Anthropology and Martin Luther King, Jr. | Anthropology Report


Call for Comments: Anthropology & Martin Luther King, Jr.

On 16 January 2012, when the U.S. commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Republican presidential candidates fanned flames of racial divisiveness. As Charles M. Blow put it in the New York Times: “That’s the way I like to spend my Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: watching Newt Gingrich sneer at Juan Williams, a black man, for having the temerity to ask him if his condescending remarks about the work ethic of poor black people are indeed condescending” (Newt Gingrich and the Art of Racial Politics).

On 21 January 2012, Gingrich’s gambit paid off with a decisive win in the South Carolina primary. Should anthropology have said more?

I have cataloged 141 active anthropology blogs. Anthropology blogs are a rich and varied resource–this website would not exist without them, and I place a lot of hope on the anthropology blog as a form of public anthropology and popular intervention. I had been scanning the 141 RSS feeds for entries related to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, hoping to do a round-up of what anthropology blogs might have to say, especially after the dramatic ginning of racial divisiveness.

So far I’ve found two entries on Martin Luther King. None on the racializing and divisiveness from the presidential campaign. I decided to dig deeper and do a search on “Martin Luther King” for all the anthropology blogs with search functions. I found basically three blogs that have anything substantial to say. Intrigued, I examined the index of the eight major four-fields Introduction-to-Anthropology textbooks: only two include Martin Luther King in the index, each spending at most one paragraph, the briefest of mentions (Anthropology: A Global Perspective, pp.527-8; Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human?, p.451).

Admittedly many blogs are international, and many anthropologists may feel such subjects are out of their area of expertise. However, I would urge more consideration of Martin Luther King and present politics for at least four reasons, all of which are likely to come up in any introduction-to-anthropology course:

  • Martin Luther King was aware of anthropology and its possible importance. In 2012 this got picked up by the Huffington Post, Martin Luther King: Science Advocate, which became one of the few outlets to put anthropology and Martin Luther King together:

    So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy. . . . They will even argue that God was the first segregationist. “Red birds and blue birds don’t fly together,” they contend. . . . They turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits agree that although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that there are four types of blood, and these four types are found within every racial group. (King, Strength to Love, 37-38)

    Earlier in this book, King refers to the “tough-minded research of anthropologists” (5). So for those wanting more Science in Anthropology, and at a time when the ideas of Anthropology on Race are under attack, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. depends on “the best evidence of the science of anthropology.”

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is currently becoming debased, ridiculed, or believed to be “achieved.” There was the South Carolina presidential candidate debate, but also Mosheh Adamu observes people who referred to MLK Day as “Milk” (see below for full reference). Apart from the debasement and ridicule, people have been told that while Martin Luther King had a “dream” we are now living in its “reality.” Many are convinced this dream was about achieving “colorblindness.” Moreover, a majority of whites now believe anti-white bias is a bigger problem than anti-black bias. Although I criticized the 2011 study, “Is Anti-White Bias a Problem” for presenting contemporary data points as if they were historical data–in other words, there is strong evidence that a majority of whites have long believed anti-white bias is stronger than anti-black bias–the study by Norton and Sommers 2011 does give concrete statistical evidence of present white perceptions of anti-white bias.
  • Martin Luther King has been stripped of his class critique, his anti-war critique, and his revolutionary vision. He is now used to inspire community service and volunteerism. While Martin Luther King did volunteer and community service, he also spent time in jail and on the picket lines. Several of the posts below try to rescue these underplayed aspects of Martin Luther King.
  • Martin Luther King is currently part of a nostalgic rehabilitation of Jim Crow society and even slavery as episodes in which benevolent whites were trapped by cultural norms. The most contemporary crystallization of this long-running nostalgia for colonialism, slavery, and segregation is in the 2011 film The Help. For more, see the Association of Black Women Historians, an An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help.

Please let me know what you think. Am I missing something? Should anthropology be saying more? Below are the posts I found.

The two 2012 anthropology blog entries on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reduced MiLK: Wack Attitudes Against Observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Mosheh Adamu
I could not help but wonder why and when did Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday underwent such a reduction in compassion, honor and respect. Truth is the reluctance to observe the day on the governmental level was an act of institutionalized racism that did not end until as recent as the year 2000, when the states of New Hampshire and South Carolina became the last two states to legitimately recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.

HipHop Anthropology & Everything Else Under the Sun, 16 January 2012

MLK: Taking Stock, Rob Gargett
It’s a day for ‘taking stock.’ I’m reciting the litany of advantages I’ve been given in this life, and thinking of the ones who haven’t been and aren’t, even now, so lucky.

The Subversive Archaeologist, 16 January 2012

Entries from the three anthropology blogs discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Help, Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Military and the Death Penalty, Jason Antrosio
With the release of The Help and the inauguration of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an opportunity to evaluate history and contemporary politics.

Living Anthropologically, 1 September 2011

Racism and biological anthropology, Jason Antrosio
Every aspect of biological anthropology, from classifying hominin species to debates about Neandertals and Denisovans, potentially enters into racism today.

Living Anthropologically, 5 July 2011

So-called study on racism & anti-white bias, Jason Antrosio
“Is Anti-White Bias a Problem?” features new research on racism. The research is neither new nor newsworthy–it is also deceptive.

Living Anthropologically, 23 May 2011

Encircling Empire: Report #10, Maximilian Forte
The special focus this week begins with Martin Luther King Jr. and his anti-imperialism in honour of MLK Day on 17 January.

Zero Anthropology, 18 January 2011

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Maximilian Forte
Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Zero Anthropology, 17 January 2011

Depression, P. Kerim Friedman
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 said: “When there is massive unemployment in the black community, it is called a social problem. But when there is massive unemployment in the white community, it is called a depression.”

Keywords, 6 June 2004

The Martin Luther King You Don’t See On TV, P. Kerim Friedman
Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.

Keywords, 20 January 2003

Anthropology and Martin Luther King


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