It’s the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate—a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that can counter the rhetoric of demagogues
Wade Davis, February 1, 2021
In 2012, both Kiplinger and Forbes ranked anthropology as the least valuable undergraduate major, unleashing a small wave of indignation as many outside the field rushed to defend the study of culture as ideal preparation for any life or career in an interconnected and globalized world. The response from professional anthropologists, confronted by both an existential challenge and public humiliation, was earnest but largely ineffective, for the voice of the discipline had been muted by a generation of self-absorption, tempered by a disregard for popular engagement that borders on contempt.
Ruth Benedict, acolyte of the great Franz Boas and in 1947 president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), reputedly said that the very purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences.
Today, such activism seems as passé as a pith helmet. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the AAA met in Washington, D.C. Four thousand anthropologists were in the nation’s capital in the wake of the biggest story of culture they or the country would ever encounter. The entire gathering earned but a mention in The Washington Post, a few lines in the gossip section essentially noting that the nutcases were back in town. It was hard to know who was more remiss, the government for failing to listen to the one profession that could have answered the question on everyone’s lips—Why do they hate us?—or the profession itself for failing to reach outside itself to bring its considerable insights to the attention of the nation.
Perhaps fittingly it took an outsider to remind anthropologists why anthropology matters. Charles King, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, begins his remarkable book The Reinvention of Humanityby asking us to envision the world as it existed in the minds of our grandparents, perhaps your great-grandparents. Race, he notes, was accepted as a given, a biological fact, with lineages dividing white from Black reaching back through primordial time. Differences in customs and beliefs reflected differences in intelligence and destiny, with every culture finding its rung on an evolutionary ladder rising from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized of the Strand in London, with technological wizardry, the great achievement of the West, being the sole measure of progress and success.
Sexual and behavioral characteristics were presumed fixed. Whites were smart and industrious, Blacks physically strong but lazy, and some people were barely distinguishable from animals; as late as 1902 it was debated in parliament in Australia whether aborigines were human beings. Politics was the domain of men, charity work and the home the realm of women. Women’s suffrage only came in 1919. Immigrants were seen as a threat, even by those who had themselves only just managed to claw their way ashore. The poor were responsible for their own miseries, even as the British army reported that the height of officers recruited in 1914 was on average six inches taller than that of enlisted men, simply because of nutrition. As for the blind, deaf and dumb, the cripples, morons, Mongoloids, and the mad, they were best locked away, lobotomized and even killed to remove them from the gene pool.
The superiority of the white man was accepted with such assurance that the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911 had no entries for racism or colonialism. As recently as 1965, Carleton Coon completed a set of two books, The Origin of Races and The Living Races of Man, in which he advanced the theory that the political and technological dominance of Europeans was a natural consequence of their evolved genetic superiority. He even asserted that “racial intermixture can upset the genetic as well as the social equilibrium of a group.” Coon at the time of his retirement in 1963 was a respected professor and curator at the University of Pennsylvania. Interracial marriage remained illegal across much of the United States until 1967.
Today, not two generations on, it goes without saying that no educated person would share any of these bankrupt certitudes. By the same token, what we take for granted would be unimaginable to those who fiercely defended convictions that appear to the modern eye both transparently wrong and morally reprehensible. All of which raises a question. What was it that allowed our culture to go from zero to 60 in a generation, as women moved from the kitchen to the boardroom, people of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay men and women from the closet to the altar?
Political movements are built upon the possibility of change, possibilities brought into being by new ways of thinking. Before any of these struggles could flourish, something fundamental, some flash of insight, had to challenge and, in time, shatter the intellectual foundations that supported archaic beliefs as irrelevant to our lives today as the notions of 19th-century clergymen, certain that the earth was but 6,000 years old.
The catalyst, as Charles King reminds us, was the wisdom and scientific genius of Franz Boas and a small band of courageous scholars—Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, Elsie Clews Parsons, Melville Herskovits, Edward Sapir, Robert Lowie, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and many others— contrarians all, who came into his orbit, destined to change the world. We live today in the social landscape of their dreams. If you find it normal, for example, that an Irish boy would have an Asian girlfriend, or that a Jewish friend might find solace in the Buddhist dharma, or that a person born into a male body could self-identify as a woman, then you are a child of anthropology.
If you recognize that marriage need not exclusively imply a man and a woman, that single mothers can be good mothers, and that two men or two women can raise good families as long as there is love in the home, it’s because you’ve embraced values and intuitions inconceivable to your great-grandparents. And if you believe that wisdom may be found in all spiritual traditions, that people in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life, that one preserves jam but not culture, then you share a vision of compassion and inclusion that represents perhaps the most sublime revelation of our species, the scientific realization that all of humanity is one interconnected and undivided whole.
Widely acknowledged as the father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas was the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. What, he asked, was the nature of knowing? Who decided what was to be known? How do seemingly random beliefs and convictions converge into this thing called culture, a term that he was the first to promote as an organizing principle, a useful point of intellectual departure.
Far ahead of his time, Boas recognized that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. Each was a product of its own history. None existed in an absolute sense; every culture was but a model of reality. We create our social realms, Boas would say, determine what we then define as being common sense, universal truths, the appropriate rules and codes of behavior. Beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder. Manners don’t make the man; men and women invent the manners. Race and gender are cultural constructs, derived not from biology but born in the realm of ideas.
Critically, none of this implied an extreme relativism, as if every human behavior must be accepted simply because it exists. Boas never called for the elimination of judgment, only its suspension so that the very judgments we are ethically and morally obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones. Even as he graced the cover of Time magazine in 1936, a German Jew in exile from a homeland already dripping in blood, Boas railed against the cruel conceits and stupidity of scientific racism. Inspired by his time among the Inuit on Baffin Island, and later the Kwakwaka’wakw in the salmon forests of the Pacific Northwest, he informed all who would listen that the other peoples of the world were not failed attempts to be them, failed attempts to be modern. Every culture was a unique expression of the human imagination and heart. Each was a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question, humanity responds in 7,000 different languages, voices that collectively comprise our repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species.
Boas would not live to see his insights and intuitions confirmed by hard science, let alone define the zeitgeist of a new global culture. But, 80 years on, studies of the human genome have indeed revealed the genetic endowment of humanity to be a single continuum. Race truly is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of common ancestors, including those who walked out of Africa some 65,000 years ago, embarking on a journey that over 40,000 years, a mere 2500 generations, carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.
But here is the important idea. If we are all cut from the same fabric of life, then by definition we all share the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual potential is exercised through technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, a priority of many other peoples in the world, is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural emphasis. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no evolutionary ladder to success. Boas and his students were right. The brilliance of scientific research, the revelations of modern genetics, has affirmed in an astonishing way both the unity of humanity and the essential wisdom of cultural relativism. Every culture really does have something to say; each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.
As a scholar, Boas ranks with Einstein, Darwin and Freud as one of the four intellectual pillars of modernity. His core idea, distilled in the notion of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom. And though his research took him to esoteric realms of myth and shamanism, symbolism and the spirit, he remained grounded in the politics of racial and economic justice, the promise and potential of social change. A tireless campaigner for human rights, Boas maintained always that anthropology as a science only made sense if it was practiced in the service of a higher tolerance. “It is possible,” wrote Thomas Gossett in his 1963 book Race: The History of an Idea in America, that “Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”
Though remembered today as the giants of the discipline, Boas and his students in their time were dismissed from jobs because of their activism; denied promotion because of their beliefs; harassed by the FBI as the subversives they truly were; and attacked in the press simply for being different. And yet they stood their ground, and because they did, as Charles King writes, “anthropology came into its own on the front lines of the great moral battle of our time… [as it] anticipated and in good measure built the intellectual foundations for the seismic social changes of the last hundred years from women’s suffrage and civil rights to sexual revolution and marriage equality.”
Were Boas to be with us today, his voice would surely resound in the public square, the media, in all the halls of power. He would never sit back in silence as fully half the languages of the world hover on the brink of extinction, implying the loss within a single generation of half of humanity’s intellectual, ecological and spiritual legacy. To those who suggest that indigenous cultures are destined to fade away, he would reply that change and technology pose no threat to culture, but power does. Cultures under threat are neither fragile nor vestigial; in every instance, they are living dynamic peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. If human beings are the agents of cultural loss, he would note, we can surely be facilitators of cultural survival.
Anthropology matters because it allows us to look beneath the surface of things. The very existence of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other visions of life itself, puts the lie to those in our own culture who say that we cannot change, as we know we must, the fundamental way in which we inhabit this planet. Anthropology is the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate, a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that silences the rhetoric of demagogues, inoculating the world from the likes of the Proud Boys and Donald Trump. As the events of the last months have shown, the struggle long ago championed by Franz Boas is ongoing. Never has the voice of anthropology been more important.
But it must be spoken to be heard. With a million Uighurs in Chinese prison camps, the forests of the Penan in Sarawak laid waste, and the very homeland of the Inuit melting from beneath their lives, contemporary anthropologists must surely do better than indulging doctrinal grievance studies, seminars on intersectionality, the use of pronouns and other multiple expressions of woke orthodoxy if the discipline is to avoid the indictment of actually being the most worthless of undergraduate degrees.
Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology and holds the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is Magdalena: River of Dreams (Knopf 2020).
Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline.
By Rachel Poser
Feb. 2, 2021
In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as “the incident.” Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of “Western civilization,” the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline “Every month is white history month.”
Padilla, a leading historian of Rome who teaches at Princeton and was born in the Dominican Republic, was one of the panelists that day. For several years, he has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms. Classics was a discipline around which the modern Western university grew, and Padilla believes that it has sown racism through the entirety of higher education. Last summer, after Princeton decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs, Padilla was a co-author of an open letter that pushed the university to do more. “We call upon the university to amplify its commitment to Black people,” it read, “and to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.” Surveying the damage done by people who lay claim to the classical tradition, Padilla argues, one can only conclude that classics has been instrumental to the invention of “whiteness” and its continued domination.
In recent years, like-minded classicists have come together to dispel harmful myths about antiquity. On social media and in journal articles and blog posts, they have clarified that contrary to right-wing propaganda, the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves “white,” and their marble sculptures, whose pale flesh has been fetishized since the 18th century, would often have been painted in antiquity. They have noted that in fifth-century-B.C. Athens, which has been celebrated as the birthplace of democracy, participation in politics was restricted to male citizens; thousands of enslaved people worked and died in silver mines south of the city, and custom dictated that upper-class women could not leave the house unless they were veiled and accompanied by a male relative. They have shown that the concept of Western civilization emerged as a euphemism for “white civilization” in the writing of men like Lothrop Stoddard, a Klansman and eugenicist. Some classicists have come around to the idea that their discipline forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy — a traumatic process one described to me as “reverse red-pilling” — but they are also starting to see an opportunity in their position. Because classics played a role in constructing whiteness, they believed, perhaps the field also had a role to play in its dismantling.
On the morning of the panel, Padilla stood out among his colleagues, as he always did. He sat in a crisp white shirt at the front of a large conference hall at a San Diego Marriott, where most of the attendees wore muted shades of gray. Over the course of 10 minutes, Padilla laid out an indictment of his field. “If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color,” he said, “one could not do better than what classics has done.” Padilla’s vision of classics’ complicity in systemic injustice is uncompromising, even by the standards of some of his allies. He has condemned the field as “equal parts vampire and cannibal” — a dangerous force that has been used to murder, enslave and subjugate. “He’s on record as saying that he’s not sure the discipline deserves a future,” Denis Feeney, a Latinist at Princeton, told me. Padilla believes that classics is so entangled with white supremacy as to be inseparable from it. “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity,” he has written, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.”
When Padilla ended his talk, the audience was invited to ask questions. Williams, an independent scholar from California, was one of the first to speak. She rose from her seat in the front row and adjusted a standing microphone that had been placed in the center of the room. “I’ll probably offend all of you,” she began. Rather than kowtowing to criticism, Williams said, “maybe we should start defending our discipline.” She protested that it was imperative to stand up for the classics as the political, literary and philosophical foundation of European and American culture: “It’s Western civilization. It matters because it’s the West.” Hadn’t classics given us the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy?
