Racing Away From Ferguson and the Challenge of Education

As the holidays approach, we are racing toward a point of social upheaval in America. The killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City has brought into bright relief the utter ugliness of police behavior toward young African American men in our cities and small towns. That behavior has resulted in the unnecessary deaths of young men who for the most part were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That behavior demonstrates the centrality of race and racism in contemporary American social life.

Although my fellow anthropologists routinely discuss with good measures of lucidity the issue of race in American society, it is not a subject that most mainstream Americans want to discuss. Anthropologists have demonstrated powerfully that race is unquestionably a social construct that is used to maintain our ever-increasing system of social inequality -- an inequality that is economic, political, and most importantly judicial. As a society we are racing away from Ferguson. The specter of racism makes us want to avoid the discomfort of talking about how race is a central structure in the foundation of contemporary American society.

Think about our society. We suffer from a growing system of economic inequality. There is an unequal access to wealth, to education, to health services, to good food, to peaceful parks and centers of recreation. There is also the digital divide. How many people do you know who can't afford a computer or Internet access? How many people do you know you wait in line to use a computer at the public library? How many people do you know who take inadequate public transportation like the local bus or The Greyhound?

As a society we ignore poverty and racism because it undermines our fundamental America myths. Ferguson tells us that America is neither the land of equal opportunity nor a place that has freed itself from prejudice. The police killings in Ferguson and Cleveland and New York City tell us that hate, blind ignorance and brutal violence present "clear and present" dangers to our society.

What can be done?

Protests may shed light on racial and ethnic discrimination, but they won't eradicate a problem that is fundamentally social and cultural. Political action has sometimes shed light on the problem, but profoundly silent attitudes about racial and/or ethnic prejudice, which are part and parcel of our cultural system, will take a long time to change.

My own sense is that the battle for change, for reconstructing the social contract, for social justice and for human dignity, must be waged in our classrooms and on our college campuses. Although we like to say that much progress toward social justice has been made in America, there are signs that a surpring percentage of our students, who will soon direct our civic life, are filled with levels of ignorance and hate that will challenge educators for many years to come. Consider a recent letter from the Faculty Senate at my university about student reaction to an ongoing peaceful "Black Lives Matter" demonstration on our campus.

Demonstrations were organized and held on campus Friday and again today by students who were protesting recent judicial rulings. The rallies were powerful and peaceful and addressed the issues of police response, race and racism. Students who organized these protests were committed to their message and utilized known peaceful strategies of social change to get their points heard.

Sadly, the reactions by some students to the protests were extremely concerning. Demonstrators heard vile and racist comments said by people walking past. On social media students also posted vile and racist comments about the demonstrations and the participants.

If such vile hate is easily found at my university, which has a typically diverse student body, you have to wonder about the level of hate in environments less dedicated to, to quote our university president in a Dec. 8 letter to the campus community, "... the exchange of ideas through civil dialogue."

The issues of race and racism have long been part and parcel of American culture. What will become of them in the 21st century when America becomes less white and more ethnically and culturally diverse? In my cultural anthropology classes I suggest that there are two paths to the social future. The first path is the well-worn trail of hate, discrimination and economic apartheid. Those who follow that path want to take us back to a future of cultural homogeneity. The second path is one of inclusivity. Those who choose that path will attempt to weave our ever increasing diversity into the social fabric.

Ecologists suggest that systems that incorporate difference remain adaptable and robust. By the same token, those systems that destroy difference become less and less resistant to change and eventually fade away. If you destroy that which is different, following the sage analysis of A David Napier in his path breaking book, The Age of Immunology, you eventually weaken your system as it becomes a paler and paler imitation of itself. When we reject otherness, Napier reminds us, do we not we reject ourselves? Is not the attachment and growth of the human embryo the most fundamental inclusion of difference and otherness that we know? Indeed, such inclusion ensures the viability of our species.

Our challenge in the Anthropocene, then, is a fundamentally anthropological one -- to design courses of instruction in which these ecological, social and cultural truths are clearly articulated. In this way our students will be able to make an informed choice about which future path they want to follow.

The times are perilous. We are confronting a potentially devastating set of ecological, social and cultural crises, which means that as scholars we have a great obligation. It's time for us to step up to the plate.