On October 7, 2020, nearly fifty participants convened via Zoom for the first in a yearlong series of discussions organized by members of the editorial collective of the History of Anthropology Review (HAR). Hosted in collaboration with the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, the History of Anthropology Review Reading Group (HARRG) was created as an outgrowth of the content published by HAR, intended as a space to discuss anthropology both as a topic of historical inquiry and as a contemporary discipline and practice. For its inaugural year, the group’s conveners—John Tresch, Tracie Canada, Allegra Giovine, and Patrícia Martins Marcos—identified a series of topics and readings focused on anthropology’s relationships with race, racism, anti-racism, authoritarianism, as well as on the anthropology of policing. These topics and readings focused the group’s attention on the different ways that anthropology, as both an object of inquiry and a disciplinary practice, has contributed to legacies of colonialism and white supremacy.
The introductory session, led by HAR editor Rosanna Dent, placed anthropologist Ryan Cecil Jobson’s provocative 2019 year-in-review essay “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn” alongside writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter’s magisterial “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” This pairing allowed the group to consider how anthropology is and has been mired by the problems and assumptions of the (so-called) universal liberal human. Wynter’s forensic approach to piecing together evidence exposes the longue durée of racism and anti-blackness in literary, historical, and scientific discourse, and challenges the fixation on race as a way to understand who or what might be considered as human. Coupled with Jobson’s pointed critique of anthropology in the year 2019, and the discipline’s continued complicity in supporting structures of oppression, these pieces set the tone for the year’s discussions and demonstrated the embeddedness of racial thinking within anthropology both historically and in the present.
The second session addressed unexamined implications of the predominance of Franz Boas and his students as pioneers of anti-racism in American anthropology. The conversation centered on two readings. The first came from anthropologist Lee D. Baker, who described the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois’s relationship with Franz Boas—paying particular attention to Du Bois’s invitation for Boas to speak at both the 1905 Atlanta University Conference on Health and Physique of the Negro and the meeting which officially incorporated the NAACP. The second reading was a review essay from historian of science Geoff Bil on three recent books covering the Boasians and their role in shifting the paradigm in anthropology towards social and political activism. The authors of these readings, Lee Baker and Geoff Bil, attended and participated in the discussion, where they further highlighted the contradictions between the legacies of Boasian “cultural relativism” as anti-racist, and Boas’s own shifting discourse on race during his career. As HAR advisory board member Ira Bashkow noted, the case of the Boasians exemplified a kind of persistent “double bind” in anthropology, through which discourse and counter-discourse on the scientific validity of race continually reinforced arguments of white supremacy.
The group’s third session diverged from the prior two sessions’ more explicit focus on episodes from the history of anthropology to consider the impact of slavery on the emergence of racial politics associated with blackness. For this session, the conveners chose two very different texts—one ethnographic (Deborah Thomas’s 2019 Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation), and one historical (Andrew Curran’s 2011 In the Anatomy of Blackness)—to grapple with the commodification and classification of Black bodies. The juxtaposition of these readings elicited strong reactions from several of the participants, who found Curran’s detached manner of describing the anatomization of Black Africans in the eighteenth century—a shift which he argues repositioned blackness from a mode of description to an object of measurement, manipulation, and violence—extremely jarring when read alongside Thomas’s more reflexive and multi-modal treatment of the 2010 Tivoli incursion in Kingston, Jamaica. This led to a thoughtful discussion about the limitations of earlier works in the history of science in adequately treating and conveying the racial violence central to the production of scientific and political categories. At the same time, Deb Thomas’s nuanced reflection on the broader legacies of plantation slavery seemed to offer more effective possibilities for dealing with the historical and contemporary traumas rooted in lived human experiences.
Following this discussion, the fourth session turned to the topics of antiblackness and indigeneity through two case studies in which “whiteness” became normalized through processes of colonization. The first reading from Patricia Lorcin emphasized the role of physicians and the medical establishment in the bureaucratization of racial hierarchies in French-occupied Algeria during the mid-nineteenth century. The second reading, taken from Maile Arvin’s 2019 book Possessing Polynesians, turned to histories of settler colonialism in Hawai’i and the implementation there of racial classifications, reinforced through eugenics and physical anthropology. The discussion opened with comments on the cyclical nature of anthropology’s histories and a pointed observation from Patrícia Martins Marcos. She noted how anthropology—as a discipline rooted in eighteenth century ambitions to totalize knowledge of the human—inevitably came to rely on systems of surveillance and conquest that allowed it to amass statistical, typological, and classificatory “data” necessary to legitimize its scientific aims. At the same time, these systems also helped support educational, religious, and medical campaigns that institutionalized whiteness, thereby creating infrastructures of systemic racism. Yet as Rob Wilson referenced in the case of eugenic policies in Australia, the construction of human difference is not simply an account of disciplinary formation, in turn prompting an important reminder from Tracie Canada that even recent histories have the capacity to obscure racial bias when they become too caught up in trying to identify the theoretical or intellectual narratives of racism at the expense of the lived experiences of real people.
