You said in class that your generation failed us. What did you mean by that?
Just in terms of the nature of the rhetoric, that is a clear regression. I tried to be as clear as I could in the classroom context with the students. I’m not suggesting that things were going back to the (not so) “good ole days,” not pollyannaish at all or romanticizing the past. I was taken by surprise when President Obama was elected, pleasantly surprised, of course. I thought this meant something. At the time it was mainly symbolic when you consider things like mass incarceration and growing wealth inequality, but then I had a daughter who went to kindergarten around that time. I remembered going in and seeing the pictures on the walls and being struck by them myself. Seeing those crayons and the brown faces, I realized I wasn’t doing it a service by saying it’s “just” symbolic. Symbolism is powerful, and you wonder if there might be some kind of backlash [to the progress we’ve witnessed], but you are still fairly hopeful. Recently, this kind of visceral reaction was clearly at least a couple steps back after one step forward, in terms of the public discourse. I don’t want to overstate; we’ll see what happens.
I thought we just set the completely wrong example. Whatever people’s political leanings are, they are entitled to the grievances on both sides. On the Republican side, Mr. Trump was tapping into something real. But the message we are sending to you, to say it in the capacity of a citizen, the sheer vulgarity on display at times, just left you stunned. I saw your faces in class, silenced and stunned, wondering what in the world is going on.
There’s a vacuum of leadership from my generation. In that sense, we didn’t offer you the psychic protections that you see all over the place we should have. You see it on the community level, where the impoverished children often grew up with some protection. Their parents shield them from things and they don’t realize how dire the circumstances are until they’ve built up some resilience when they get older. The feeling I had was that, at the national level, we didn’t shield you from some of those things that my generation, and certainly previous generations, endured. As bad as things sometimes could be, I certainly did not feel like bearing the brunt of being told that you’re not valued or wanted in the way that is happening to some of our population; particularly minorities, and to an extent women as well. If you reward someone for this behavior by electing him President, then you are sending a clear message to the people he’s offending. That’s what I was trying to imply as appropriately as I could in a classroom setting. I felt like we really let you down in the sense that we didn’t set a good example and protect those folk. Of course, those of us trying to do that should be supported, but overall, we have to take the blame for not doing generationally what we should be doing.
I’m just hoping it’s a wakeup call. I hope you realize that part of the lesson—this might seem kind of cynical—is that you cannot wait for us. I’m hoping young folk realize that you have to find ways to take the reins, because the adults sometimes either don’t get it or won’t get it, out of willed ignorance or whatever the case is. You have to lead. Most progressive changes come about through youth leadership. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, we forget how young Martin Luther King was at the time he was killed. He was a very young man. Youth energy, youth vision and perspective are critical.
For young people to take the lead on progressive change, how should they address a large portion of this country who feels left out? How do we talk to them?
Unfortunately, that’s too good a question. A lot of us are struggling with that. Even what I suggested at the end of the class—to talk to people who you disagree with—is too simplistic. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. Now emotions are still high and raw, so those conversations are fraught and charged.
I worked on the Race project for the American Anthropological Association. The fundamental assumption with that project is that we have to engage in open and honest conversations, and we have to work from a shared framework and database of knowledge. Race is one big example, the one I’m most familiar with. We came up with a model that incorporated science, history, and contemporary lived experience. From that, we have the basis for talking about race and racism, and human variation. Everyone may not agree, but as a starting point for discussion, that’s the most comprehensive one I’m aware of. There has to be some assumption that we have some shared goals. We need to figure out what those are and work backwards from those goals as opposed to either assuming that we don’t have shared goals or failing to lay out transparently what those goals are. That’s where we tend to get lost. To address the issue or problem of race, racism, and human variation, we have to acknowledge first that this is how we got here. But that’s not what we have done, certainly not at a big enough scale.
I say that you have to assume leadership, but there are certain things that have to be put in place. You can’t do it with us sitting on top of you. I think there have to be structural commitments, and then the task becomes for you to go out and spread your tentacles where those structures become impediments as opposed to enablers of these conversations. The fact is, we are here and we are all here to stay. Similar to the Civil Rights Movement, people recognize and realize that we are not going anywhere, so we have to figure this thing out.
Some people think conversation sounds watered down, especially when you hear it so often—conversation on this, conversation on that. But if those conversations consist of discussions on the real issues of power and inequality, and the barriers to justice and peace, then I think they are worth having. You are just primed and ready to have those conversations in a way that many folk my age and older simply aren’t comfortable with having.
If you look at what the millennial voters’ position was in this election, no one can deny that it would have been a progressive move if we had elected a woman president—that represents the belief of 80% of our young people. That fortifies my position that you all are ready. The challenge for you is to figure out how to get us out of the way. That’s something I’m not quite sure of. We can have those conversations amongst ourselves, but I think you also need to push and prod where necessary. That’s just how history has worked. Youth and young adult movements have been the main engine of social change everywhere you look.
