this year's meeting. The theme is "Anthropology: A Critical Retrospective," which coincides the centennial of Plessy v Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that employed the fallacious doctrine of 'separate but equal' to declare racial apartheid Constitutional. It also marks 100 years since D.G. Brinton published "The Aims of Anthropology," which attempted to chart U.S. anthropology's course for the 20th Century by outlining how notions of racial inferiority can be applied to buttress public and education policies.

Another anthropological effort--organized at the 1995 meetings, the Radical Anthropology Network is integrating the centennial of Plessy with the theme of this year's conference. They are defining how anthropology can be used to address and link the issues Hackney raises in the U.S. with larger global dynamics. These anthropologists recommend scholars focus on the "crisis of global restructuring and increasing inequality."

If the National Conversations are going to function as the national mirror--and I hope they do-- they must reflect the history and reality of race and racism in the U.S. This reflection must also capture the how individuals to negotiate daily between the ideological pillars of democracy and the stark reality of racial inequality.

American anthropology has been the discipline that takes the explanation of race and culture as its central charge. While sociology has been concerned with race relations, anthropology has held sway over scholarly discussions about race in the U.S. Although this authority has been used to articulate agendas across the political spectrum, we should continue the proud legacy of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Hortense Powdermaker, St. Claire Drake, et al. by reasserting the authority of the discipline.


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