Joe Biden’s US presidential inauguration in January 2021 and his appointment of STS scholar Alondra Nelson as Deputy Director of Science and Technology Policy for Science and Society offered an appropriate backdrop for the group’s fifth session on racism in science. Focused on readings from Michel-Rolph Trouillot on “Anthropology and the Savage Slot,” as well as pieces from Ann Morning and Michelle Murphy, the discussion centered on the disconnect between the work of anthropologists and others to reveal race as a social construct, while it nonetheless remains a fixed category in political discourse and scientific research. A major point raised was how the discipline of anthropology had institutionalized itself by mobilizing existing discourses of “othering” used by Europeans to assert power and justify conquest. Echoing observations also articulated by Sylvia Wynter about the need to reconsider the genealogical bounds of anthropology’s history, Trouillot’s take on the “savage slot” revised treatments of the discipline’s eighteenth century scientific origins by showing the prevalence of ethnographic encounters in the production of Renaissance utopias and travel narratives, and, more significantly, the important function of establishing an “other” against which to project the aspirations of the “West.” John Tresch posed the question of how a decline of faith in “Western” rationality—particularly in a post-Trump era—might offer an opportunity to rethink frameworks for organizing the world beyond the “savage slot,” one that might in turn allow an understanding of humans and humanity that does not rely on the presence and identification of an “other.”
The final three sessions on policing, data futures, and visualization carried forward these philosophical and historiographical questions about anthropology’s relationship with white supremacy and scientific racism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into the present day. Readings from Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, Ruha Benjamin, and Catherine Stinson each dealt in different ways with how racial biases have been programmed—literally and metaphorically—into the identification and management of Black bodies. In her case study on the training of new recruits to US police departments, anthropologist Aisha Beliso-De Jesús exposed the process by which Black men and women have been “molded” as officers-in-training through both physical and psychological means to uphold a predominately white male social order. Ruha Benjamin’s and Catherine Stinson’s works likewise revealed the racial and gender discrimination that has been implicitly built into programming algorithms and facial recognition software. The discussion leaders for these sessions—Tracie Canada (policing), Taylor Moore (data futures), and Iris Clever and Abigail Nieves (visualization)—paired these cases with other readings that further revealed the reproduction of systemic conditions that make such bias not only possible, but prevalent.
While this report has aspired to give some sense of the breadth of perspectives and insights shared during HARRG’s first year of discussions, it is impossible to provide a full accounting of all of the readings covered by the group. I urge those interested in learning more about anthropology’s ties to systemic racism and white supremacy to review the Zotero bibliography of readings curated by this past year’s conveners, which themselves represent only a small fragment of works on this topic. In Spring 2021, HAR’s editorial collective likewise launched two special focus sections that complemented the Working Group: one on the legacies of scientific racism contained within the Samuel Morton collection held at the University of Pennsylvania, and the other a series of reflections, interviews, and resources related to the 2018 publication of The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. As the pieces in these special focus sections suggest, there remains an opportunity and an obligation within anthropology as both a historical and contemporary practice to reckon with the racial and social injustices of the present. In its aspiration to attain a full grasp of what it means to be human, anthropology will only achieve this goal through continued reflective engagement with histories of racial violence that center the lived experiences of people of color. If there is perhaps one take away from the year’s discussions, it is that as we—as anthropologists and historians of science—continue to reckon with our disciplinary biases and limitations, we must also engage with and incorporate more multi-modal and interdisciplinary modes of inquiry in order to unsettle the chronologies, geographies, and methodologies of our fields of study.
The History of Anthropology Review Reading Group will resume on Wednesday, November 3, for a new monthly series focused on the connections between contemporary anthropology and its history. For the first session, anthropologists Les Field (University of New Mexico) and Elizabeth Ferry (Brandeis University) will consider past and present perspectives in the anthropology of value with special attention paid to the study of gold. For more information, please visit the working group website.