‘There are some in the field who say: “Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.” ’
One panelist tried to interject, but Williams pressed on, her voice becoming harsh and staccato as the tide in the room moved against her. “I believe in merit. I don’t look at the color of the author.” She pointed a finger in Padilla’s direction. “You may have got your job because you’re Black,” Williams said, “but I would prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”
Discordant sounds went up from the crowd. Several people stood up from their seats and hovered around Williams at the microphone, seemingly unsure of whether or how to intervene. Padilla was smiling; it was the grimace of someone who, as he told me later, had been expecting something like this all along. At last, Williams ceded the microphone, and Padilla was able to speak. “Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”
When Padilla was a child, his parents proudly referred to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, as the “Athens of the New World” — a center of culture and learning. That idea had been fostered by Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Like other 20th-century fascists, Trujillo saw himself, and his people, as the inheritors of a grand European tradition that originated in Greece and Rome. In a 1932 speech, he praised ancient Greece as the “mistress of beauty, rendered eternal in the impeccable whiteness of its marbles.” Trujillo’s veneration of whiteness was central to his message. By invoking the classical legacy, he could portray the residents of neighboring Haiti as darker and inferior, a campaign that reached its murderous peak in 1937 with the Parsley Massacre, or El Corte (“the Cutting”) in Spanish, in which Dominican troops killed as many as 30,000 Haitians and Black Dominicans, according to some estimates.
Padilla’s family didn’t talk much about their lives under the dictatorship, but he knew that his mother’s father had been beaten after arguing with some drunken Trujillistas. That grandfather, along with the rest of his mother’s relatives, were fishermen and sailors in Puerto Plata, a city on the coast; they lived in what Padilla describes as “immiserating poverty” but benefited from a degree of privilege in Dominican society because of their lighter skin. His father’s people, on the other hand, often joked that they were “black as night.” They had lived for generations in Pimentel, a city near the mountainous northeast where enslaved Africans had set up Maroon communities in the 1600s and 1700s, counting on the difficult terrain to give them a measure of safety. Like their counterparts in the United States, slavers in the Dominican Republic sometimes bestowed classical names on their charges as a mark of their civilizing mission, so the legacy of slavery — and its entanglement with classics — remains legible in the names of many Dominicans today. “Why are there Dominicans named Temístocles?” Padilla used to wonder as a kid. “Why is Manny Ramirez’s middle name Aristides?” Trujillo’s own middle name was Leónidas, after the Spartan king who martyred himself with 300 of his soldiers at Thermopylae, and who has become an icon of the far right. But in his early life, Padilla was aware of none of this. He only knew that he was Black like his father.
When Padilla was 4, he and his parents flew to the United States so that his mother, María Elena, could receive care for pregnancy complications at a New York City hospital. But after his brother, Yando, was born, the family decided to stay; they moved into an apartment in the Bronx and quietly tried to normalize their immigration status, spending their savings in the process. Without papers, it was hard to find steady work. Some time later, Padilla’s father returned to the Dominican Republic; he had been an accountant in Santo Domingo, and he was weary of poverty in the United States, where he had been driving a cab and selling fruit in the summers. That left María Elena with the two boys in New York. Because Yando was a U.S. citizen, she received $120 in food stamps and $85 in cash each month, but it was barely enough to feed one child, let alone a family of three. Over the next few months, María Elena and her sons moved between apartments in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, packing up and finding a new place each time they couldn’t make rent. For about three weeks, the landlord of a building in Queens let them stay in the basement as a favor, but when a sewage pipe burst over them as they were sleeping, María Elena found her way to a homeless shelter in Chinatown.
At the shelter, “the food tasted nasty,” and “pools of urine” marred the bathroom floor, Padilla wrote in his 2015 memoir, “Undocumented.” His one place of respite was the tiny library on the shelter’s top floor. Since leaving the Dominican Republic, Padilla had grown curious about Dominican history, but he couldn’t find any books about the Caribbean on the library’s shelves. What he did find was a slim blue-and-white textbook titled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome.” “Western civilization was formed from the union of early Greek wisdom and the highly organized legal minds of early Rome,” the book began. “The Greek belief in a person’s ability to use his powers of reason, coupled with Roman faith in military strength, produced a result that has come to us as a legacy, or gift from the past.” Thirty years later, Padilla can still recite those opening lines. “How many times have I taken an ax to this over the last decade of my career?” he said to me. “But at the moment of the initial encounter, there was something energizing about it.” Padilla took the textbook back to the room he shared with his mother and brother and never returned it to the library.
One day in the summer of 1994, a photographer named Jeff Cowen, who was teaching art at a shelter in Bushwick, where María Elena and the boys had been transferred, noticed 9-year-old Padilla tucked away by himself, reading a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. “The kids were running around like crazy on their after-lunch sugar high, and there was a boy sitting in the corner with this enormous tome,” Cowen told me. “He stood up and shook my hand like a little gentleman, speaking like he’s some kind of Ivy League professor.” Cowen was taken aback. “I was really struggling at the time. I was living in an illegal building without a toilet, so I wasn’t really looking to be a do-gooder,” he said. “But within five minutes, it was obvious that this kid deserved the best education he could get. It was a responsibility.”
Cowen became a mentor to Padilla, and then his godfather. He visited the shelter with books and brain teasers, took Padilla and Yando roller-skating in Central Park and eventually helped Padilla apply to Collegiate, one of New York City’s elite prep schools, where he was admitted with a full scholarship. María Elena, elated, photocopied his acceptance letter and passed it around to her friends at church. At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.
Years passed before Padilla started to question the way the textbook had presented the classical world to him. He was accepted on a full scholarship to Princeton, where he was often the only Black person in his Latin and Greek courses. “The hardest thing for me as I was making my way into the discipline as a college student was appreciating how lonely I might be,” Padilla told me. In his sophomore year, when it came time to select a major, the most forceful resistance to his choice came from his close friends, many of whom were also immigrants or the children of immigrants. They asked Padilla questions he felt unprepared to answer. What are you doing with this blanquito stuff? How is this going to help us? Padilla argued that he and others shouldn’t shun certain pursuits just because the world said they weren’t for Black and brown people. There was a special joy and vindication in upending their expectations, but he found he wasn’t completely satisfied by his own arguments. The question of classics’ utility was not a trivial one. How could he take his education in Latin and Greek and make it into something liberatory? “That became the most urgent question that guided me through my undergraduate years and beyond,” Padilla said.
After graduating as Princeton’s 2006 salutatorian, Padilla earned a master’s degree from Oxford and a doctorate from Stanford. By then, more scholars than ever were seeking to understand not only the elite men who had written the surviving works of Greek and Latin literature, but also the ancient people whose voices were mostly silent in the written record: women, the lower classes, enslaved people and immigrants. Courses on gender and race in antiquity were becoming common and proving popular with students, but it wasn’t yet clear whether their imprint on the discipline would last. “There are some in the field,” Ian Morris, an adviser of Padilla’s at Stanford, told me, “who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” Reformers had learned from the old debates around “Black Athena” — Martin Bernal’s trilogy positing African and Semitic influence on ancient Greek culture — just how resistant some of their colleagues were to acknowledging the field’s role in whitewashing antiquity. “Classicists generally identify as liberal,” Joel Christensen, a professor of Greek literature at Brandeis University, told me. “But we are able to do that because most of the time we’re not in spaces or with people who push us about our liberalism and what that means.”
Thinking of his family’s own history, Padilla became interested in Roman slavery. Decades of research had focused on the ability of enslaved people to transcend their status through manumission, celebrating the fact that the buying and granting of freedom was much more common in Rome than in other slaveholding societies. But there were many who stood no chance of being freed, particularly those who worked in the fields or the mines, far from centers of power. “We have so many testimonies for how profoundly degrading enslavement was,” Padilla told me. Enslaved people in ancient Rome could be tortured and crucified; forced into marriage; chained together in work gangs; made to fight gladiators or wild animals; and displayed naked in marketplaces with signs around their necks advertising their age, character and health to prospective buyers. Owners could tattoo their foreheads so they could be recognized and captured if they tried to flee. Temple excavations have uncovered clay dedications from escapees, praying for the gods to remove the disfiguring marks from their faces. Archaeologists have also found metal collars riveted around the necks of skeletons in burials of enslaved people, among them an iron ring with a bronze tag preserved in the Museo Nazionale in Rome that reads: “I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”
By 2015, when Padilla arrived at the Columbia Society of Fellows as a postdoctoral researcher, classicists were no longer apologists for ancient slavery, but many doubted that the inner worlds of enslaved people were recoverable, because no firsthand account of slavery had survived the centuries. That answer did not satisfy Padilla. He had begun to study the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had shaped his mother’s mystical brand of Catholicism. María Elena moved through a world that was haunted by spirits, numinous presences who could give comfort and advice or demand sacrifice and appeasement. For a while, when Padilla was in high school, his mother invited a santero and his family to live with them at their Section 8 apartment in Harlem, where the man would conjure spirits that seethed at Padilla for his bad behavior. Padilla realized that his mother’s conception of the dead reminded him of the Romans’, which gave him an idea. In 2017, he published a paper in the journal Classical Antiquity that compared evidence from antiquity and the Black Atlantic to draw a more coherent picture of the religious life of the Roman enslaved. “It will not do merely to adopt a pose of ‘righteous indignation’ at the distortions and gaps in the archive,” he wrote. “There are tools available for the effective recovery of the religious experiences of the enslaved, provided we work with these tools carefully and honestly.”
Padilla began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition. As James Baldwin observed 35 years before, there was a price to the ticket. His earlier work on the Roman senatorial classes, which earned him a reputation as one of the best Roman historians of his generation, no longer moved him in the same way. Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and “Western civilization” had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he told me. He revisited books by Frantz Fanon, Orlando Patterson and others working in the traditions of Afro-pessimism and psychoanalysis, Caribbean and Black studies. He also gravitated toward contemporary scholars like José Esteban Muñoz, Lorgia García Peña and Saidiya Hartman, who speak of race not as a physical fact but as a ghostly system of power relations that produces certain gestures, moods, emotions and states of being. They helped him think in more sophisticated terms about the workings of power in the ancient world, and in his own life.
Around the time that Padilla began working on the paper, Donald Trump made his first comments on the presidential campaign trail about Mexican “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” coming into the country. Padilla, who spent the previous 20 years dealing with an uncertain immigration status, had just applied for a green card after celebrating his marriage to a social worker named Missy from Sparta, N.J. Now he watched as alt-right figures like Richard Spencer, who had fantasized about creating a “white ethno-state on the North American continent” that would be “a reconstitution of the Roman Empire,” rose to national prominence. In response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, Mary Beard, perhaps the most famous classicist alive, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the Romans “would have been puzzled by our modern problems with migration and asylum,” because the empire was founded on the “principles of incorporation and of the free movement of people.”
‘I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake. I want to build something.’
Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.
To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether. Classics was happy to embrace him when he was changing the face of the discipline, but how would the field react when he asked it to change its very being? The way it breathed and moved? “Some students and some colleagues have told me this is either too depressing or it’s sort of menacing in a way,” he said. “My only rejoinder is that I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake. I want to build something.”
One day last February, shortly before the pandemic ended in-person teaching, I visited Padilla at Princeton. Campus was quiet and morose, the silences quivering with early-term nerves. A storm had swept the leaves from the trees and the color from the sky, which was now the milky gray of laundry water, and the air was so heavy with mist that it seemed to be blurring the outlines of the buildings. That afternoon, Padilla was teaching a Roman-history course in one of the oldest lecture halls at the university, a grand, vaulted room with creaking floorboards and mullioned windows. The space was not designed for innovative pedagogy. Each wooden chair was bolted to the floor with a paddle-shaped extension that served as a desk but was barely big enough to hold a notebook, let alone a laptop. “This was definitely back in the day when the students didn’t even take notes,” one student said as she sat down. “Like, ‘My dad’s going to give me a job.’”
Since returning to campus as a professor in 2016, Padilla has been working to make Princeton’s classics department a more welcoming place for students like him — first-generation students and students of color. In 2018, the department secured funding for a predoctoral fellowship to help a student with less exposure to Latin and Greek enter the Ph.D. program. That initiative, and the draw of Padilla as a mentor, has contributed to making Princeton’s graduate cohort one of the most diverse in the country. Pria Jackson, a Black predoctoral fellow who is the daughter of a mortician from New Mexico, told me that before she came to Princeton, she doubted that she could square her interest in classics with her commitment to social justice. “I didn’t think that I could do classics and make a difference in the world the way that I wanted to,” she said. “My perception of what it could do has changed.”
