“If I can inspire deep critical thinking on some of these issues, if I can get people to think more like a social scientist or an anthropologist, then I think we all will see things differently. And change will follow.”
Portions of this blog have been updated for 2021.
Back in 2000, in Ann Arbor, I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, during a time when the university was fighting to preserve affirmative action.
On the same campus PhD candidates in the globally ranked anthropology department were publishing breakthrough dissertations on race as a cultural construct—in the United States and around the world. Among that cohort were names like James Herron and Michael Baran, future scholars in the field and current instructors at Harvard University (they teach Race in the Americas at Harvard Extension).
Sixteen years later, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, during a time when racial tensions in the United States are high, I met with my fellow Michigan alumni to discuss the concept of race, the value of affirmative action, and the ways future generations should be taught about race.
The Origins of Race in America
Q: Why does the racial conversation continue to bedevil our nation?
Dr. Herron: Race or racial ideology runs deep in our history and culture. In certain ways, it’s at the core of our political culture. Our identities are shaped by race. So, given its centrality in our history, it’s not surprising that it continues to be relevant.
If you think about it, what is race? What is racism? At its most basic level, racism is a lens through which people interpret, naturalize, and reproduce inequality.
Dr. Baran: That’s right. Race developed at a very particular point in time as our nation was forming.
We had, on the one hand, these national ideals of freedom and equality. And, on the other hand, we had this economic reality of a slavery system that was part of the transatlantic slave trade. So, basically, this ideology developed to justify how slaves weren’t equal biologically.And then, unfortunately, you had anthropologists and scientists of that era who went about “proving” this—poor scholarship that has been invalidated many times over.
A great book by Steven J. Gould called The Mismeasure of Man exposes the bad science. But we still have this ideology persisting today.
Dr. Herron: These pseudo-scientific forms of racism purported to show that there were natural, biological differences between human groups. In fact, that’s what anthropology was for 100 years— a sort of “racial science.” The discipline classified various racial groups in a hierarchy of moral/intellectual capacity.
Dr. Baran: Our culture has shown through countless examples that people’s potentials are not based on these racial groups. Up until this election cycle, I would have said that we were living in a time when explicit racism has been on the decline.
But current political discourse aside, implicit, unconscious bias is still everywhere, with large, concrete consequences for people’s lives—voting rights, access to education, employment, treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
So then I find myself asking, why do we continue to think racially? Why do these groups persist, and why do we still have bias against certain groups?
The Social Construction of Racism
Dr. Herron: There’s another way to understand the role of racism in our society: as a way of managing relations among whites.
A prominent historian named C. Vann Woodward wrote a book called The Strange Career of Jim Crow in an attempt to explain the roots of racial segregation in the American South. Why did this system of formal segregation in public venues exist in the American South? Was it really about exploiting the labor of blacks, as in slavery? Or was it something else altogether?
Woodward argues that Jim Crow arose to cement a class alliance between poor whites, working class whites, and elite whites. The white southern elite greatly feared the possibility that poor blacks and poor whites would join together around a common cause.
Before the advent of Jim Crow, there were stories of such alliances. One example, Virginia’s Readjuster Party, was a sort of interracial populist movement.
We can see then how Jim Crow laws were deployed to create a black and white divide among the working class. I find that argument quite persuasive, and you can even observe it today.
You certainly see that in the 2016 presidential campaign. An elite person, like Donald Trump, attempts to forge a link with working class whites. But his interests and their interests are quite different, right? What’s good for Donald Trump is not what’s good for a working class person in Iowa.
But one can ask: Why the demonizing of immigrants? Why the subtle/not so subtle racial appeals that can seem quite pervasive in this discourse? It’s sort of saying, look at what we have in common—our interests and values and “traditions” as white people.
I’m no politician, but it seems to me there’s a great deal of continuity between current discourse and past racial ideology.
Dr. Baran: When we talk about race as anthropologists, we’re not just sitting around and speculating. We are doing solid research on this topic, and so are researchers in other disciplines.
We need the general public to understand that racial attitudes can be researched, and we can take the findings and learn from them. That’s going to inform how we move forward as a country.
So that’s one of my missions actually: to get people to understand race and reduce bias.
How Children Process Race
Q: How do children today perceive race?
Dr. Baran: Children come into the world prepared to learn certain things. And they actively learn them. You don’t have to teach it to them.
Children learn language effortlessly, even though language is incredibly complex. They’re learning language at one year old just by listening to people talk. A developing child also tries to determine which social groups will be important. Let’s say a mother is in a conversation with another adult at the playground, and her child overhears her say, “It’s so great that we have a black president.”
