While reviewing an article titled, “No Surprise Here! Almost No Black Faculty Members in the Field of Anthropology,” in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (No. 16, Summer 1997, 37-39), I performed a very cursory Google search for “white people” and “anthropology” and ended up at a Los Angeles Times article about the blog-turned-bestseller, Stuff White People Like. Searching that blog using the term “anthropology” brought up no results. That word is not used once by Lander, it seems. How interesting then: Christian Lander, the blog author, missed something important. Curiously enough the LA Times (“Christian Lander knows the Stuff White People Like” Mindy Farabee, July 4, 2008) calls Lander’s work a “satiric ethnographic book” and his blog, the one that does not mention anthropology, “a snarky bit of grass-roots anthropology.” (His book reminded me of another post on this blog, in terms of what kind of “anthropology” really gets public attention.) But is anthropology stuff that white people like? According to the study mentioned at the outset, yes, and it is particularly stuff that black people do not like.
No Surprise Here! Almost No Black Faculty Members in the Field of Anthropology
The JBHE article summarizes itself at the start:
In the early years of the academic study of anthropology, the field harbored a host of scientific racists. One of the group’s principal academic objectives was to demonstrate the biological inferiority of the black race. Anthropology as an academic discipline became contaminated with beliefs in congenital black inferiority. To this day, very few black colleges or black universities offer anthropology as a major: It is not surprising that a large mjority of the nation’s highest-ranked universities have no black faculty in their departments of anthropology. (p. 37)
The article features an introductory overview of early cultural evolutionism, that cast Africans as childlike and primitive, alongside early physical anthropology propounding views of the racial inferiority of Africans (especially in the practice of anthropometry and craniometry as depicted in the illustration at the top — in fact, using photographs to document body measurements is one of the earliest forms of visual anthropology). Some of the outstanding figures in this racist bedrock of anthropology were Jean Louis Agassiz at Harvard, and Samuel George Morton, and what became known as “the American school of ethnology.”
JBHE does point out that in 1938 the American Anthropological Association officially repudiated scientific racism, however, the unnamed author(s) of the article also suggest that by then it was too late: “for African Americans the study of anthropology has been seriously tainted with the racism of craniometric scholars” (p. 37). JBHE does not actually survey African American students or faculty to ask them why they avoid anthropology — even though the article does provide convincing and conclusive evidence that they in fact do avoid the field.
The article tells us that by the end of World War II, only 10 African Americans had ever earned a graduate degree in anthropology. The Association of Black Anthropologists numbered two dozen after it was formed in 1977 as a division of the AAA (and only recently has a division for American Indian Studies been formed). By the time of this article, 1997, only 130 members belonged to the ABA. The ABA website does not state the size of its current membership, although one can assume that not all African American anthropologists have joined it, and that not all of its members are African Americans.
Avoidance: JBHE did a survey of 15 large African American colleges and universities and found that none offered an undergraduate degree in anthropology. The institutions surveyed included: Clark Atlanta, Fayetteville State, Florida A&M, Grambling, Hampton, Howard, Jackson State, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, Prairie View A&M, South Carolina State, Southern, Texas Southern, and Virginia State.
White colleges in the meantime have few black students in anthropology. Since there are few African American anthropologists among faculty in anthropology departments, and no employment opportunities in black colleges, they are in a bit of a bind academically. JBHE found that “Over the 1991-to-1995 period, 39 blacks earned doctorates in the field, making up 2.2 percent of the total of 1,761 Ph.D.s awarded in anthropology” (p. 38). In the 24 highest ranked U.S. universities that have anthropology departments, there were a total of 15 black faculty in 1997 (see the table below). They thus make up 4.3% of anthropology faculty, which is a figure comprabale to the other social sciences, except that black anthropologists tend to be clustered in the lower ranked universities. In 15 of the top 24 departments, there was not one single black anthropologist. Have things changed much since then?
We will know of exceptions and many cases that fortify the results presented above. The question is how this situation continues to be shaped and maintained — I doubt that it is as a result of a sinister plot on the part of faculty, or overly conscious and historical awareness on the part of students. We do need to have, and continue having, some brutally frank discussions about where we stand as the colonial, white discipline. We need to be cognizant of the development of anthropology through racism, imperial administration, and conquest of American Indians. And I think we need this more than anything else in anthropology, but only if one’s goal is to ensure some sort of legitimate, credible, and viable future for a world anthropology, outside of the walls of the Pentagon, and outside of middle class white suburbia. This is an “anthropology of anthropology” that remains to be done, that is ready to be done, and there can be no more of an anthropology at home than one that begins by studying itself, its history, its bases for being and continuing. We need to understand how anthropology continues to be a site or vehicle through which a certain segment of the world’s population experiences and consumes the world. How is the world an object of desire in anthropology, but only for a specific kind of consumer (and a specific kind of consumption)? Why is it that the discipline that is one of the loudest now in challenging insular, bounded, methodological approaches, is the one that most resembles an insular, bounded, white island? If we cannot pose these questions and challenges to ourselves first, then we probably have no business posing them to others, so our discussions will also need to be humble, self-critical, and honest.