As a department committed to addressing systemic racism, state sanctioned violence and other structures of oppression, the University of Illinois Department of Anthropology explicitly condemns the murders by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless others, as well as the anti-Black racism that makes their tragic murders familiar occurrences. We also wish to name and honor Greg Brown and Kiwane Carrington who were murdered by Champaign Police in 2000 and 2009 and Richard Turner who died shortly after being apprehended by Champaign Police in 2016. We support Black life and stand in solidarity with protesters all over the world who have been compelled to take to the streets to condemn police violence and anti-Black racism, and who have done so in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights Era.
The use of excessive and disproportionate force by police and the killing of Black people in the US with impunity has a long history. We condemn the structural racism and causes of anti-Black violence that took shape with racial slavery and have never abated (as numerous Black scholars have taught us). The disproportionately high death rate from the COVID-19 pandemic in Black and other communities of color and associated job losses have magnified the nation’s staggering racial inequalities in wealth, education, healthcare, housing and employment, as well as the injustices within the criminal justice system.
We join our voices to the call for justice because understanding and responding to the social struggles of our time and times past are crucial to our educational and research purpose. Acknowledging anthropology’s colonial origins and early role in solidifying and perpetuating the myth of biological race, we disavow that heritage and its enduring investment in producing knowledge about non-white humans vis-à-vis white European epistemes and epistemologies. Anthropology's recent trends include initiatives that address these problems: the critical study of anti-Blackness, white supremacy as it affects multiple racialized populations, including targeted categories of immigrants, and the enduring dynamics of settler colonialism with its constraints on Indigenous sovereignty are salient concerns.
Our goals as anthropologists are to promote understanding and tolerance for biological, social, cultural and linguistic differences among peoples. We seek to achieve this through critical reflection, dialogue, scientific inquiry and evidence, historical awareness and public engagement. We also recognize that silence implies complicity and that it is the responsibility of those of us who benefit from white privilege and proximity to whiteness to become informed allies of Black and Brown peoples by refuting racial structures that normalize Black death and disrupting the privileging of whiteness endemic to settler colonialism and slavery.
Following the lessons of activists before her, like Fannie Lou Hamer who taught us that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” (1971)i, Audre Lorde reminds us that “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (1982)ii. As race scholars in and outside of anthropology have explained for many decades, anti-Black racism will not be solved or adequately addressed by a single act, a single training, a single theory, a single statement; it will be a long, painful, and multifaceted excavation led by the global Black community and carried out by a multiracial coalition. The point of anti-racist work is that it is never finished. Therefore, those who are dedicated to anti-racist work must continue to listen, bear witness, and work to dismantle the structures of whiteness and white supremacy that permit and normalize Black suffering (which takes myriad forms) and Black death, even when inconvenient or uncomfortable. To disentangle, disrupt, and dispute anti-Blackness we must make sure our university, our teaching, and our research, affirm that Black Lives Matter.
The Association of Black Anthropologists, a section of the American Anthropological Association, has clarified our discipline’s obligations and, in the following excerpt from their official statement against police violence and anti-Black racism, has challenged departments and individuals to go beyond silence, self-castigation, despondency, or empty declarations of solidarity:
Instead, we want members of the discipline to start at “home,” to accept the ways that anthropology has been and continues to be implicated in the project of white supremacy (both in its implicit and explicit manifestations) and to lay out a clear path for moving forward. We want members of the discipline of anthropology to see the ways that white supremacy is manifest in their curricula, syllabi, graduate student recruitment and mentoring, hiring, and promotion practices. We want them to see and correct their refusal or inability to teach race, racism, the pathology of whiteness, and the banality of white supremacy; their marginalization of Black scholars and their scholarship. We also challenge them to evaluate their commitment to being, paraphrasing the words of Black anthropologist, William S. Willis, “a discipline of the subjugated races.” This call to recognition and action is only the first step in the discipline’s long journey towards decolonization. (http://aba.americananthro.org)
Statements alone are not enough. It is imperative for us, individually and collectively, to work proactively to influence and enact change, using this moment of critical reflection, anger and heartbreak to commit ourselves anew to engage in collaboration for change and to do all in our power to call out, address, and dismantle the systemic inequities in our society, which we may knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate. In particular:
- Acknowledge the need to confront our own implicit biases, no matter how difficult, and learn to think and act in ways that affirm and support our students, staff, faculty and community members identifying as Black and African American.
- Speak up in our classrooms and lecture halls, in our meeting spaces, in our shared governance settings, in our interactions with institutions and organizations, and in our roles in local, national and international associations.
- Commit to taking a collaborative leadership role in eradicating racism in all our spheres of influence, beginning with our own department and discipline where we must:
- Increase our collective efforts to recruit & retain Black & African American faculty
- Teach a critical history of anthropology that focuses on its colonial origins and early role in solidifying and perpetuating the myth of biological race.
- Decolonize our teaching of social theory and research methods.
- Develop trainings and protocols for increasing anti-racist awareness.
There is much to be done towards these ends in our own department and university, and members of our faculty will continue to work hard towards them alongside students, staff, and community. While these efforts attend to anti-Blackness at home, they also support various efforts in the community and around the country to defend and protect Black life and invite others to do the same.
Alves, Jaime Amparo. 2018. The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA). Statement on Race and Racism
Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Association of Black Anthropologists. 2020. Statement against Police Violence and Anti-Black Racism. June 6. Available at: http://aba.americananthro.org/
Beliso de Jesus, Aisha M. and Jemima Pierre. 2020. Introduction, Special Section: Anthropology of White Supremacy. American Anthropologist 122(1): pp. 65–75, DOI: 10.1111/aman.13351.
Harrison, Faye V. 2016. Teaching “Black Lives Matter” at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. Anthropoliteia.net blog series on the #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project. Accessed at https://anthropoliteia.net/2016/10/19/the-anthropoliteia-blacklivesmattersyllabus-project week-7-faye-harrison-on-teaching-blacklivesmatter/.
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Ralph, Laurence. The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. University of Chicago Press, 2020.
Rana, Junaid. 2020. Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy. American Anthropologist 122(1): 99-111. DOI: 10.1111/aman.13355
Rosa, Jonathan, and Yarimar Bonilla. “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology.” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2 (May 27, 2017): 201–8.
Shange, Savannah. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Duke University Press, 2019.
Smedley, Audrey and Janis Faye Hutchinson, eds. Racism in the Academy: The New Millennium. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association. http://www.americananthro.org/LearnAndTeach/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2639ds.
Support Organizations defending black life and fighting for transformative justice: https://nymag.com/strategist/article/where-to-donate-for-black-lives-matter.html