The child just learned a lot about the world from this remark. She learned that there’s a category called “black.” Every other time she heard the word “president,” it didn’t have the word “black” in front of it. She learned that this new term is really important. And she learned that her mother is excited or angry or sarcastic about it, depending on the tone of voice.
As a result, the child forms what’s called a cognitive placeholder, and she goes about actively trying to figure out what that category of people is like and using that placeholder in social situations.
Children’s brains are picking out these groups in the world. Their brains are trying to understand power dynamics.
But you’ve also got adults—and here, I’m mostly talking about white adults—who won’t talk to their children about race. And it’s often for good intentions. They want their kids to be “colorblind,” and they want to protect them from the ugliness of racism.
But, if you’re that kid trying to figure things out, and adults won’t talk to you about it, you learn that it’s taboo. So you go about learning from other sources, some of which are less thoughtful, like the media, movies, the proverbial uncle at Thanksgiving, and friends your own age. And also you learn from subtle behaviors, like parents locking their car door in certain neighborhoods.
That’s how these essentialist, naturalized ways of thinking about race, these associations, can be perpetuated across generations. Explicitly, parents teach kids the basic lessons: Treat everyone equally. Don’t discriminate. Everyone is the same. We’re all good.
But kids end up developing these implicit or unconscious associations that have numerous effects: in school and at work and at home and in the court system.
Admission and Affirmative Action
Q: Why does the subject of race seem to continually arise in admission to areas of opportunity in our society: admission to colleges, admission to workplaces and executive boardrooms, admission to communities through home ownership and positive police relations?
Dr. Herron: Racial ideologies are fundamentally judgments about who is worthy, who is decent, who belongs, and who doesn’t. Inclusion and exclusion.
The contexts you mention with admissions, those are areas where people are called to make judgments of other people. So it’s inevitable that racial issues come up in those contexts.
Dr. Baran: When there’s evaluation of people, all those biases we talked about are going to come into play, whether explicitly or implicitly. For most of our history, those biases explicitly excluded people who were not considered white. Today it still happens, but more implicitly. Just look at that recent Yale Child Study Center study showing that even preschool teachers expect and watch for problem behavior more from black boys. This leads to more discipline, more suspensions and expulsions, and exclusion from all the benefits of education.
Because of the history and what happens today, it’s no surprise that when we try to counteract bias, we use the same essentialized categories of race. It’s good to have policies that mitigate against bias at the same time that we work toward actually reducing bias in the long term.
Q: What are your thoughts on affirmative action?
Dr. Herron: I think that people who say affirmative action is unjust lack any structural understanding of race. They simply don’t understand how racism works.
Opponents of affirmative action are often individualistic in how they think about the topic. They just think, there are two individuals: a white person and a black person. And, hypothetically, the white person in this case is more qualified than the black person. Therefore, the white person should be admitted. But that’s a myopic viewpoint.
If you understand that we live in a society that systematically channels resources toward white people at the expense of black people, then you realize something: the fact that this white person is more qualified might itself be unfair.
So it is certainly no solution say, “OK, we’ll just be colorblind and admit the person who’s more qualified.” The fact that one individual might appear more qualified than the other could be the result of racism.
Expanding Perspectives on Race
[The following question and response were updated in Feb. 2021]
Q: You’ve been teaching the course Race in the Americas at Harvard Extension School for 16 years now. How has the course evolved over the years, and how have current issues of inequality and police violence against people of color affected both course content and discussion among students?
Dr. Herron: The course has changed a lot. In part, it has changed in the usual ways that courses change—new scholarship emerges that changes one’s thinking.
But events of the past few years have also raised important questions that we consider in the course. For instance, how are we to understand the racial dimensions of Trumpism? Are we to understand Trump’s rise as marking a resurgence of white supremacy in the US? Or is Trumpism the last gasp of a white supremacy in decline? In my view neither of these questions quite gets to the reality of the situation.
To understand the racial character of Trumpism, we need to think about both race and class. In the decades after World War II, African Americans and other non-white people were partly excluded from the economic benefits of the postwar boom. The GI Bill, for instance, was structured so as to largely exclude black veterans. The white working class became accustomed to a social order that privileged white workers over non-white workers. For working class whites, whiteness paid.
While all workers experienced a decline in living standards starting in the 1970s, white and non-white workers experienced this decline differently. As the status of white workers declined relative to the privilege they experienced in the post-war boom, whiteness has become an ever more important source of identity to compensate for that loss of economic and social status. This, I think, helps us to understand the apparent resurgence of “white identity politics” surrounding Donald Trump.
But most broadly, one important lesson of the course is that racism is not a natural or unchanging phenomenon. Rather, racism is the product of specific historical and social forces, and as such it is subject to change. It seems that we are in the midst of such changes now. But it’s difficult to predict where we will end up.