Padilla’s Roman-history course was a standard introductory survey, something the university had been offering for decades, if not centuries, but he was not teaching it in the standard way. He was experimenting with role play in order to prompt his students to imagine what it was like to be subjects of an imperial system. The previous week, he asked them to recreate a debate that took place in the Roman Senate in A.D. 15 about a proposed waterworks project that communities in central Italy feared would change the flow of the Tiber River, destroying animal habitats and flooding old shrines. (Unlike the Senate, the Princeton undergraduates decided to let the project go ahead as planned.) Today’s situation was inspired by the crises of succession that threatened to tear the early empire apart. Out of the 80 students in the lecture, Padilla had assigned four to be young military commanders — claimants vying for the throne — and four to be wealthy Roman senators; the rest were split between the Praetorian Guard and marauding legionaries whose swords could be bought in exchange for money, land and honors. It was designed to help his students “think as capaciously as possible about the many lives, human and nonhuman, that are touched by the shift from republic to empire.”
Padilla stood calmly behind the lectern as students filed into the room, wearing rectangular-framed glasses low on his nose and a maroon sweater over a collared shirt. The stillness of his body only heightened the sense of his mind churning. “He carries a big stick without having to show it off,” Cowen, Padilla’s childhood mentor, told me. “He’s kind of soft on the outside but very hard on the inside.” Padilla speaks in the highly baroque language of the academy — a style that can seem so deliberate as to function as a kind of protective armor. It is the flinty, guarded manner of someone who has learned to code-switch, someone who has always been aware that it is not only what he says but also how he says it that carries meaning. Perhaps it is for that reason that Padilla seems most at ease while speaking to students, when his phrasing loses some of its formality and his voice takes on the incantatory cadence of poetry. “Silence,” he said once the room had quieted, “my favorite sound.”
Padilla called the claimants up to the front of the room. At first, they stood uncertainly on the dais, like adolescents auditioning for a school play. Then, slowly, they moved into the rows of wooden desks. I watched as one of them, a young man wearing an Army-green football T-shirt that said “Support Our Troops,” propositioned a group of legionaries. “I’ll take land from non-Romans and give it to you, grant you citizenship,” he promised them. As more students left their seats and began negotiating, bids and counterbids reverberated against the stone walls. Not everyone was taking it seriously. At one point, another claimant approached a blue-eyed legionary in a lacrosse sweatshirt to ask what it would take to gain his support. “I just want to defend my right to party,” he responded. “Can I get a statue erected to my mother?” someone else asked. A stocky blond student kept charging to the front of the room and proposing that they simply “kill everybody.” But Padilla seemed energized by the chaos. He moved from group to group, sowing discord. “Why let someone else take over?” he asked one student. If you are a soldier or a peasant who is unhappy with imperial governance, he told another, how do you resist? “What kinds of alliances can you broker?”
Over the next 40 minutes, there were speeches, votes, broken promises and bloody conflicts. Several people were assassinated. Eventually it seemed as though two factions were coalescing, and a count was called. The young man in the football shirt won the empire by seven votes, and Padilla returned to the lectern. “What I want to be thinking about in the next few weeks,” he told them, “is how we can be telling the story of the early Roman Empire not just through a variety of sources but through a variety of persons.” He asked the students to consider the lives behind the identities he had assigned them, and the way those lives had been shaped by the machinery of empire, which, through military conquest, enslavement and trade, creates the conditions for the large-scale movement of human beings.
Once the students had left the room, accompanied by the swish of umbrellas and waterproof synthetics, I asked Padilla why he hadn’t assigned any slave roles. Tracing his fingers along the crown of his head, he told me he had thought about it. It troubled him that he might be “re-enacting a form of silencing” by avoiding enslaved characters, given the fact that slavery was “arguably the most ubiquitous feature of the Roman imperial system.” As a historian, he knew that the assets at the disposal of the four wealthy senators — the 100 million sesterces he had given them to back one claimant over another — would have been made up in large part of the enslaved who worked in their mines and plowed the fields of their country estates. Was it harmful to encourage students to imagine themselves in roles of such comfort, status and influence, when a vast majority of people in the Roman world would never have been in a position to be a senator? But ultimately, he decided that leaving enslaved characters out of the role play was an act of care. “I’m not yet ready to turn to a student and say, ‘You are going to be a slave.’”
Even before “the incident,” Padilla was a target of right-wing anger because of the blistering language he uses and, many would say, because of the body he inhabits. In the aftermath of his exchange with Williams, which was covered in the conservative media, Padilla received a series of racist emails. “Maybe African studies would suit you better if you can’t hope with the reality of how advanced Europeans were,” one read. “You could figure out why the wheel had never made it sub-Saharan African you meathead. Lucky for you, your black, because you have little else on offer.” Breitbart ran a story accusing Padilla of “killing” classics. “If there was one area of learning guaranteed never to be hijacked by the forces of ignorance, political correctness, identity politics, social justice and dumbing down, you might have thought it would be classics,” it read. “Welcome, barbarians! The gates of Rome are wide open!”
Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.
“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.” She went on: “My line has always been that the duty of the academic is to make things seem more complicated.” In a 2019 talk, Beard argued that “although classics may become politicized, it doesn’t actually have a politics,” meaning that, like the Bible, the classical tradition is a language of authority — a vocabulary that can be used for good or ill by would-be emancipators and oppressors alike. Over the centuries, classical civilization has acted as a model for people of many backgrounds, who turned it into a matrix through which they formed and debated ideas about beauty, ethics, power, nature, selfhood, citizenship and, of course, race. Anthony Grafton, the great Renaissance scholar, put it this way in his preface to “The Classical Tradition”: “An exhaustive exposition of the ways in which the world has defined itself with regard to Greco-Roman antiquity would be nothing less than a comprehensive history of the world.”
How these two old civilizations became central to American intellectual life is a story that begins not in antiquity, and not even in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment. Classics as we know it today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, as European universities emancipated themselves from the control of the church, the study of Greece and Rome gave the Continent its new, secular origin story. Greek and Latin writings emerged as a competitor to the Bible’s moral authority, which lent them a liberatory power. Figures like Diderot and Hume derived some of their ideas on liberty from classical texts, where they found declarations of political and personal freedoms. One of the most influential was Pericles’ funeral oration over the graves of the Athenian war dead in 431 B.C., recorded by Thucydides, in which the statesman praises his “glorious” city for ensuring “equal justice to all.” “Our government does not copy our neighbors’,” he says, “but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.”
Admiration for the ancients took on a fantastical, unhinged quality, like a strange sort of mania. Men draped themselves in Roman togas to proclaim in public, signed their letters with the names of famous Romans and filled etiquette manuals, sermons and schoolbooks with lessons from the classical past. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German antiquarian of the 18th century, assured his countrymen that “the only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.” Winckelmann, who is sometimes called the “father of art history,” judged Greek marble sculpture to be the summit of human achievement — unsurpassed by any other society, ancient or modern. He wrote that the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Athenian art reflected the “freedom” of the culture that produced it, an entanglement of artistic and moral value that would influence Hegel’s “Aesthetics” and appear again in the poetry of the Romantics. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
‘I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry. When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.’
Historians stress that such ideas cannot be separated from the discourses of nationalism, colorism and progress that were taking shape during the modern colonial period, as Europeans came into contact with other peoples and their traditions. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” Winkelmann wrote. While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below. “That exclusion was at the heart of classics as a project,” Paul Kosmin, a professor of ancient history at Harvard, told me. Among those Enlightenment thinkers were many of America’s founding fathers. Aristotle’s belief that some people were “slaves by nature” was welcomed with special zeal in the American South before the Civil War, which sought to defend slavery in the face of abolitionist critique. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that despite their condition in life, Rome’s enslaved showed themselves to be the “rarest artists” who “excelled too at science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children.” The fact that Africans had not done the same, he argued, proved that the problem was their race.
Jefferson, along with most wealthy young men of his time, studied classics at college, where students often spent half their time reading and translating Greek and Roman texts. “Next to Christianity,” writes Caroline Winterer, a historian at Stanford, “the central intellectual project in America before the late 19th century was classicism.” Of the 2.5 million people living in America in 1776, perhaps only 3,000 had gone to college, but that number included many of the founders. They saw classical civilization as uniquely educative — a “lamp of experience,” in the words of Patrick Henry, that could light the path to a more perfect union. However true it was, subsequent generations would come to believe, as Hannah Arendt wrote in “On Revolution,” that “without the classical example … none of the men of the Revolution on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.”
While the founding fathers chose to emulate the Roman republic, fearful of the tyranny of the majority, later generations of Americans drew inspiration from Athenian democracy, particularly after the franchise was extended to nearly all white men regardless of property ownership in the early decades of the 1800s. Comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire became popular as the country emerged as a global power. Even after Latin and Greek were struck from college-entrance exams, the proliferation of courses on “great books” and Western civilization, in which classical texts were read in translation, helped create a coherent national story after the shocks of industrialization and global warfare. The project of much 20th-century art and literature was to forge a more complicated relationship with Greece and Rome, but even as the classics were pulled apart, laughed at and transformed, they continued to form the raw material with which many artists shaped their visions of modernity.
Over the centuries, thinkers as disparate as John Adams and Simone Weil have likened classical antiquity to a mirror. Generations of intellectuals, among them feminist, queer and Black scholars, have seen something of themselves in classical texts, flashes of recognition that held a kind of liberatory promise. Daniel Mendelsohn, a gay classicist and critic, discovered his sexuality at 12 while reading historical fiction about the life of Alexander the Great. “Until that moment,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 2013, “I had never seen my secret feelings reflected anywhere.” But the idea of classics as a mirror may be as dangerous as it is seductive. The language that is used to describe the presence of classical antiquity in the world today — the classical tradition, legacy or heritage — contains within it the idea of a special, quasi-genetic relationship. In his lecture “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilization,” Kwame Anthony Appiah (this magazine’s Ethicist columnist) mockingly describes the belief in such a kinship as the belief in a “golden nugget” of insight — a precious birthright and shimmering sign of greatness — that white Americans and Europeans imagine has been passed down to them from the ancients. That belief has been so deeply held that the philosopher John Stuart Mill could talk about the Battle of Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated the first Persian invasion in 490 B.C., as one of the most important events in “English history.”
To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” But if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up. “I would get rid of classics altogether,” Walter Scheidel, another of Padilla’s former advisers at Stanford, told me. “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”
One way to get rid of classics would be to dissolve its faculties and reassign their members to history, archaeology and language departments. But many classicists are advocating softer approaches to reforming the discipline, placing the emphasis on expanding its borders. Schools including Howard and Emory have integrated classics with Ancient Mediterranean studies, turning to look across the sea at Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa. The change is a declaration of purpose: to leave behind the hierarchies of the Enlightenment and to move back toward the Renaissance model of the ancient world as a place of diversity and mixture. “There’s a more interesting story to be told about the history of what we call the West, the history of humanity, without valorizing particular cultures in it,” said Josephine Quinn, a professor of ancient history at Oxford. “It seems to me the really crucial mover in history is always the relationship between people, between cultures.” Ian Morris put it more bluntly. “Classics is a Euro-American foundation myth,” Morris said to me. “Do we really want that sort of thing?”
For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” Amy Richlin, a feminist scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped lead the turn toward the study of women in the Roman world, laughed when I mentioned the idea of breaking up classics departments in the Ivy League. “Good luck getting rid of them,” she said. “These departments have endowments, and they’re not going to voluntarily dissolve themselves.” But when I pressed her on whether it was desirable, if not achievable, she became contemplative. Some in the discipline, particularly graduate students and untenured faculty members, worry that administrators at small colleges and public universities will simply use the changes as an excuse to cut programs. “One of the dubious successes of my generation is that it did break the canon,” Richlin told me. “I don’t think we could believe at the time that we would be putting ourselves out of business, but we did.” She added: “If they blew up the classics departments, that would really be the end.”
‘I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.’
Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.
Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”
Last June, as racial-justice protests unfolded across the nation, Padilla turned his attention to arenas beyond classics. He and his co-authors — the astrophysicist Jenny Greene, the literary theorist Andrew Cole and the poet Tracy K. Smith — began writing their open letter to Princeton with 48 proposals for reform. “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America,” the letter began. “Indifference to the effects of racism on this campus has allowed legitimate demands for institutional support and redress in the face of microaggression and outright racist incidents to go long unmet.” Signed by more than 300 members of the faculty, the letter was released publicly on the Fourth of July. In response, Joshua Katz, a prominent Princeton classicist, published an op-ed in the online magazine Quillette in which he referred to the Black Justice League, a student group, as a “terrorist organization” and warned that certain proposals in the faculty letter would “lead to civil war on campus.”
