Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Race Cards vs. Racial Paranoia

McCain's camp went on the racial offensive a few weeks ago, accusing Barack Obama of playing "the race card" in recent speeches and characterizing some of Obama's statements as "divisive, negative, shameful, and wrong."

The remarks in question pivot on Obama's claim that Republicans might attempt to engage in race-based and xenophobic fearmongering to win the election against him -- that they might point out his foreign-sounding name and subtly remind voters how much he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on dollar bills" (a clear nod to his racial difference).

I've already commented on this kind of accusation before, when Dennis Miller went off on Obama for a similar statement back on June 20th.

Miller and McCain want to argue that Obama is calling McCain and the Republicans a bunch of racists and that unless Obama has explicit proof about some cabal of Republican strategists prodding people with explicit invocations of Obama's racial identity, he is disingenuously injecting race into the election for political gain.

I can see why they would make that case, but race was already a part of the election. It always is, even when a black candidate isn't running for office. So, invoking race explicitly isn't about introducing a foreign substance into the mix. It just recalibrates the nature of that inclusion.

The election didn't go from race-free to race-full simply because of Obama's recent rhetoric. Race was always there, hovering, even in silence. That isn't to say that we have to make a fetish out of it and reduce every other social phenomenon to its hidden mandates. But it does demand that we stop labeling any invocation of race as an evil and extrinsic injection into some otherwise race-neutral domain.

Moreover, we have to remember that racism is not only about blatant, Archie Bunker-style self-evidence anymore. Indeed, as a case in point, I have read many thoughtful people (including fellow Brainstorm Blogger Laurie Fendrich) imply that McCain's "celebrity" ad (above) is little more than a subliminal attempt to indirectly invoke the horror of racial miscegenation without saying a word about Obama's race at all, at least not explicitly. The juxtaposition alone, they claim, does all the necessary racial work.

Detractors would call such a reading absurd -- or even paranoid. Is it? Maybe. But given the power of political correctness and the plausible deniabilities inherent in contemporary cultural politics (especially vis-a-vis questions of race/racism), a certain healthy form of race-based skepticism might actually be in order. Of course, where does "healthy" begin and end in such a scenario? I don't know. But we can't be so naive as to think that the specter of racist thinking doesn't take material form unless some white person (preferably hooded) says the n-word in the crowded hotel lobby of an NAACP convention somewhere.

Did Obama play the race card by invoking the possibility of race being a factor in the way his opponents strategize against him? Probably. They'd be stupid if they didn't take race into account as they prepared to do battle with an African-American candidate.

Did McCain play the race card in his newest campaign ad? Maybe. I didn't see it when I first watched the clip, but it does seem like an odd decision to have Paris Hilton and Britney Spears stand-in for all of pop-cultural celebrity.

The key is to recognize that the proverbial "race card" can be used in many different ways -- and that there isn't a single deck of cards in all of contemporary American political life that doesn't have the race card sprinkled throughout it (along with many other trumps, including "the race card" card used to counter "the race card" itself).

To think that somehow we can ever easily and definitively NOT play the race card is one of the worst forms of race carding there is. Call it reverse race carding. It is the kind of racial spin that tries to pass itself off as spin-free. And in contemporary media, culture, and politics, race-free zones, like "no spin zones," are as fanciful a thought as mythological unicorns and sea monsters washed up on sandy New York shores.

(First Posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Anthropology the SOFTEST Social Science?

I did a foolish thing last weekend. I performed a Google search on my new book — just to see if there were any references to it online that I hadn’t already seen. (Of course, I realize that the Web can be merciless on the thin-skinned, but most authors can sometimes be gluttons for such surefire cyberpunishment, pretending that the one gem they might unearth could ever outweigh the playa-hating hordes.)

I found quite a few references to the book, mostly in fairly obscure/specialty venues, the bulk of them positive. But I was blown away by one interesting dismissal of the work, a dismissal seemingly tethered (in the first instance) to my academic background as a cultural anthropologist. My training as an anthropologist was the first strike against me.

Why are people sometimes so dismissive of anthropology?

In the era of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, anthropologists were public intellectuals of the highest order. They wrote for popular magazines and challenged Americans’ too-quick assumptions about the hard-wired ‘nature’ of social life.

But that was then. Now, anthropologists seem mostly relegated to the very back of the line when it comes to assessments about the value of social-scientific attempts to make sense of contemporary issues.

For instance, there are so many anthropologists who study academic underachievement among Black and Latino students, people such as Signithia Fordham, Prudence Carter (a qualitative sociologist), Mica Pollack, and many, many others. They do in-depth, long-term ethnographic studies. They proffer compelling analyses that nuance discussions of academic underperformance, explaining when and why it happens (for instance, in specific types of schools with a particular demographic mix of students). They even write up their findings in accessible language, with an eye toward the interested audiences beyond their academic field. However, CNN’s recent “Black in America” segment on the issue chose to focus almost exclusively on the experimentalist work of an up-and-coming economist, Roland Fryer, with only the slightest nod to the legion of qualitative folks working in this area. What gives?

It is probably a combination of what people don’t like about anthropology and what they find most powerfully persuasive about the harder sciences.

Anthropology often gets characterized as a “postmodern” cesspool, a discipline that wallows in pseudo-theoretical (even literary) waters, embraces the most solipsistic form of navel-gawking introspection, and has recanted most of its earlier commitments to ‘objective’ outsiderism. At the same time, economists are thought to occupy a firmer space much closer to the normative benchmark that is the natural sciences, crunching numbers in ways that purport to eschew the ideologically-driven meanderings of those softer social sciences.

There is a general pecking order in the social sciences. We all know that. It moves from economics down through the likes of political science and psychology, finally landing in the realm of sociology and anthropology. The closer one gets to serious mathematics as constituitive of the center of the discipline’s exploits, the higher one’s salary, the less diverse one’s colleagues (in terms of categories such as race or gender), and the more powerful one’s academic department. There are exceptions to this formulation, but it holds true quite a bit of the time, no?

We all genuflect to the seemingly sanitized power of numerical calculation, even as we sometimes remind ourselves that researchers can ventriloquize numerical analyses (based on how they set up their research designs, word their questions, etc.), so as to make them sing any number of different ditties.

It is a commonsense colloquialism: Statistics lie. But we also think of them as the best chance we have at some kind of hard-and-fast access to social truth.

As an anthropologist who respects the beauty and elegance of mathematics, I just wish our everyday privileging of its explanatory powers left a tad more room at the table for differently pitched methodological attempts at truth-telling.