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
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.
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.
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.