Few in the academy cared to defend Katz’s choice of words, but he was far from the only person who worried that some of the proposals were unwise, if not dangerous. Most controversial was the idea of establishing a committee that would “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication” — a body that many viewed as a threat to free academic discourse. “I’m concerned about how you define what racist research is,” one professor told me. “That’s a line that’s constantly moving. Punishing people for doing research that other people think is racist just does not seem like the right response.” But Padilla believes that the uproar over free speech is misguided. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he told me. “I have to be honest about that. I see them as a means to the end of human flourishing.”
On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.
“There is a certain kind of classicist who will look on what transpired and say, ‘Oh, that’s not us,’” Padilla said when we spoke recently. “What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do? What the demands of the current political moment mean?”
Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”
Rachel Poser is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her writing, which often focuses on the relationship between past and present, has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Mother Jones and elsewhere. A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 7, 2021, Page 38 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Iconoclast.
Episódios diários de racismo, desde ser alvo de preconceito até assistir a casos de violência sofridos por outras pessoas da mesma raça, têm um efeito às vezes “invisível”, mas duradouro e cruel sobre a saúde, o corpo e o cérebro de crianças.
A conclusão é do Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil da Universidade de Harvard, que compilou estudos documentando como a vivência cotidiana do racismo estrutural, de suas formas mais escancaradas às mais sutis ou ao acesso pior a serviços públicos, impacta “o aprendizado, o comportamento, a saúde física e mental” infantil.
No longo prazo, isso resulta em custos bilionários adicionais em saúde, na perpetuação das disparidades raciais e em mais dificuldades para grande parcela da população em atingir seu pleno potencial humano e capacidade produtiva.
Embora os estudos sejam dos EUA, dados estatísticos — além do fato de o Brasil também ter histórico de escravidão e desigualdade — permitem traçar paralelos entre os dois cenários.
Aqui, casos recentes de violência contra pessoas negras incluem o de Beto Freitas, espancado até a morte dentro de um supermercado Carrefour em Porto Alegre em 20 de novembro, e o das primas Emilly, 4, e Rebeca, 7, mortas por disparos de balas enquanto brincavam na porta de casa, em Duque de Caxias em 4 de dezembro.
No Brasil, 54% da população é negra, percentual que é de 13% na população dos EUA.
A seguir, quatro impactos do ciclo vicioso do racismo, segundo o documento de Harvard. Para discutir as particularidades disso no Brasil, a reportagem entrevistou a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro, autora de um estudo recente sobre como a população negra lida com o sofrimento físico e mental, que foi tema de sua dissertação de mestrado pelo Programa de Pós-graduação em Promoção da Saúde e Prevenção da Violência da UFMG.
1. Corpo em estado de alerta constante
O racismo e a violência dentro da comunidade (e a ausência de apoio para lidar com isso) estão entre o que Harvard chama de “experiências adversas na infância”. Passar constantemente por essas experiências faz com que o cérebro se mantenha em estado constante de alerta, provocando o chamado “estresse tóxico”.
“Anos de estudos científicos mostram que, quando os sistemas de estresse das crianças ficam ativados em alto nível por longo período de tempo, há um desgaste significativo nos seus cérebros em desenvolvimento e outros sistemas biológicos”, diz o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil da universidade.
Na prática, áreas do cérebro dedicadas à resposta ao medo, à ansiedade e a reações impulsivas podem produzir um excesso de conexões neurais, ao mesmo tempo em que áreas cerebrais dedicadas à racionalização, ao planejamento e ao controle de comportamento vão produzir menos conexões neurais.
“Isso pode ter efeito de longo prazo no aprendizado, comportamento, saúde física e mental”, prossegue o centro. “Um crescente corpo de evidências das ciências biológicas e sociais conecta esse conceito de desgaste (do cérebro) ao racismo. Essas pesquisas sugerem que ter de lidar constantemente com o racismo sistêmico e a discriminação cotidiana é um ativador potente da resposta de estresse.”
“Embora possam ser invisíveis para quem não passa por isso, não há dúvidas de que o racismo sistêmico e a discriminação interpessoal podem levar à ativação crônica do estresse, impondo adversidades significativas nas famílias que cuidam de crianças pequenas”, conclui o documento de Harvard.
2. Mais chance de doenças crônicas ao longo da vida
Essa exposição ao estresse tóxico é um dos fatores que ajudam a explicar diferenças raciais na incidência de doenças crônicas, prossegue o centro de Harvard:
“As evidências são enormes: pessoas negras, indígenas e de outras raças nos EUA têm, em média, mais problemas crônicos de saúde e vidas mais curtas do que as pessoas brancas, em todos os níveis de renda.”
Alguns dados apontam para situação semelhante no Brasil. Homens e mulheres negros têm, historicamente, incidência maior de diabetes — 9% mais prevalente em negros do que em brancos; 50% mais prevalente em negras do que em brancas, segundo o Ministério da Saúde — e pressão alta, por exemplo.
Os números mais marcantes, porém, são os de violência armada, como a que vitimou as meninas Emilly e Rebeca. O Atlas da Violência aponta que negros foram 75,7% das vítimas de homicídio no Brasil em 2018.
A taxa de homicídios de brasileiros negros é de 37,8 para cada 100 mil habitantes, contra 13,9 de não negros.
Há, ainda, uma incidência possivelmente maior de problemas de saúde mental: de cada dez suicídios em adolescentes em 2016, seis foram de jovens negros e quatro de brancos, segundo pesquisa do Ministério da Saúde publicada no ano passado.
“O adoecimento (pela vivência do racismo) é constante, e vemos nos dados escancarados, como os da violência, mas também na depressão, no adoecimento psíquico e nos altos números de suicídio”, afirma a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro.
“E por que essa é violência é tão marcante entre pessoas negras? Porque aprendemos que nosso semelhante é o pior possível e o quanto mais longe estivermos dele, melhor. A criança materializa isso de alguma forma. Temos estatísticas de que crianças negras são menos abraçadas na educação infantil, recebem menos afeto dos professores. (Algumas) ouvem desde cedo ‘esse menino não aprende mesmo, é burro’ ou ‘nasceu pra ser bandido'”, prossegue Ribeiro.
Embora muitos conseguem superar essa narrativa, outros têm sua vida marcada por ela, diz Ribeiro. “Trabalhei durante muito tempo no sistema socioeducativo (com jovens infratores), e essas sentenças são muito recorrentes: o menino que escuta desde pequeno que ‘não vai ser nada na vida’. São trajetórias sentenciadas.”
3. Disparidades na saúde e na educação
Os problemas descritos acima são potencializados pelo menor acesso aos serviços públicos de saúde, aponta Harvard.
“Pessoas de cor recebem tratamento desigual quando interagem em sistemas como o de saúde e educação, além de terem menos acesso a educação e serviços de saúde de alta qualidade, a oportunidades econômicas e a caminhos para o acúmulo de riqueza”, diz o documento do Centro de Desenvolvimento infantil.
“Tudo isso reflete formas como o legado do racismo estrutural nos EUA desproporcionalmente enfraquece a saúde e o desenvolvimento de crianças de cor.”
Mais uma vez, os números brasileiros apontam para um quadro parecido. Segundo levantamento do Ministério da Saúde, 67% do público do SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde) é negro. No entanto, a população negra realiza proporcionalmente menos consultas médicas e atendimentos de pré-natal.
E, entre os 10% de pessoas com menor renda no Brasil, 75% delas são pretas ou pardas.
Na educação, as disparidades persistem. Crianças negras de 0 a 3 anos têm percentual menor de matrículas em creches. Na outra ponta do ensino, 53,9% dos jovens declarados negros concluíram o ensino médio até os 19 anos — 20 pontos percentuais a menos que a taxa de jovens brancos, apontam dados de 2018 do movimento Todos Pela Educação.
4. Cuidadores mais fragilizados e ‘racismo indireto’
Os efeitos do estresse não se limitam às crianças: se estendem também aos pais e responsáveis por elas — e, como em um efeito bumerangue, voltam a afetar as crianças indiretamente.
“Múltiplos estudos documentaram como os estresses da discriminação no dia a dia em pais e outros cuidadores, como ser associado a estereótipos negativos, têm efeitos nocivos no comportamento desses adultos e em sua saúde mental”, prossegue o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil.
Um dos estudos usados para embasar essa conclusão é uma revisão de dezenas de pesquisas clínicas feita em 2018, que aborda o que os pesquisadores chamam de “exposição indireta ao racismo”: mesmo quando as crianças não são alvo direto de ofensas ou violência racista, podem ficar traumatizadas ao testemunhar ou escutar sobre eventos que tenham afetado pessoas próximas a elas.
“Especialmente para crianças de minorias (raciais), a exposição frequente ao racismo indireto pode forçá-las a dar sentido cognitivamente a um mundo que sistematicamente as desvaloriza e marginaliza”, concluem os pesquisadores.
O estudo identificou, como efeito desse “racismo indireto”, impactos tanto em cuidadores (que tinham autoestima mais fragilizada) como nas crianças, que nasciam de mais partos prematuros, com menor peso ao nascer e mais chances de adoecer ao longo da vida ou de desenvolver depressão.
Na infância, diz a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro, é quando começamos a construir nossa capacidade de acreditar no próprio potencial para viver no mundo. No caso da população negra, essa construção é afetada negativamente pelos estereótipos racistas, sejam características físicas ou sociais — como o “cabelo pixaim” ou “serviço de preto”.
“A gente precisa ter referências mais positivas da população negra como aquela que também é responsável pela constituição social do Brasil. A única representação que a gente tem no livro didático de história é de uma pessoa (escravizada) acorrentada, em uma situação de extrema vulnerabilidade e que está ali porque ‘não se esforçou para não estar'”, diz a pesquisadora.
Mesmo atos “sutis” — como pessoas negras sendo seguidas por seguranças em shopping centers ou recebendo atendimento pior em uma loja qualquer —, que muitas vezes passam despercebidos para observadores brancos, podem ter efeitos devastadores sobre a autoestima, prossegue Ribeiro.
“Isso que a gente costuma chamar de sutileza do racismo não tem nada de sutil na minha perspectiva. Quando alguém grita ‘macaco’ no meio da rua, as pessoas compartilham a indignação. É diferente do olhar (preconceituoso), que só o sujeito viu e só ele percebeu. Mesmo para a militante mais empoderada e ciente de seus direitos — porque é uma luta sem descanso —, tem dias que não tem jeito, esse olhar te destroça. A gente fala muito da força da mulher negra, mas e o direito à fragilidade? será que ser frágil também é um privilégio?”
Como romper o ciclo
“Avanços na ciência apresentam um retrato cada vez mais claro de como a adversidade forte na vida de crianças pequenas pode afetar o desenvolvimento do cérebro e outros sistemas biológicos. Essas perturbações iniciais podem enfraquecer as oportunidades dessas crianças em alcançar seu pleno potencial”, diz o documento de Harvard.
Mas é possível romper esse ciclo, embora lembrando que as formas de combatê-lo são complexas e múltiplas.
“Precisamos criar novas estratégias para lidar com essas desigualdades que sistematicamente ameaçam a saúde e o bem-estar das crianças pequenas de cor e os adultos que cuidam delas. Isso inclui buscar ativamente e reduzir os preconceitos em nós e nas políticas socioeconômicas, por meio de iniciativas como contratações justas, oferta de crédito, programas de habitação, treinamento antipreconceito e iniciativas de policiamento comunitário”, diz o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil de Harvard.
Para Cristiane Ribeiro, passos fundamentais nessa direção envolvem mais representatividade negra e mais discussões sobre o tema dentro das escolas.
“Se tenho uma escola repleta de negros ou pessoas de diferentes orientações sexuais, mas isso não é dito, não é tratado, você tem a mesma segregação que nos outros espaços”, opina.
“Precisamos extinguir a ideia do ‘lápis cor de pele’. Tem tanta cor de pele, porque um lápis rosa a representa? Tem também a criança com cabelo crespo em uma escola onde só são penteados os cabelos lisos. Se a professora der conta de tratar aquele cabelo de uma forma tão afetiva quanto ela trata o cabelo lisinho, ela mudará o mundo daquela criança, inclusive incluindo nessa criança defesa para que ela responda quando seu cabelo for chamado de duro, de feio. E daí ela se olha no espelho e vê beleza, que é um direito que está sendo conquistado muito aos poucos. A chance é de que faça diferença pra família inteira. A criança negra que fala ‘não, mãe, meu cabelo não é feio’ desloca aquele ciclo naquela família, de todas as mulheres alisarem o cabelo. (…) Um olhar afetivo nessa história quebra o ciclo.”
