Black Lives Matter: A Critique of Anthropology

From the Series: #BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

Protester holding a sign that references MXGM’s “Operation Ghetto Storm” report. Photo by Nyle Fort.

“Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2013 report published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), presents evidence of 313 killings of Black people by state-sanctioned actors during the preceding year. Through investigation, historiography, statistical analysis, and theorization, the report argues that these killings reveal the structural position of the Black working class as “criminal commodities, fit for disposal” (MXGM 2013, 3). It situates extrajudicial killings within a “repressive enforcement structure” (4), which also includes: the domestic wars on crime, drugs, and gangs; the global war on terror; the prison-industrial complex; the counterintelligence program; and immigrant detention and deportation. The report circulated a powerful political vocabulary, filling a critical gap in what is known about state violence in the United States. More than a year after its publication, as people organized and took to the streets of Ferguson, New York City, and beyond to protest the extrajudicial killings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, they were armed with the statistic that in the United States, a Black person is killed by a state-sanctioned actor every twenty-eight hours.

In moments of social and political upheaval, academics often position their particular disciplines as especially primed to clarify the situation. However, as “Operation Ghetto Storm” makes clear, anthropologists should consider how anti-Blackness and the analysis emerging from Black resistance present a critique of anthropology. In what follows, I suggest that the events around Ferguson expose the limitations of ethnographic methodology and disrupt the anthropology of race.

During the past several months, not only have we seen a great deal of political organization, we have also seen sophisticated practices of self-representation by people. On-the-ground protesters are utilizing their powers of observation and description. Their tactics are informed by a concrete analysis of the historical situation. They are mobilizing audiovisual technology, social media, op-eds, and email chains to document and circulate their narratives. They are reflecting back on the strengths and limitations of their actions and as they speak for themselves, the anthropologist’s ethnographic authority is called into question.

Furthermore, indictments of the U.S. carceral state as a fundamentally racist regime have gained generalized credibility in the past decade, due largely to the radical historiography of activists and academics who have framed the modern criminal justice system as the functional descendant of the chattel slave system. This genealogy of the present compels us to situate contemporary extrajudicial killings within the longue durée of settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and capitalist accumulation.

Taken together, the profusion of activist self-representation and the potency of radical historiography constitute an explanatory crisis (and perhaps an opportunity) for the anthropology of race. It suggests that we place greater importance on alternative and discredited sources of knowledge like the insurgent research of “Operation Ghetto Storm.” It suggests that we spend more time analyzing materials contained within (and excluded from) various archives. Such an approach will facilitate transhistorical thinking, enabling us to clarify the particular ways that the past lives in the present.

The unrest over extrajudicial killings also poses a challenge to anthropological theories of race. The common refrain that race is a social construct, rather than a biological fact fails to sufficiently explain what race is and how it impacts people’s lives. In fact, the constructivist approach can obscure the dynamic relationship between race, politics, history, and biology. As participants in a discipline that is chiefly responsible for the ascendancy of scientific racism, anthropologists have an ethical obligation to be clear in our writing and our teaching about the different ways that race is at work in this moment.

A cursory examination of what protesters have been saying reveals widespread concern not only for Black lives, but also for Black bodies. It reveals indignation for the ways in which Black bodies are targeted, corralled, and annihilated by the state. Victims of extrajudicial killings by police overwhelmingly display a Black phenotype. They inhabit bodies that present a recognizable and threatening combination of skin color, hair texture, facial features, and bodily habitus. What Frantz Fanon (1967) called their “corporeal schema” marks them as Black and therefore fit for disposal. The social meanings of race are mapped onto people’s bodies.

We should also be clear that race has biological effects, an observation made by Du Bois (1899) in The Philadelphia Negro. Not only does inhabiting a Black body increase the likelihood that someone will die from direct (state) violence, it also mediates processes of “slow death.” Race impacts the quality of air we breathe; the levels of toxins we are exposed to; the quality of food we have access to; and the likelihood that we will develop chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and HIV. These are imminently biological processes and examples of how “race becomes biology” (Gravlee 2009).

Anthropologists rightfully cite distinct national histories and systems of racial classification as evidence of the social construction of race. Equally important, however, is the transhistorical and transnational stability of white supremacy, on the one hand, and anti-Blackness, on the other. The academic premium placed on nuance and circumspection often conceals the fact that a racialized dichotomy of human value exists at the core of capitalist modernity. Foregrounding this dichotomy and the genocidal practices that maintain it helps us grasp the political and epistemic dimensions of race. It enables us to think with João Vargas (2006, 2010) and to consider how Blackness, or what Cedric J. Robinson (1983) calls the Black radical tradition, can also be a mode of analysis and a methodology of liberation.

Theorizing the political and epistemic dimensions of Blackness can help us make sense of the resonance of #BlackLivesMatter in places like Tokyo and Colombia. It can also help us see that #BlackLivesMatter is not only a demand for police reform or a disavowal of Black dehumanization; it is fundamentally a critique of capitalist modernity. It is a critique that opens up a new set of questions: What are the economic, social and political conditions that will make it possible for Black lives to matter? How can we create and expand these conditions? An anthropological approach to race that ignores these questions is destined for irrelevance.

Orisanmi Burton is a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Du Bois, W. E. B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009. “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, no. 1: 47–57.

Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). 2013. “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards, and Vigilantes.”

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Vargas, João H. Costa. 2006. Catching Hell in the City of Angels: Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

_____. 2010. Never Meant to Survive: Genocide and Utopias in Black Diaspora Communities. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.