The last three months have revealed massive dysfunction in our society, in its institutions, in our values, in our willingness and ability to change. We have been pushed off campus by a virus, and we went obligingly, being inclined to follow rules and make them. We are a privileged part of this big, shambling system, much of which is rotting or rotten. The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis was horrific to behold. The workmanlike routine with which he was murdered, the total lack of care for him, showed how ordinary this lethal ritual actually was. No amount of pleading from Floyd or concerned bystanders could get the police officer's knee off Floyd's neck. It was a devastating reduction of a person to the status of an animal. Something essential about American racism, as practice and history and current reality, was encapsulated in that brutal encounter. The massive popular uprisings now unfolding are not only "predictable," not only "justified," they are visceral, street-level evidence that people know how horrible Floyd's murder was, and they do not think that the injustice inflicted on black and brown people in the US, on poor people, on refugees and immigrants, can be overcome with normal responses that proceed through normal channels.
I am fully aware that my writing this letter to you is a normal response that flows to you through a normal channel. The full rhetorical weight of the university will come out in opposition to racism, police violence, and white supremacy. This is a good thing. It is necessary. We need to remain vigilant in this messaging and the institutional responses consistent with it. But there is more to this; there should be more to this; and it should manifest, like a popular uprising, in our research, what we teach, and the kind of service we do, on campus and off. Several of you have suggested to me, and to each other, that we need to orient our teaching more directly to the existential crises we are living through now. How can we not? The very conditions in which we teach are being transformed by these crises. Our research is already engaged head on with environmental destruction, the harm done by our prison system, state violence against Indigenous and marginalized people, the moral challenges of blackness and anti-blackness, the securitization of social life, the ability of dominant languages to silence and extinguish others, the origins of inequality among humans and the dirty deals we've made with hierarchy and oppression across millennia. These are things we normally address in our work. But the normal way of doing it can seem woefully inadequate in moments like these. It should. Understanding things is not the same as transforming things. Seeing the knee press down on the neck, even knowing why and when it happens, is not the same as removing the knee and helping people breathe.
You are all adept at what you do. Your work can be transformative. It explores alternatives to what is, or might be, and its transgressive potential is desperately needed now. Much of our society is gruesome; it needs to change. We should incite and foster that change, using tools we are trained to use. There are allies everywhere, and we need them. We are exempt from nothing. Racism has shaped our discipline from the beginning; it shapes our relations with each other in the department. Even when we use our tools with skill, we can find ourselves back in normal channels, doing normal (even harmful) things. We need to be alert to this tendency now. Our DEI Committee is preparing a statement and set of resources that can focus our attention.
Please push each other toward more challenging work. Please feed your desire to develop a more engaged, questioning, critical, transformative anthropology. Use it to strengthen what you do in the classroom, in research, and in your interactions with each other. Give real effort and imagination to work that is not normal, or normalizing. The world around us is changing quickly, and it is possible now to get things horribly wrong; masterful accounts of how things are wrong, and why, with little else from us, would be an intellectual disaster. Let's help people breathe instead.