O afeto e a construção de redes de apoio também são apontados por Harvard como formas de aliviar o peso do estresse tóxico e construir resiliência em crianças e famílias.
“É claro que a ciência não consegue lidar com esses desafios sozinha, mas o pensamento informado pela ciência combinado com o conhecimento em mudar sistemas entrincheirados e as experiências vividas pelas famílias que criam seus filhos sob diferentes condições podem ser poderosos catalisadores de estratégias eficientes,” defende o Centro para o Desenvolvimento Infantil.
Terrence McCoy and Heloísa Traiano, November 15, 2020 at 5:23 p.m. GMT-3
RIO DE JANEIRO — For most of his 57 years, to the extent that he thought about his race, José Antônio Gomes used the language he was raised with. He was “pardo” — biracial — which was how his parents identified themselves. Or maybe “moreno,” as people back in his hometown called him. Perhaps “mestiço,” a blend of ethnicities.
It wasn’t until this year, when protests for racial justice erupted across the United States after George Floyd’s killing in police custody, that Gomes’s own uncertainty settled. Watching television, he saw himself in the thousands of people of color protesting amid the racially diverse crowds. He saw himself in Floyd.
Gomes realized he wasn’t mixed. He was Black.
So in September, when he announced his candidacy for city council in the southeastern city of Turmalina, Gomes officially identified himself that way. “In reality, I’ve always been Black,” he said. “But I didn’t think I was Black. But now we have more courage to see ourselves that way.”
Brazil is home to more people of African heritage than any country outside Africa. But it is rarely identified as a Black nation, or as closely identifying with any race, really. It has seen itself as simply Brazilian — a tapestry of European, African and Indigenous backgrounds that has defied the more rigid racial categories used elsewhere. Some were darker, others lighter. But almost everyone was a mix.
Now, however, as affirmative action policies diversify Brazilian institutions and the struggle for racial equality in the United States inspires a similar movement here, a growing number of people are redefining themselves. Brazilians who long considered themselves to be White are reexamining their family histories and concluding that they’re pardo. Others who thought of themselves as pardo now say they’re Black.
In Brazil, which still carries the imprint of colonization and slavery, where class and privilege are strongly associated with race, the racial reconfiguration has been striking. Over the past decade, the percentage of Brazilians who consider themselves White has dropped from 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, while the number of people who identify as Black or mixed has risen from 51 percent to 56 percent.
“We are clearly seeing more Black people publicly declare themselves as Black, as they would in other countries,” said Kleber Antonio de Oliveira Amancio, a social historian at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia. “Racial change is much more fluid here than it is in the United States.”
One of the clearest illustrations of that fluidity — and the growing movement to identify as Black — was the registration process for the 5,500 or so municipal elections held here Sunday. Candidates were required to identify as White, Black, mixed, Indigenous or Asian. And that routine bureaucratic step yielded fairly stunning results.
More than a quarter of the 168,000 candidates who also ran in 2016 have changed their race, according to a Washington Post analysis of election registration data. Nearly 17,000 who said they were White in 2016 are now mixed. Around 6,000 who said they were mixed are now Black. And more than 14,000 who said they were mixed now identify as White.
For some candidates, the jump was even further. Nearly 900 went from White to Black, and nearly 600 went from Black to White.
How to explain it?
Some say they’re simply correcting bureaucratic error: A party official charged with registering candidates saw their picture and recorded their race inaccurately. One woman joked that she’d gotten a lot less sun this year while quarantined and decided to declare herself White. Another candidate told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that he was Black but was a “fan” of the Indigenous, and so has now joined them. Some believed candidates were taking advantage of a recent court decision that requires parties to dispense campaign funds evenly among racial categories.
And others said they didn’t see what all of the fuss was about.
“Race couldn’t exist,” reasoned Carlos Lacerda, a city council candidate in the southeastern city of Araçatuba, who described himself as White in 2016 and Black this year. “It’s nationalism, and that’s it. Race is something I’d never speak about.”
“We have way more important things to talk about than my race,” said Ribamar Antônio da Silva, a city council member seeking reelection in the southeastern city of Osasco.
But others looked at the racial registration as a chance to fulfill a long-denied identity.
Cristovam Andrade, 36, a city council candidate in the northeastern city of São Felipe, was raised on a farm in rural Bahia, where the influence of West Africa never felt far away. With limited access to information outside his community — let alone Brazil — he grew up believing he was White. That was how his parents had always described him.
“I didn’t have any idea about race in North America or in Europe,” he said. “But I knew a lot of people who were darker than me, so I saw myself as White.”
As he began to see himself as Black, Brazil did, too. For much of its history, Brazil’s intellectual elite described Latin America’s largest country as a “racial democracy,” saying its history of intermixing had spared it the racism that plagues other countries. Around 5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil — more than 10 times the number that ended up in North America — and the country was the last in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Its history since has been one of profound racial inequality: White people earn nearly twice as much as Black people on average, and more than 75 percent of the 5,800 people killed by police last year were Black.
But Brazil never adopted prohibitions on intermarrying or draconian racial distinctions. Race became malleable.
The Brazilian soccer player Neymar famously said he wasn’t Black. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso famously said he was, at least in part. The 20th-century Brazilian sociologist Gilberto de Mello Freyre wrote in the 1930s that all Brazilians — “even the light-skinned fair-haired one” — carried Indigenous or African lineage.
“The self-declaration as Black is a very complex question in Brazilian society,” said Wlamyra Albuquerque, a historian at the Federal University of Bahia. “And one of the reasons for this is that the myth of a racial democracy is still in political culture in Brazil. The notion that we’re all mixed, and because of this, racism couldn’t exist in the country, is still dominant.”
Given the choice, many Afro-Brazilians, historians and sociologists argue, have historically chosen not to identify as Black — whether consciously or not — to distance themselves from the enduring legacy of slavery and societal inequality. Wealth and privilege allowed some to separate even further from their skin color.
“In Brazilian schools, we didn’t learn who was an African person, who was an Indigenous person,” said Bartolina Ramalho Catanante, a historian at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul. “We only learned who was a European person and how they came here. To be Black wasn’t valued.”
But over the past two decades, as diversity efforts elevated previously marginalized voices into newscasts, telenovelas and politics, people such as Andrade have begun to think of themselves differently. To Andrade’s mother, he was White. But he wasn’t so sure. His late father had been Black. His grandparents had been Black. Just because his skin color was lighter, did that make his African roots, and his family’s experience of slavery, any less a part of his history?
In 2016, when Andrade ran for office, an official with the leftist Workers’ Party asked him what race he would like to declare. He had a decision to make.
“I am going to mark Black as a way to recognize my ancestry and origin,” he thought. “Outside of Brazil, we would never be considered White. We live in a bubble in this country.”
But this year, when he ran again, no one asked him which race he preferred. Someone saw his picture and made the decision for him. He was put down as White. For Andrade, it felt like an erasure.
“It’s easy for some to say they’re Black or mixed or White, but for me it’s not easy,” he said. “And I’m not going to be someone who isn’t White all over the world but is White only in Brazil. If I’m not White elsewhere in the world, I’m not White.”
He’s Black. And if he seeks public office again in 2024, he said, he’ll make sure that’s how he will be known.
Ranier Bragon, Guilherme Garcia e Flávia Faria – 27 de setembro de 2020
Os 526 mil pedidos de registro de candidatura computados até o momento para as eleições municipais de novembro já representam um recorde no número total de candidatos, de postulantes do sexo feminino e, pela primeira vez na história, uma maioria autodeclarada negra (preta ou parda) em relação aos que se identificam como brancos.
O crescimentos de negros e mulheres na disputa às prefeituras e Câmaras Municipais tem como pano de fundo o estabelecimento das cotas de gênero a partir dos anos 90 e as mais recentes cotas de distribuição da verba de campanha e da propaganda eleitoral, decisões essas tomadas pelos tribunais superiores em 2018, no caso das mulheres, e em 2020, no caso dos negros.
A cota eleitoral racial ainda depende de confirmação pelo plenário do STF (Supremo Tribunal Federal), o que deve ocorrer nesta semana.
Em relação à maior presença de negros, especialistas falam também no impacto do aumento de pessoas que se reconhecem como pretas e pardas após ações de combate ao racismo.
Apesar de o prazo de registro de candidatos ter se encerrado neste sábado (26), o Tribunal Superior eleitoral informou que um residual de registros feitos de forma presencial ainda levará alguns dias para ser absorvido pelo sistema.
Além disso, candidatos que não tiveram seu nome inscrito pelos partidos têm até quinta-feira (1º) para fazê-lo, mas isso normalmente diz respeito a um percentual ínfimo de concorrentes.
Os 526 mil pedidos computados até agora já representam 47 mil a mais do total de 2016 e 82% do que o tribunal espera receber este ano, com base nas convenções partidárias —cerca de 645 mil postulantes.
Até a noite deste domingo (27), o percentual de candidatas mulheres era de 34%, 177 mil concorrentes. Nas últimas três eleições, esse índice não passou de 32%. Pelas regras atuais, os partidos devem reservar ao menos 30% das vagas de candidatos e da verba pública de campanha para elas.
Em 2018, a Folharevelou em diversas reportagens que partidos, entre eles o PSL, lançaram candidatas laranjas com o intuito de simular o cumprimento da exigência, mas acabaram desviando os recursos para candidatos homens.
O ministro Ricardo Lewandowski, do Supremo Tribunal Federal, porém, determinou a aplicação imediata da medida. Sua decisão, que é liminar, está sendo analisada pelo plenário da corte, com tendência de confirmação.
Até noite deste domingo, os autodeclarados pretos e pardos somavam 51% dos candidatos (264 mil) contra 48% dos brancos (249 mil). Entre os negros, 208 mil se declaravam pardos e 56 mil, pretos.
O TSE passou a perguntar a cor dos candidatos a partir de 2014. Nas três eleições ocorridas até agora, os brancos sempre foram superiores aos negros, ocupando mais de 50% das vagas de candidatos, apesar de pretos e pardos serem maioria na população brasileira (56%). Em 2016, brancos eram 51%.
Embora o TSE não tenha registrado cor ou raça dos candidatos nos pleitos anteriores, é muitíssimo improvável ter havido eleição anterior com maioria de candidatos negros.
Assim como no recenseamento da população feita pelo IBGE, os candidatos devem declarar a cor ou raça com base em cinco identificações: preta, parda (que formam a população negra do país), branca, amarela ou indígena.
Mais de 42 mil candidatos de todo o país que disputarão as eleições deste ano mudaram a declaração de cor e raça que deram em 2016.
O número equivale a 27% dos cerca de 154 mil que concorreram no último pleito e disputam novamente em 2020. Pouco mais de um terço (36%) alterou a cor de branca para parda. Outros 30% se declaravam pardos e agora se dizem brancos.
Apesar da possibilidade de fraude, especialistas falam no impacto do aumento de pessoas que se reconhecem como pretas e pardas após ações de combate ao racismo.
A decisão de adoção imediata das cotas raciais colocou em posições opostas os núcleos afros dos partidos políticos, favoráveis à decisão, e os dirigentes das siglas, majoritariamente brancos, que em reunião nesta semana com o presidente do TSE (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral), Luís Roberto Barroso, chegaram a dizer ser inexequível o cumprimento da medida ainda neste ano.
Também há receio de fraudes em relação às candidaturas negras. E há de se ressaltar que, assim como a cota feminina não resultou até agora em uma presença nos postos de comando de Executivo e Legislativo de mulheres na proporção que elas representam da população, a cota racial também não é garantia, por si só, de que haverá expressivo aumento da participação de negros na política, hoje relegados a pequenas fatias de poder, principalmente nos cargos mais importantes.
African American imaginings of Africa often intermingle with–and help illuminate–intimate hopes and desires for Black life in the United States. So when an African American pop star offers an extended meditation on Africa, the resulting work reflects not just her particular visions of the continent and its diaspora, but also larger aspirations for a collective Black future.
Black is King, Beyoncé’s elaborate, new marriage of music video and movie, is a finely-textured collage of cultural meaning. Though it is not possible, in the scope of this essay, to interpret the film’s full array of metaphors, one may highlight certain motifs and attempt to grasp their social implications.
