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Racism in the Academy: An Anthropological Perspective on a Persistent Problem

Racism in the Academy: An Anthropological Perspective on a Persistent Problem

Monday, September 24, 2007

The New York Academy of Sciences

Presented By

Presented by the Anthropology Section


Speaker: Faye V. Harrison, University of Florida
Discussant: Audrey Smedley, Virginia Commonwealth University

Dr. Faye V. Harrison holds a joint appointment with the Afro-American Studies Program and Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. She is executive program chair of this year's American Anthropological Association meeting, past chair of the IUAES (International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences), and the author of numerous books and articles including Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age (Dec. 2007) and editor and contributor to Resisting Racism & Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, & Human Rights.


The discussant is Dr. Audrey Smedley, emeritus professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, widely known for her scholarly work on racism.


Racism in the Academy: An Anthropological Perspective on a Persistent Problem
Faye V. Harrison
University of Florida

Pundits have asserted that racism has diminished and is withering away in U.S. society. However, there is substantial evidence that a great deal of antiracist work remains to be done. The American "dreams" of so many citizens and immigrants are being thwarted as everyday human rights violations implicate a regime of knowledge, power, and political economy that sustains the salience and materiality of race and racism in the (trans)national contexts of neoliberal economic restructuring, political realignment, demographic diversification, and "homeland security." Although the culture of race and racism in the country has certainly changed over the past decades, its reconfiguration has not led to its dismantling.

The social institutions constituting academia are not at all immune from these forces of change and continuity. In fact, higher education and related sites of knowledge production and policy formation continue to be major loci of struggle over issues of equity and equality. Struggles over affirmative action and other strategies for engendering justice-centered means of ensuring access, participation, and academic success are one instance of this. Of course, academic anthropology has long been part of these debates, but anthropologists cannot afford to rest on their laurels because of the history of Boasianism and recent trends in critical race studies. Racism is not only "out there" in "the field" where anthropologists do ethnographic, archaeological, or other kinds of social research; it is also "right here" in universities, departments, professional associations, and collegial and student-teacher interactions. Sometimes it is quite blatant, but most of the time it is subtle, unnoticed, and denied. Understanding racism entails that we not only focus on the lived experiences of minorities and immigrants. In the context of the broader matrix of power within which the construction and negotiation of race are embedded, racism's corollary is experienced through the normalization of white privilege.

Flashback: In August 1973, the American Anthropological Association issued its "Report of the Committee on Minorities and Anthropology." Based on the results from a mailed questionnaire, the report recommended that the AAA encourage the "continual research and investigation" of "the problem of racism and discrimination, especially in its own midst." Using, in part, the multifocal lenses available from scholars relegated to "outsider within locations," this lecture will address the need to confront racism as it operates in the midst of the contemporary academy-with its intersecting hierarchies of gender, sexuality, class, and ethnic or ethno-national