Ferguson and the Anthropology of Justice

I’m sure many of you have been following the news out of Ferguson, MO, where the 18 year old black man, Michael Brown, was shot down by local police. There are conflicting stories about what happened that night, but it is nevertheless clear that an injustice was done to this young man and he did not deserve his fate. The response from the police was to try to downplay, and cover up the issue, which resulted in protests that turned violent, resulting in an increasingly militarized response from the police. Scenes from the city over the last week have been compared to those from war zones. On Sunday night, things took a turn for the worse again as police and SWAT teams shut down protests with rubber bullets and tear gas hours before the imposed curfew in response to alleged attacks by protesters.

This is a tragic situation, and extremely complex with many contributing factors and causes. Many have pointed to the history of racialization that has caused the demographic shift within the town, and the economic and social disparities that have contributed to it. Some have considered the contrast between the way white suspects are treated and portrayed and the portrayal and treatment of black victims (i.e. non-offending individuals) of police violence. Others have discussed the increasing militarization of police in our nation, and the way this shapes community-law enforcement relations. And links have been drawn to the Trayvon Martin shooting and the killing of Eric Garner.

It seems a paltry contribution in the face of people dying, and the incessant and intractable racism that seems to permeate the country, but I can only wonder about the role that anthropology could play in helping to address situations like this in the future. First, I think it is important for the discipline as a whole to reflect on its own colonial and racist past and present – to examine why anthropology departments are almost entirely white, and why people of color who do come into the field end up feeling so marginalized, despite the fact that anthropology is presented as one of the great anti-racist disciplines.

Second, I think we need a genuine anthropology of race in the US. What’s lacking, I think – and this is why upward anthropology is so important – is not an anthropology of those who are marginalized by racial disparities. There is a lot of that, and much of it is good work. What’s needed, though, is an anthropology of the people, sites, and systems that perpetuate this racism. As Eric Holder has pointed out, the problem is not the obvious racism of people like Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy, but the subtle, and more hurtful systemic racism that can’t necessarily be pinned on any individual. Understanding how this covert racism is created and reproduced (even within our own discipline) is an essential task moving forward.

Finally, in order to address situations that are more specifically like the one in Ferguson, we need an upward anthropology of the police and military. What does it mean to be a cop or a soldier? How does that experience transform a person, and what does it mean for the relationship between law enforcement, the military, and the people and communities they confront on a regular basis? In this increasingly militarized world, questioning the role of police and soldiers, understanding how they view the world and the people they encounter, and contemplating a different approach to law enforcement and international relation is a decidedly anthropological task, but it can’t be done simply by studying down. We have to turn the ethnographic gaze back on those who have power, and begin working on a different kind of dynamic.

I’ve touched on only part of the problem, and only a part of the solution. Our hope is that the Upward Anthropology Research Community can push anthropologists to engage in a different kind of anthropology, and to transform anthropology into a more effective tool for justice. The events in Ferguson highlight an opportunity to think about the state of our country now, and how we might move forward – I think the same is true for our discipline, and I hope that more anthropologists will answer that call.

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2 thoughts on “Ferguson and the Anthropology of Justice

  1. “despite the fact that anthropology is presented as one of the great anti-racist disciplines”, on what basis would someone make such a claim, how do the practices of academic anthro somehow counter the efforts of racists?

  2. Ferguson and the Founding of Sovereign Violence – Upward Anthropology Research Community

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