An extravagant technical composition, Black is King is also a pastiche of symbols and ideologies. It belongs to a venerable African American tradition of crafting images of Africa that are designed to redeem the entire Black world. The film’s depiction of luminous, dignified Black bodies and lush landscapes is a retort to the contemptuous West and to its condescending discourses of African danger, disease and degeneration.
Black is King rebukes those tattered, colonialist tropes while evoking the spirit of Pan African unity. It falls short, however, as a portrait of popular liberation. In a sense, the picture is a sophisticated work of political deception. Its aesthetic of African majesty seems especially emancipatory in a time of coronavirus, murderous cops and vulgar Black death. One is almost tempted to view the film as another iteration of the principles of mass solidarity and resistance that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Black is King is neither radical nor fundamentally liberatory. Its vision of Africa as a site of splendor and spiritual renewal draws on both postcolonial ideals of modernity and mystical notions of a premodern past. Yet for all its ingenuity, the movie remains trapped within the framework of capitalist decadence that has fabulously enriched its producer and principal performer, Beyoncé herself. Far from exotic, the film’s celebration of aristocracy and its equation of power and status with the consumption of luxury goods exalts the system of class exploitation that continues to degrade Black life on both sides of the Atlantic.
That said, the politics of Black is King are complicated. The picture is compelling precisely because it appears to subvert the logic of global white supremacy. Its affirming representations of Blackness and its themes of ebony kinship will resonate with many viewers, but will hold special significance for African Americans, for whom Africa remains an abiding source of inspiration and identity. Indeed, Black is King seems purposefully designed to appeal to diasporic sensibilities within African American culture.
At the heart of the production lies the idea of a fertile and welcoming homeland. Black is King presents Africa as a realm of possibility. It plays on the African American impulse to sentimentalize the continent as a sanctuary from racial strife and as a source of purity and regeneration. Though the movie does not explicitly address the prospect of African American return or “repatriation” to Africa, allusions to such a reunion shape many of its scenes. No doubt some African American viewers will discover in the film the allure of a psychological escape to a glorious mother continent, a place where lost bonds of ancestry and culture are magically restored.
The problem is not just that such an Africa does not exist. All historically displaced groups romanticize “the old country.” African Americans who idealize “the Motherland” are no different in this respect. But by portraying Africa as the site of essentially harmonious civilizations, Black is King becomes the latest cultural product to erase the realities of class relations on the continent. That deletion, which few viewers are likely to notice, robs the picture of whatever potential it may have had to inspire a concrete Pan African solidarity based on recognition of the shared conditions of dispossession that mark Black populations at home and abroad.
To understand the contradictions of Black is King, one must examine the class dynamics hidden beneath its spectacles of African nobility. The movie, which depicts a young boy’s circuitous journey to the throne, embodies Afrocentrism’s fascination with monarchical authority. It is not surprising that African Americans should embrace regal images of Africa, a continent that is consistently misrepresented and denigrated in the West. Throughout their experience of subjugation in the New World, Black people have sought to construct meaningful paradigms of African affinity. Not infrequently, they have done so by claiming royal lineage or by associating themselves with dynastic Egypt, Ethiopia and other imperial civilizations.
The danger of such vindicationist narratives is that they mask the repressive character of highly stratified societies. Ebony royals are still royals. They exercise the prerogatives of hereditary rule. And invariably, the subjects over whom they reign, and whose lives they control, are Black. African Americans, one should recall, also hail from the ranks of a service class. They have good cause to eschew models of rigid social hierarchy and to pursue democratic themes in art and politics. Black is King hardly empowers them by portraying monarchy as a symbol of grandeur rather than as a system of coercion.
There are other troubling allusions in the film. One scene casts Beyoncé and her family members as African oligarchs. The characters signal their opulence by inhabiting a sprawling mansion complete with servants, marble statues and manicured lawns. Refinement is the intended message. Yet the conspicuous consumption, the taste for imported luxury products, the mimicry of European high culture and the overall display of ostentation call to mind the lifestyles of a notorious generation of postcolonial African dictators. Many of these Cold War rulers amassed vast personal wealth while their compatriots wallowed in poverty. Rising to power amid the drama of African independence, they nevertheless facilitated the reconquest of the continent by Western financial interests.
Black is King does not depict any particular historical figures from this stratum of African elites. (Some of the movie’s costumes pair leopard skin prints with finely tailored suits in a style that is reminiscent of flamboyant statesmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.) However, by presenting the African leisure class as an object of adulation, the film glamorizes private accumulation and the kind of empty materialism that defined the comprador officials who oversaw Africa’s descent into neocolonial dependency.
Black is King is, of course, a Disney venture. One would hardly expect a multinational corporation to sponsor a radical critique of social relations in the Global South. (It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Disney Company has come under fire for allowing some of its merchandise to be produced in Chinese sweatshops.) Small wonder that Disney and Beyoncé, herself a stupendously rich mogul, have combined to sell western audiences a lavishly fabricated Africa—one that is entirely devoid of class conflict.
Anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon once warned, in a chapter titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that the African postcolonial bourgeoisie would manipulate the symbols of Black cultural and political autonomy to advance its own narrow agenda. Black is King adds a new twist to the scenario. This time an African American megastar and entrepreneur has appropriated African nationalist and Pan Africanist imagery to promote the spirit of global capitalism.
In the end, Black is King must be read as a distinctly African American fantasy of Africa. It is a compendium of popular ideas about the continent as seen by Black westerners. The Africa of this evocation is natural and largely unspoiled. It is unabashedly Black. It is diverse but not especially complex, for an aura of camaraderie supersedes its ethnic, national and religious distinctions. This Africa is a tableau. It is a repository for the Black diaspora’s psychosocial ambitions and dreams of transnational belonging.
What the Africa of Black is King is not is ontologically African. Perhaps the African characters and dancers who populate its scenes are more than just props. But Beyoncé is the picture’s essential subject, and it is largely through her eyes—which is to say, western eyes—that we observe the people of the continent. If the extras in the film are elegant, they are also socially subordinate. Their role is to adorn the mostly African American elites to whom the viewer is expected to relate.
There are reasons to relish the pageantry of Black is King, especially in a time of acute racial trauma. Yet the movie’s mystique of cultural authenticity and benevolent monarchy should not obscure the material realities of everyday life. Neoliberal governance, extractive capitalism and militarism continue to spawn social and ecological devastation in parts of Africa, the Americas and beyond. Confronting those interwoven realities means developing a concrete, global analysis while resisting metaphysical visions of the world.
Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of ‘We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.’ A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.
A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista.
Sou branca e fui criada como branca. Mais do que isso, fui educada para saber identificar os fenótipos das pessoas negras, de modo a estabelecer rigorosas distinções entre pessoas brancas, pessoas então chamadas de “mulatas” e pessoas negras. Cresci aprendendo que pessoas negras são sujas e que a cor preta estava associada ao nojo, ao abjeto. Na escola progressista em que estudei, havia apenas duas pessoas negras, ambas filhas de funcionários. Durante décadas, escutei a exaltação dos ancestrais portugueses e italianos, que nos legaram pele branca, cabelos lisos e, no meu caso, olhos azuis, joia rara na família e objeto de disputa como signo da herança materna portuguesa ou da herança paterna italiana.
Fui ensinada a ser superior porque branca, embora a superioridade de uma mulher branca de família pequeno burguesa estivesse fundamentada na cor, não em privilégios de classe ou gênero. Quando analiso para a minha educação para ser racista, vejo retrospectivamente que as pessoas brancas da minha família de imigrantes pobres talvez precisassem afirmar o privilégio de cor para escapar da subalternidade justo por não terem o privilégio de classe.
Por isso, inclusive, além de racistas, eram também classistas e repetiam os estereótipos que o racismo usa ainda hoje: pessoas pretas e pobres são igualmente perigosas, eventualmente preguiçosas, embora as mulheres negras tenham sido sempre alocadas nos trabalhos braçais do cuidado da casa e no cuidado de crianças. Esta divisão marcou a minha infância. Quando criança, nunca entendi a divisão subjetiva entre não poder gostar de pessoas pretas e adorar a mulher preta que cuidava de mim quando minha mãe não estava.
Há muito tempo quero escrever sobre minha experiência pessoal de ter sido educada para ser racista e, portanto, ter chegado à vida adulta naturalizando a desigualdade racial. Do debate que se seguiu ao artigo de Lilia Schwarcz a respeito do novo vídeo da Beyoncé, foi o texto de Lia Vainer Schucman que me motivou a escrever. Isso porque considero o argumento dela irrefutável: “nossa racialidade está sendo marcada, algo que acontece há alguns séculos com negros e indígenas no Brasil, ou seja: é quando o grupo antecede o indivíduo (o que nomeamos de processo de racialização).” A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista. Já Schucman defende uma racialização que, como reconhecimento de que todas as pessoas são marcadas, poderia nos levar ao fim do racismo. Parece contraditório, eu sei, mas vamos lá.
Há muitos anos tenho trabalhado para desconstruir as camadas de racismo que me foram sobrepostas. Aqui, uso o verbo descontruir como foi proposto pelo filósofo franco-argelino Jacques Derrida, a quem dediquei minhas pesquisas de mestrado e doutorado e com quem comecei a aprender que quem fala, o faz a partir de algum lugar. Isso porque um dos objetivos da desconstrução é a crítica à suposição da neutralidade dos discursos, que serve como anteparo a todas as premissas ocultas que os discursos de saber-poder contém.
Como mulher, experimentei inúmeras vezes – e infelizmente ainda experimento – a diferença de poder entre o discurso masculino de autoridade e o meu. Como pesquisadora, fui aprendendo a perceber e denunciar que esse discurso masculino obtém sua autoridade de uma suposição de neutralidade do saber. Daí para a leitura da filósofa Donna Haraway e seu clássico “Saberes localizados” foi um passo curto. No ensaio, Haraway desconstrói a suposição de neutralidade do discurso da ciência e confere às feministas a responsabilidade de produzir conhecimento como saber situado. É o que venho tentando fazer há algum tempo, tanto na minha escrita quanto no meu trabalho de orientadora de pesquisas acadêmicas que, muitas vezes, procuram a neutralidade em busca de autoridade, mesmo que para isso acabe abrindo mão da autoria do texto.
Neste processo, ainda em curso, precisei aprender que branco também é cor. Enxergar-se branca é enxergar-se marcada pela própria branquitude. É este aspecto que me mobiliza no debate sobre lugar de fala: a desconstrução da suposição de neutralidade de qualquer discurso. Quem continua pretendendo se ver como neutro ou neutra é quem, por acreditar que não tem cor, pode continuar oprimindo – seja as pessoas negras, seja as pessoas brancas subalternizadas – por uma suposta neutralidade do saber.
Não por acaso, o livro de Djamila Ribeiro (“O que é lugar de fala”, editora Letramento, 2017) tem como epígrafe trecho de um artigo de Lélia Gonzalez: “Exatamente porque temos sido falados, infantilizados (infans é aquele que não tem fala própria, é a criança que se fala na terceira pessoa, porque falada pelos adultos) que neste trabalho assumimos nossa própria fala. Ou seja, o lixo vai falar, e numa boa.”
Aqui posso fazer Djamila e Lélia conversarem com Achille Mbembe de “Crítica da razão negra” (N-1 Edições, 2019), em que ele divide a razão negra em dois momentos: o primeiro, o da consciência ocidental do negro, orientando pela interpelação do colonizador com perguntas como “quem é ele?; como o reconhecemos?; o que o diferencia de nós? poderá ele tornar-se nosso semelhante? como governá-lo e a que fins?”. No segundo momento, Mbembe percebe que as perguntas são as mesmas, a mudança está em quem as enuncia: “Quem sou eu?; serei eu, de verdade, quem dizem que eu sou?; Será verdade que não sou nada além disto – minha aparência, aquilo que se diz de mim?; Qual o meu verdadeiro estado civil e histórico?”.
Quando me reconheço portadora de uma cor – branca – também posso enunciar estas perguntas, de tal modo a não precisar mais sustentar a posição de ter que repetir ao outro as perguntas do colonizador. Eu sou branca, e quanto a isso não há opção. Mas quanto a continuar sendo herdeira da violência da tradição colonizadora, acredito que haja escolha possível e que esta passa pelo desejo de cura da ferida colonial.