As an anthropologist, what do you think are some of the elements in that shared knowledge base that are not established between “us” and “them”? What are the impediments to conversation?
I wonder about this. As anthropologists, we look at the historical evolution of different racial identities, including whiteness. I don’t want to reduce various political camps down to racial identities, but I want to use that as an example. Often one of the challenges is how to present this notion that we all have these identities, that we are all multifaceted and multidimensional. It’s easy for us on this side of the political divide to stereotype Trump supporters, to reduce them to racists, sexists, you name it. But there has to be some acknowledgement that that’s not the only driving force even as those forces clearly are at play. People on our either side have to acknowledge the viewpoint of those on the other side. We have to find a way to acknowledge the multidimensional aspects of all of our identities and to allow the other side to be as uncompromising in their critiques as we are. That’s a challenge. You see this across all sorts of divides. A group can be leveling some blistering critique and yet be somewhat blind to the critiques of others.
Alliance-building across this political divide, to be honest, has to address this perceived loss of power. We are coming on the heels of two terms of our first African-American president, faced with the prospect with a woman president. If we are honest, for some people it was just too much. You do get this backlash. For others, there are other issues. It comes down to allowing people to be human, as we allow ourselves to be—here’s where it gets tricky, since it’s too easy to give false equivalence—yet doing that while acknowledging historically entrenched power and inequalities. We may all have legitimate grievances, but me hurling some words at someone doesn’t have the social and historical force as other groups do. Historically, even minor changes have elicited huge backlash responses from the majority white population.
I’m sorry I don’t have concrete suggestions or answers as I would like. At this point, we’re still processing a lot of this. I do see this as hopefully some last vestiges of pushing back against what really is inevitable change, demographic and otherwise. A lot of the people who supported Hillary Clinton, and the political pundits, underestimated the force of that backlash and that feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness. You put all of that within the broader context of economic change, for which people are looking for answers and scapegoats as to why circumstances are what they are, and you’ve got the situation that we have today.
But there is hope.
Absolutely. In my position, one thing I want to say to the students is that, while it’s important to let people know that you are hurt, it’s at least as important to address the real issues, including the physical vulnerability of some people, and at the same time not feeding too much into a sense of despair. Again, I’m not romanticizing the past, but we’ve been here before, in some cases tougher spots. Many circumstances have been overcome in the past. We just have to have that sustained commitment that takes us beyond episodes [of effort]. Another point of the Race project was to give people access to this type of information and have the conversations when they are not charged. Don’t wait till an incident. Here’s information you can pore over about the lived experiences of people across all sorts of political and racial divides. Talk about this stuff not simply when there is a police shooting, so that when those things happen, you have a framework to put them in. I hope a shared structural commitment can come out of this to sustain dialog that will then lay a new foundation for behavior when the next inevitable thing happens. Optimism can rise and wane from time to time, but there’s never an excuse for hopelessness.
Regardless of your political persuasion, seeing the first woman president would have been another huge milestone in this nation’s history. In that sense, I can only see it as a setback. But when you look at the full arc, you are reminded that this experiment of America, this notion of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and pluralistic society, has never really been accomplished or even attempted. To have a society in which everyone is supposedly able to come in and feel welcomed as free and equal citizens—that experiment just hasn’t happened before. The newness and youth of our nation in that sense—several hundred years is still a drop in the bucket—should give us pause so that we don’t become too cynical or hopeless. The balancing act for me is always to keep that in mind while realizing that progress, as we have seen, can be taken away. So you are always pushing and hopefully there’s creative tension between how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go. If there’s any silver lining, I’m hoping that this becomes both a clarion call for younger folk to stay engaged in creating the world they want to see and also opening up opportunities for some hard dialogues across differences.
We focus so much on structural change, with good reason. Also, some of this has to come from conversations that people are not always willing to have. In the case here, if you look at students feeling threatened, Muslims, racial minority students, those are conversations that need to happen across and within groups. I think about my white faculty colleagues and sometimes conversations can be qualitatively different along racial lines. I would hope that they will have some hard conversations with their colleagues across political lines —conversations that I’m less likely to have—to do what it takes to bring about the change and make sure everyone feels valued on this campus. The first thing has to be making sure everyone feels safe. Then we can work towards those dialogues.
For my part, I’ll be in touch with people who are willing to have those sustained dialogues and make those structural commitments on the part of departments and the entire college. I see that as our role and responsibility. If we can do that, then we don’t have a fertile environment in which these flare-ups can happen. That’s the foundational change we have to work towards. Students play a role there as well. Students can support such initiatives and the faculty behind them, to keep the demand on those types of programs in their own interest and in the interest of the institution. Nations and institutions have a right to decide what they are going to be, but they also have the ability to change, and so you do have some power and some say in what kind of society you want.