Statement on racism by the committee of the ASA
The ASA Committee’s position
The ASA Committee believes that anthropologists today, like the vast majority of scholars in social science, the humanities and the natural sciences, think that racism, as a means of producing and reproducing inequality based on ideas about racial difference, is morally wrong and that it is the responsibility of all sectors of society to eradicate racism in all its forms and to take active steps to correct racial inequalities.
In order to combat racism, we need a clear idea of what it is and how it operates. The next section therefore explains our understanding of racism and how it works. We then reflect briefly on the historical relationship between racism and anthropology, before outlining the context of the current moment in 2020, with the upsurge in anti-racist mobilisation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Finally, we list the areas of action to which we are committed.
What is racism?
Definitions of the concepts of race and racism are diverse and contested in the social sciences and humanities, but the following is an outline of our view.
Racism is rooted in colonial power relations, above all those established by European colonialism and imperialism from the fifteenth century onwards, which involved the conquest, displacement, enslavement and exploitation of peoples across the globe and the appropriation of their lands and resources. The ideologies and practices of racism legitimated the dominant position and superiority of European whiteness, devaluing and dehumanising those categorised as non-white - often classed as “black” or “brown” - whose lives were considered less valuable and often expendable. Racist ways of understanding the world and its peoples became all-embracing and globally dominant in the context of nineteenth-century European imperialism and white settler colonialism. They were backed by scientific theories, proposing that humans were divided into biologically defined “races” located in a hierarchy of innate quality. The tentacles of this global racism reached into the way non-European colonial powers viewed the people they colonised - for example, Japanese views of Korean and Chinese people. Such racism also shaped majority white European views of other people outside the immediate context of colonialism, such as Jewish and Roma people, seen as racially inferior groups (and notoriously targeted by Nazism).
From the mid-twentieth century, the gradual scientific refutation of the theory that humans formed biologically distinguishable (much less innately unequal) “races” was accompanied by the dismantling of the formal institutions of colonialism and imperialism., Neither process resulted in the dismantling of underlying relations of inequality in power and wealth between people considered racially different according to dominant views. Understandings of racial difference survived the scientific refutation of biological “races” because, historically and today, such understandings, although varying over time, are social constructions that do not depend only on facts as established by biologists. Instead ideas about “race” usually depend on an idea of “culture” (e.g. behaviour, moral and intellectual qualities) that is linked in highly adaptable ways to flexible, everyday ideas about ancestry (“blood”) and perceptions of inherited physical appearance (e.g. skin colour, hair texture, particular facial features). The links between culture, ancestry and appearance are not necessarily rigidly deterministic, but make culture seem engrained and durable, and even “natural”.
Racism has been contested for centuries, mostly by those it subordinates, but also by some of those it privileges who believe it is morally wrong and harmful for the well-being of society. Important changes have resulted, such as the abolition of slavery, the dismantling of legal “Jim Crow” segregation in the Southern United States and of apartheid in South Africa, the passing of numerous anti-discrimination laws across the world, the multiculturalist recognition of minorities, and attempts to “decolonise the curriculum”.
Nevertheless, racism continues to work with ideas of racial difference and to operate as a system that distributes well-being, opportunities, power, wealth, dignity and human value unequally across racial difference, reproducing a superior and privileged position for whiteness (but not necessarily for all white individuals in all contexts) and subordinating non-whiteness (but not necessarily for all non-white individuals in all contexts). Racism as a complex set of processes, ideas and actions consists of structural racism, defined as material and symbolic structures of racial inequality, which define dominant worldviews and imagery, and condition life conditions and opportunities. For example, people of colour are often depicted in demeaning ways, have access to poor educational and work opportunities, and be located in areas that are unhealthy and lower life expectancy (an effect often known as environmental racism). This structural racism provides a generative context for and is reproduced by acts of direct racism that, intentionally or otherwise, exclude (or include in a limited and controlled way) people located in the lower strata of the racial formation, and subject them to stigmatisation and violations (from microaggressions to killings). Racism operates in formal institutional organizations (institutional racism) and outside them (everyday racism). Racism never operates on its own: it necessarily intertwines closely with economic hierarchies, as well as with sexism and other dimensions of social inequality such as heteronormativity
Anthropology and racism
The ASA Committee acknowledges that anthropology, considered as an institutional discipline dating from the late nineteenth century, has an ambivalent relationship with colonialism and its racist hierarchies. On the one hand, some anthropologists participated actively in reproducing scientific theories about human races and their supposed qualities and innate differences. On the other hand, from about the 1920s, some anthropologists led the way in challenging those same theories and in establishing that human “races” either were equal in terms of biological and intellectual constitution or did not exist at all as biologically defined entities. These anthropologists were in the vanguard of what, since World War II, became the standard position in the social sciences, which is that ideas about racial difference in society have to be understood as social constructions that, like all human social and symbolic structures, guide and shape human life in real ways because they actually comprise human social life. In the case of constructions of racial difference, human life is shaped in ways that go against fundamental principles of equality and social justice, even if, in the process, communities of solidarity and resilience are formed among racially subordinated people in the process of resisting injustice.
The present context: 2020
The ASA Committee recognises that racism has been a global phenomenon for centuries. Institutional violence against Black people and genocide of Indigenous people have been part of the landscape of racism from the beginning. With its global scope, anthropology is particularly suited to seeing racism operate in diverse contexts, looking beyond the Black Atlantic world that often commands attention in the Americas and Europe, while also attending to the way the US context can act as an inspiration to racially subordinated peoples in other regions, such as the Australian Indigenous people who have mobilised around the Black Lives Matter banner.