Retomo então minha experiência. Foi o racismo que me ensinou que sou branca. Fui marcada como branca a fim de que esta marcação funcionasse como signo de superioridade. Mas a mim hoje parece fácil perceber que a necessidade de marcação de superioridade só existe para aquele que se sente inferior, que se sabe fora do lugar de superioridade que almeja. Numa formação social marcada pela violência colonial, sobreviver é, entre tantas outras coisas, escapar do lugar de subalternidade.
Refletir sobre a experiência de ter sido marcada com a cor branca me ajudou a fazer a distinção que estou propondo aqui entre suposição de neutralidade do branco – a “branquitude” que não pretende se assumir como tal – e a admissão de que branco também é uma cor, uma marcação ou, para falar em termos interseccionais, um marcador que, se existe negativamente para a pessoa negra no racismo estrutural da sociedade brasileira, existe positivamente para a pessoa branca.
Com essa diferença, esboço uma hipótese: a maior rejeição à ideia de que todo discurso é situado, e que certos discursos estão autorizados por estarem situados a partir de um lugar de poder, e outros estão desautorizados por estarem situados fora desses lugares, a maior reação vem de quem ainda não vê a sua branquitude por se acreditar “neutra”. Para isso, é preciso negar que branco seja cor. É desse lugar de neutro que intelectuais, mesmos os/as mais respeitados/as, parecem não poder abrir mão. E aí caem na pior armadilha: “sou branco/a mas sou legal” (uma espécie de versão atualizada de “tenho até amigo gay”).
Fui racializada como branca porque fui educada para ser racista, o que me obrigou a assumir a minha cor e a carregar com ela o peso do racismo estrutural brasileiro. Se hoje penso, escrevo, pesquiso e ensino contra o racismo é por não suportar mais o sofrimento de viver num país em que pessoas negras são brutalmente excluídas, violentadas e exterminadas em nome da minha suposta superioridade branca. Esta é a cor da minha pele. Já o meu desejo tem sido destruir o racismo que me impôs uma suposição de superioridade branca na qual não me reconheço.
Carla Rodrigues é professora de Ética no Departamento de Filosofia da UFRJ, pesquisadora do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Filosofia e bolsista de produtividade da Faperj.
NOVA YORK – Adolph Reed é filho do Sul segregado. Nascido em Nova Orleans, ele organizou negros pobres e soldados contra a guerra nos anos 1960 e se tornou um intelectual socialista em universidades de prestígio. Ao longo do tempo, ele se convenceu de que a esquerda está muito focada em raça e pouco em classe. Vitórias duradouras foram alcançadas, ele acredita, quando trabalhadores de todas as raças lutaram ombro a ombro por seus direitos.
Em maio, Reed, de 73 anos, professor emérito da Universidade da Pensilvânia, foi convidado para falar aos Democratas Socialistas da América (DSA), em Nova York. O homem que fez campanha para Bernie Sanders e acusou Barack Obama de promover uma “política neoliberal vazia e repressiva” discursaria à maior seção dos DSA, que formou a deputada Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez e uma nova geração de ativistas de esquerda.
Ele planejava argumentar que o foco da esquerda no impacto desproporcional do coronavírus na população negra minava a organização de uma frente multirracial, o que ele via como chave para a luta por saúde e a justiça econômica.
Como puderam convidar, perguntaram os membros do DSA, um palestrante que minimizava o racismo em tempos de peste e protestos? Deixá-lo falar, afirmava os afrossocialistas, seria “reacionário e reducionista”. “Não podemos ter medo de discutir o racismo só porque o tema pode ser manipulado pelos racistas”, afirmaram. “Isso é covardia e fortalece o capitalismo racial.”
Em meio a boatos de que os opositores interromperiam sua palestra via Zoom, Reed e os líderes do DAS concordaram em cancelar a palestra. A organização socialista mais poderosa do país rejeitou um marxista negro por suas opiniões sobre raça.
– Adolph é o maior teórico democrático de sua geração – disse Cornel West, professor de filosofia de Harvard (e socialista). – Ele assumiu posições impopulares sobre política identitária, mas tem uma trajetória de meio século. Se desistirmos da discussão, o movimento vai ficar mais estreito.
A decisão de silenciar Reed veio num momento que os americanos debatem o racismo na política, no sistema de saúde, na mídia e nas empresas. Esquerdistas que, como Reed, argumentam que há muito foco em raça e pouco em classe numa sociedade profundamente desigual são frequentemente postos de lado. O debate é particularmente caloroso porque os ativistas enxergam, agora, uma oportunidade única de avançar em pautas como violência policial, encarceramento em massa e desigualdade, e em que o socialismo – um movimento predominantemente branco – atrai jovens de diversas origens.
Intelectuais de esquerda argumentam que as desigualdades de renda e de acesso à saúde e também a brutalidade policial são frutos do racismo, a principal ferida americana. Depois de séculos de escravidão e segregação, os negros deveriam lidera a luta antirracista. Colocar essa luta de lado em nome da solidariedade de classe é absurdo, dizem eles.
– Adolph Reed e sua turma acreditam que se falarmos muito sobre raça, vamos alienar muita gente e não conseguiremos construir um movimento – disse Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professora de estudos afroamericanos na Universidade Princeton e socialista que já palestrou aos DSA e está familiarizada com esses debates. – Não queremos isso, queremos que os brancos entendam como seu racismo prejudicou a vida dos negros.
Reed e outros intelectuais e ativistas proeminentes, muitos deles negros, têm outra visão. Eles veem a ênfase em políticas raciais como um beco sem saída. Entre eles estão West; a historiadora Barbara Fields, da Universidade Columbia; Toure Reed, filho de Adolph, da Universidade Estadual de Illinois; e Bhaskar Sunkara, fundador da revista socialista “Jacobin”.
Eles aceitam a realidade brutal do racismo americano. No entanto, argumentam que os problemas que atormentam os Estados Unidos hoje – desigualdade, violência policial e encarceramento em massa – afetam negros e pardos, mas também os pobres e a classe trabalhadora brancos.
Risco de ‘dividir coalizão’
Os movimentos progressistas mais poderosos, dizem eles, estão enraizados na luta por políticas universais, como as leis que fortaleceram os sindicatos e os programas de incentivo ao emprego do New Deal, e as lutas atuais por educação superior gratuita, valorização do salário mínimo, reforma da polícia e acesso à saúde. Programas como esses ajudariam mais os negros, os latinos e os indígenas, que, em média, têm renda familiar menor e mais problemas de saúde do que os brancos, argumentam Reed e seus aliados. Insistir na questão racial pode dividir uma coalizão potencialmente forte e beneficiar os conservadores.
– Uma obsessão com desigualdade racial colonizou o pensamento da esquerda – disse Reed. – Há uma insistência de que raça e racismo são os determinantes fundamentais da existência dos negros.
Essas batalhas não são novas: no final do século XIX, socialistas enfrentaram seu próprio racismo e debateram a construção de uma organização multirracial. Eugene Debs, que concorreu à presidência cinco vezes, insistiu na defesa da igualdade racial. Questões similares incomodaram o movimento pelos direitos civis nos anos 1960.
A disseminação do vírus mortal e o assassinato de George Floyd por um policial, em Minneapolis, reacenderam o debate, que ganhou um tom geracional à medida que o socialismo atrai jovens dispostos a reformular organizações como os Democratas Socialistas da América, que existe desde os anos 1920. (Uma pesquisa da Gallup indicou que o socialismo é tão popular quanto o capitalismo entre pessoas de 18 a 39 anos.)
O DSA tem mais de 70 mil membros no país e 5,8 mil em Nova York – a média de idade está em torno de 30 e poucos anos. A organização ajudou a eleger candidatos como Ocasio-Cortez e Jamaal Bowman, que venceu um conhecido candidato democrata nas primárias de junho.
Em anos recentes, o DSA já havia recebido Reed como palestrante. No entanto, membros mais jovens, irritados com o isolamento provocado pela Covid-19 e engajados nos protestos contra a violência policial e contra Donald Trump, irritaram-se ao saber que ele havia sido novamente convidado.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, de Princeton, disse que Reed deveria saber que sua palestra sobre Covid-19 e os perigos da obsessão com desigualdade racial soaria como uma “provocação”.
Nada disso surpreendeu Reed, que, ironicamente, descreveu o ocorrido como uma “tempestade em uma xícara de café”. Alguns esquerdistas, disse ele, têm uma “recusa militante a pensar analiticamente”. Reed gosta de duelos intelectuais e, especialmente, de criticar progressistas que ele enxerga como muito amigáveis aos interesses do mercado. Ele escreveu que Bill Clinton e seus seguidores estavam dispostos a “sacrificar os pobres fingindo compaixão” e descreveu o ex-vice-presidente Joe Biden como um homem cujas “misericórdias estavam reservadas aos banqueiros”. Ele acha engraçado ser atacado pela questão racial.
– Eu nunca falo a partir de minha biografia, como se isso fosse um gesto de autenticidade – disse. – Quando meus oponentes dizem que eu não acredito que o racismo seja real, eu penso “OK, isso está estranho”.
Reed e seus camaradas acreditam que a esquerda muitas vezes prefere se envolver em batalhas raciais simbólicas, de estátuas à linguagem, em vez de ficar de olho em mudanças econômicas fundamentais. Melhor seria, eles argumentam, falar do que une brancos e negros. Enquanto há uma vasta disparidade entre americanos brancos e negros no geral, os trabalhadores pobres brancos são muito parecidos com trabalhadores pobres negros no que se refere à renda. Segundo Reed e seus aliados, os políticos do Partido Democrata usam a raça para se esquivar de questões econômicas, como distribuição de renda, o que incomodaria seus doadores ricos.
– Os progressistas usam a política identitária e a raça para conter os apelos por políticas redistributivas – disse Toure Reed, cujo livro “Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism” (“Rumo à liberdade: o argumento contra o reducionismo racial”) trata desses assuntos.
Filho de intelectuais itinerantes e radicais, Reed passou sua infância em Nova Orleans e desenvolveu um “ódio especial” pela segregação que havia no Sul. Ainda que ele tenha sentido algum prazer quando Nova Orleans removeu homenagens a personagens históricos racistas, ele prefere um outro tipo de simbolismo. Ele se lembra de, ainda menino, viajar por pequenas cidades do nordeste americano e ver lápides, cobertas de musgo, de soldados brancos que morreram lutando pelos Estados do Norte contra o Sul escravocrata na Guerra Civil.
– Ler aquelas lápides me dava uma sensação calorosa. “Então fulano morreu para que outros homens pudessem ser livres” – disse. – Há algo de muito comovente nisso.
The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar.
Steven Pinker occupies a role that is rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. The Harvard professor pops up on outlets from PBS to the Joe Rogan podcast, translating dense subjects into accessible ideas with enthusiasm. Bill Gates called his most recent book “my new favorite book of all time.”
So when more than 550 academics recently signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of “distinguished fellows” of the Linguistic Society of America, it drew attention to their provocative charge: that Professor Pinker minimizes racial injustices and drowns out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.
But the letter was striking for another reason: It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.
“Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes,” their letter stated.
The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”
But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.
Also this month, 153 intellectuals and writers — many of them political liberals — signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine that criticized the current intellectual climate as “constricted” and “intolerant.” That led to a fiery response from opposing liberal and leftist writers, who accused the Harper’s letter writers of elitism and hypocrisy.
In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.
Reached at his home on Cape Cod, Professor Pinker, 65, noted that as a tenured faculty member and established author, he could weather the campaign against him. But he said it could chill junior faculty who hold views counter to prevailing intellectual currents.
“I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”
He described his critics as “speech police” who “have trolled through my writings to find offensive lines and adjectives.”
The letter against him focuses mainly on his activity on Twitter, where he has some 600,000 followers. It points to his 2015 tweet of an article from The Upshot, the data and analysis-focused team at The New York Times, which suggested that the high number of police shootings of Black people may not have been caused by racial bias of individual police officers, but rather by the larger structural and economic realities that result in the police having disproportionately high numbers of encounters with Black residents.
“Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately,” Professor Pinker tweeted with a link to the article. “Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”
The linguists’ letter noted that the article made plain that police killings are a racial problem, and accused Professor Pinker of making “dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.”
But the article also suggested that, because every encounter with the police carries danger of escalation, any racial group interacting with the police frequently risked becoming victims of police violence, due to poorly trained officers, armed suspects or overreaction. That appeared to be the point of Professor Pinker’s tweet.
The linguists’ letter also accused the professor of engaging in racial dog whistles when he used the words “urban crime” and “urban violence” in other tweets.
But in those tweets, Professor Pinker had linked to the work of scholars who are widely described as experts on urban crime and urban violence and its decline.
“‘Urban’ appears to be a usual terminological choice in work in sociology, political science, law and criminology,” wrote Jason Merchant, vice provost and a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, who defended Professor Pinker.
Another issue, Professor Pinker’s critics say, is contained in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” In a wide-ranging description of crime and urban decay and its effect on the culture of the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote that “Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”
The linguists’ letter took strong issue with the words “mild-mannered,” noting that a neighbor later said that Goetz had spoken in racist terms of Latinos and Black people. He was not “mild-mannered” but rather intent on confrontation, they said.
The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.
Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.
The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.
He has also suggested that underrepresentation in the sciences could be rooted in part in biological differences between men and women. (He defended Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who in 2005 speculated that innate differences between the sexes might in part explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Mr. Summers’s remark infuriated some female scientists and was among several controversies that led to his resignation the following year.)
And Professor Pinker has made high-profile blunders, such as when he provided his expertise on language for the 2007 defense of the financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges. He has said he did so free of charge and at the request of a friend, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and regrets it.
The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.
The linguists’ society, like many academic and nonprofit organizations, recently released a wide-ranging statement calling for greater diversity in the field. It also urged linguists to confront how their research “might reproduce or work against racism.”
John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor of English and linguistics, cast the Pinker controversy within a moment when, he said, progressives look suspiciously at anyone who does not embrace the politics of racial and cultural identity.
“Steve is too big for this kerfuffle to affect him,” Professor McWhorter said. “But it’s depressing that an erudite and reasonable scholar is seen by a lot of intelligent people as an undercover monster.”
Because this is a fight involving linguists, it features some expected elements: intense arguments about imprecise wording and sly intellectual put-downs. Professor Pinker may have inflamed matters when he suggested in response to the letter that its signers lacked stature. “I recognize only one name among the signatories,’’ he tweeted. Such an argument, Byron T. Ahn, a linguistics professor at Princeton, wrote in a tweet of his own, amounted to “a kind of indirect ad hominem attack.”
The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics.
“Any resulting action from this letter may make it clear to Black scholars that the L.S.A. is sensitive to the impact that tweets of this sort have on maintaining structures that we should be attempting to dismantle,” wrote Professor David Adger of Queen Mary University of London on his website.
That line of argument left Professor McWhorter, a signer of the letter in Harper’s, exasperated.
“We’re in this moment that’s like a collective mic drop, and civility and common sense go out the window,” he said. “It’s enough to cry racism or sexism, and that’s that.”
Museums are working overtime to collect artifacts and ephemera from the pandemic and the racial justice movement — and they need your help.
July 14, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
A few weeks ago, a nerdy joke went viral on Twitter: Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in.
As museum curators and archivists stare down one of the most daunting challenges of their careers — telling the story of the pandemic; followed by severe economic collapse and a nationwide social justice movement — they are imploring individuals across the country to preserve personal materials for posterity, and for possible inclusion in museum archives. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, they say.
“Our cultural seismology is being revealed,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History of the events. Of these three earth-shaking events, she said, “The confluence is unlike mostanything we’ve seen.”
Museums, she said, are grappling “with the need to comprehend multiple pandemics at once.”
We Are All Field Collectors
Last August, Dr. Erik Blutinger joined the staff of Mt. Sinai Queens as an emergency medicine physician. He knew that his first year after residency would be intense, but nothing could have prepared him for the trial-by-fire that was Covid-19.
Aware that he was at the epicenter not only of a global pandemic, but of history, Dr. Blutinger, 34, began to take iPhone videos of the scenes in his hospital, which was one of New York City’s hardest hit during the early days of the crisis.
“Everyone is Covid positive in these hallways,” he told the camera in one April 9 recording which has since been posted on the Mount Sinai YouTube channel, showing the emergency room hallways filled with hissing oxygen tanks, and the surge tents set up outside the building. “All you hear is oxygen. I’m seeing young patients, old patients, people of all age ranges, who are just incredibly sick.”
He estimated that he has recorded over 50 video diaries in total.
In Louisville, Ky., during the protests and unrest that followed the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Louisville resident, filmmaker named Milas Norris rushed to the streets to shoot footage using a Sony camera and a drone.
“It was pretty chaotic,” said Mr. Norris, 24, describing police in riot gear, explosions, and gas and pepper bullets. He said thatat first he didn’t know what he would do with the footage; he has since edited and posted some of it on his Instagram and Facebook accounts. “I just knew that I had to document and see what exactly was happening on the front lines.”
About 2,000 miles west, in Los Angeles, NPR producer Nina Gregory, 45, had set up recording equipment on the front patio of her Hollywood home. In March and April, she recorded the absence of city noise. “The sound of birds was so loud it was pinging red on my levels,” she said.
Soon the sounds of nature were replaced by the sounds of helicopters from the Los Angeles Police Department hovering overhead, and the sounds of protesters and police convoys moving through her neighborhood. She recorded all this for her personal records.
“It’s another form of diary,” she said.
Museums have indicated that these kinds of private recordings have critical value as public historical materials. All of us, curators say, are field collectors now.
‘A National Reckoning’
In the spirit of preservation, Ms. Hartig from the National Museum of American History — along with museum collectors across the country — have begun avid campaigns to “collect the moment.”
“I do think it’s a national reckoning project,” she said. There are “a multitude of ways in which we need to document and understand — and make history a service. This is one of our highest callings.”
Some museums have assembled rapid response field collecting teams to identify and secure storytelling objects and materials. Perhaps the mostwidely-publicizedtask force, assembled by three Smithsonian museums working in a coalition, dispatched curators to Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to identify protest signs for eventual possible collection.
The collecting task force went into action after June 1, when President Trump ordered Lafayette Square cleared of protesters so he could pose for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, clutching a bible. Shield-bearing officers and mounted police assailed peaceful protesters there with smoke canisters, pepper bullets, flash grenades and chemical spray. The White House subsequently ordered the construction of an 8-foot-high chain link fence around the perimeter, which protesters covered in art and artifacts.
Taking immediate moves to preserve these materials — much of which was made of paper and was vulnerable to the elements — amounted to a curatorial emergency for the Smithsonian’s archivists.
Yet with many museums still closed, or in the earliest stages of reopening, curatorial teams largely cannot yet bring most objects into their facilities. It isfalling to individuals to become their own interim museums and archives.
The Ordinary is Extraordinary (Even Your Shopping Lists)
While some curators are loath to suggest a laundry list of items that we should be saving — they say that they don’t want to manipulate the documentation of history, but take their cues from the communities they document — many are imploring us to see historical value in the everyday objects of right now.
“Whatever we’re taking to be ordinary within this abnormal moment can, in fact, serve as an extraordinary artifact to our children’s children,” said Tyree Boyd-Pates, an associate curator at the Autry Museum of the American West, which is asking the public to consider submitting materials such as journal entries, selfies and even sign-of-the times social media posts (say, a tweet about someone’s quest for toilet paper — screengrab those, he said)
To this end, curators said, don’t be so quick to edit and delete your cellphone photos right now. “Snapshots are valuable,” said Kevin Young, the director of New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “We might look back at one and say, ‘This picture tells more than we thought at the time.’”
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the curatorial team will be evaluating and collecting protest materials such as placards, photos, videos and personalized masks — and the personal stories behind them.
“One activist found a tear-gas canister, and he gave it to us,” said Noelle Trent, a director at the museum. “We’re going to have to figure out how to collect items from the opposing side: We have to have theracist posters, the ‘Make America Great’ stuff. We’re going to need that at some point. The danger is that if we don’t have somebody preserving it, they will say this situation was notas bad.”
And there is perhaps no article more representative of this year than the mask, which has “become a really powerful visual symbol,” said Margaret K. Hofer, the vice president and museum director of the New-York Historical Society, which has identified around 25 masks that the museum will collect, including an N95 mask worn by a nurse in the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital set up in New York’s Central Park in the spring. (The museum also collected a set of field hospital scrubs, and a cowbell that the medical team rang whenever they discharged a patient.)
“The meaning of masks has shifted over the course of these past several months,” Ms. Hofer said. “Early on, the ones we were collecting were being sewn by people who were trying to aid medical workers, when there were all those fears about shortage of P.P.E. — last resort masks.And they’ve more recentlybecome a political statement.”
Document the Back Stories Too
Curators say that recording the personal stories behind photos, videos and objects are just as crucial as the objects themselves — and the more personal, the better. Museums rely on objects to elicit an emotional reaction from visitors, and that sort of personal connection requires knowing the object’s back story.
“For us, really the artifact is just a metaphor, and behind that artifact are these voices, and this humanity,” said Aaron Bryant, who curates photography and visual culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and who isleading the Smithsonian’s ongoing collection response in Lafayette Square.
Curatorial teams from many museums are offering to interview donors about their materials and experiences,and encourage donors to include detailed descriptions and back stories when submitting objects and records for consideration. Many are also collecting oral histories of the moment.
How to Donate to a Museum
Many museums have put out calls for submissions on social media and are directing would-be donors to submission forms to their websites. The National Museum of African American History and Culture site has a thorough form that covers items’ significance, dimensions, condition and materials. The Civil Rights Museum is looking for “archival materials, books, photographs, clothing/textiles, audio visual materials, fine art and historic objects” that share civil rights history. The New-York Historical Society is seeking Black Lives Matter protest materials.
“We review material, we talk about it, and we respond to everyone,” said William S. Pretzer, a senior curator of history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We can’t collect everything, but we’re not limiting ourselves to anything.”
Gathering materials from some communities is proving challenging, and curators are strategizing collection from individuals who may be unlikely to offer materials to historical institutions.
“A lot of our critical collecting and gathering of diverse stories we’ve been able to do because of directed outreach,” said Ms. Hofer of the New-York Historical Society. “We’re trying to capture the experience of all aspects of all populations in the city, including people experiencing homelessness and the incarcerated.”
“We want to make the barrier to entry on this very low,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, which began collecting materials relating to pandemic-related racist attacks on Asians and Asian-Americans in late winter, and personal testimonies about experiences during the pandemic and protests. Because museums may not necessarily be obvious repositories for many immigrant communities, Ms. Maasbach said, the museum is making translators available to those who want to tell their stories.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re being accessible in creating this record,” Ms. Maasbach said.
Curators recognize that their story-of-2020 collecting will continue for years; we are in the midst of ongoing events. They are asking us to continue to document the subsequent chapters — and to be as posterity-minded as one can be when it comes to ephemera.
“We don’t know what the puzzle looks like yet,” said Ms. Hartig of the National Museum of American History. “Yet we know that each of these pieces might be an important one.”
Some museums are exhibiting submitted and accepted items right away on websites or on social media; others are planning virtual and physical exhibits for as early as this autumn. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, for example, is collecting masks and oral history testimonies from Native American communities and is considering the creation of a “rapid response gallery,” said the museum’s vice president and chief curator Elisa G. Phelps.
“If art is being sparked by something very timely, we want to have a place where we can showcase works and photos,” she said, adding that this process differed from “the elaborate, formal exhibit development process.”
Some donors, however, may not be among those to view their materials once they become part of institutionalized history — at least not right away. Even though Dr. Blutinger said that he sees the historical value of his emergency room video diaries,he has yet to revisit the peak-crisis videos himself.
“I’m almost scared to look back at them,” he said. “I’m worried that they’ll reignite a set of emotions that I’ve managed to tuck away. I’m sure one day I’ll look back and perhaps open up one or two clips, but I have never watched any of them all the way through.”
We are living in dangerous but also generative transformational times at the confluence of (at least) 3 emergencies:
1) covid 19 pandemic (not to mention other diseases of both humans and nonhumans rampaging through the living world), but also in the midst of powerful emergent practices of collective care and refusal of death-denial and transcendentalism
2) racial capitalism/neofascism run rampant, but also anti-racist & indigenous justice&care movements surging in the context of world wide economic & environmental crises
3) multispecies extermination/extinction/genocide in the web of climate injustice, extractionism, and catastrophe capitalism, but also widespread revulsion at human exceptionalism and growing affirmation of the earth & earthlings of powerful kinds
Science and technology matter in all of these. “Science for the People” has never been more relevant (especially if the “people” are both human and more than human). No more business as usual. These times are more dangerous than ever, but maybe, just maybe, there is a chance for something better. So, the old question for the left, what is to be done?
That’s what I want to talk about. What is it like to live in times of possibilities, when just a year ago many of us thought nothing was possible?