Nevertheless, the year 2020 stands out in recent times because of the unhappy coincidence of the coronavirus pandemic and international outrage at the killing of the African American man George Floyd by US police. The pandemic has laid bare, with pitiless clarity, the racialised dimensions of structural inequalities all over the world. Very quickly, irrefutable data have been collected to show that black and brown people are dying at much higher rates than white people. Much of this is due to the fact that black and brown people tend to live in poorer conditions, which lead to more underlying health issues, concentration in high-risk locations and working environments, and much greater difficulties with social distancing, social isolation and sanitation measures. Not all of the racial disparity in mortality is due to simple economic conditions, as Black and Asian minority doctors in the UK are also dying in disproportionately large numbers, for reasons that are currently unclear but that may be driven by less obvious structures of racial inequality. Reflecting this, “structural racism” has become a common term in mainstream news in the UK. In the context of the pandemic, the Floyd killing - a particularly shocking case among countless others in the US and elsewhere - gained powerful traction in the media and among the public, channelling and intensifying anti-racist feeling and activism.
It is in this climate that the ASA Committee has decided to outline its own position on racism and make it public. We acknowledge that this initiative is well past time, perhaps especially for an Association that embraces anthropologists in the UK and the Commonwealth, a clearly colonial legacy.
This statement was drafted by Prof Peter Wade (University of Manchester) at the invitation of the ASA Committee.
The ASA Committee is currently drawing up an action plan to address continuing structural imbalances in the discipline. Further details will be available in due course.
Below are listed some readings (mostly in anthropology) which will give more depth and detail about the concept of race and the operations of racism. Also listed are some sources of further information…
Readings in anthropology
Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 2005. Race and racism: an introduction. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Goodman, Alan H., Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones. 2012. Race: are we so different? Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. See also https://www.understandingrace.org
Harrison, Faye V. 2002. Unraveling “race" for the 21st century. In Exotic no more: anthropology on the front lines, edited by Jeremey MacClancy, pp. 145-166. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hartigan, John. 2010. Race in the 21st century: ethnographic approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marks, Jonathan. 2003. What it means to be 98% chimpanzee: apes, people, and their genes. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Especially Ch. 3)
McClaurin, Irma, ed. 2001. Black feminist anthropology: theory, politics, praxis, and poetics. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Mukhopadhyay, Carol C., Rosemary Henze, and Yolanda T. Moses. 2007. How real is race? A sourcebook on race, culture, and biology. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Mullings, Leith. 2005. Interrogating racism: toward an anti-racist anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:667-693.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 2014. Racial formation in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.
Venkatesan, Soumhya (ed.). 2019. Violence and violation are at the heart of racism: The 2017 debate of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, Manchester. Critique of Anthropology 39(1):12-51. (open access version at https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/files/86839477/GDAT2017_Racism_debate_Accepted_version.docx
Wade, Peter. 2015. Race: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Readings in anti-racist activism
Eddo-Lodge, Reni. 2017. Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Hill, Myisha T. 2020. Check your privilege: live into the work. Alameda, CA: Dirt Path Publishing.
Kendi, Ibram X. 2019. How to be an antiracist. New York: Vintage Publishing.
Magee, Rhonda V. 2019. The inner work of racial justice: healing ourselves and transforming our communities through mindfulness. New York: TarcherPerigee.
Saad, Layla F. 2020. Me and white supremacy: combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks.
Readings in the history of anthropology and colonialism
Asad, Talal (ed). 1973. Anthropology and the colonial encounter. London: Ithaca.
Mills, David. 2008. Difficult folk? A political history of social anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books.
Pels, Peter, and Oscar Salemink, eds. 1999. Colonial subjects: essays on the practical history of anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Stocking, George (ed.). 1991. Colonial situations: essays on the contextualization of ethnographic knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
https://www.understandingrace.org. (This is the project, led by the American Anthropological Association, that produced the book listed above, Race: are we so different?)
http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm . The American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race."
https://www.easaonline.org/networks/are/index. Information on the Anthropology of Race and Ethnicity Network of EASA (European Association of Social Anthropologists).
https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/race-ethnicity-study-group. Information on the Race & Ethnicity Study Group of the BSA (British Sociological Association).
https://es.britsoc.co.uk/bsaCommentary/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/BSA_race_and_ethnicity_in_british_sociology_report_pre_publication_version.pdf . Link to the pre-publication version of the 2020 BSA report, Race and Ethnicity in British Sociology (by Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Stephen Ashe, Claire Alexander, and Karis Campion).
Association of Black Anthropologist (a section of the AAA) statement against police violence and anti-black racism http://aba.americananthro.org
Society for cultural anthropology in solidarity with black lives and the association of black anthropologists. https://culanth.org/about/about-the-society/announcements/society-for-cultural-anthropology-in-solidarity-with-black-lives-and-the-association-of-black-anthropologists
https://www.20storieshigh.org.uk/2020/06/04/black-lives-matter-resources/. 20 Stories High is a youth theatre collective: this page has a useful set of resources to support anti-racism.
https://blacklivesmatter.com. The website of the Black Lives Matter movement
Staff and students in the department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths university have begun to put together a set of resources to help each other think through, navigate, and deepen their understanding of these current unfoldings and draw connections between the interconnected histories that link what is happening in the US to other locations across the world. They have kindly offered us access to view their collective archive: George Floyd & BLM: resources and support.