Is anthropology a legitimate “science”?
Or is anthropology more like history? A personalised interpretation of data, where the things we see are often merely the things others choose to reveal? Or perhaps the things we were looking for in the first place?
What true inferences can be drawn from studying the cultural behaviours of various peoples?
Does the field observer bring too many of their own cultural biases (or personal baggage) to the table for any true understanding of another culture to be possible?
In the 1970s, a British (later naturalised American) anthropologist named Colin Turnbull created a sensation with the publication of two books – The Forest People, and The Mountain People.
Both were based on his field work in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s among the Mbuti and Ik peoples of Zaire and Uganda, respectively.
His description of one group as essentially generous and “good”, and the other as selfish and “bad”, was based on a deeply inadequate understanding of the events (both recent and historical) which were shaping their lives at the time of his visit. Mr. Turnbull seemed more interested in using “primitive peoples” as a backdrop to a morality lesson, than in understanding their cultural habits within any broad and deep context.
While the methodology of anthropology, and the ideas of individual anthropologists, have come in for regular criticism, the discipline itself remains alive and well.
And one thing remains almost universal.
There is almost always a vast cultural, experiential, and educational chasm between those doing the “studying”, and those being “studied”.
In the developed world, we turn an acute anthropological eye on the communities near us, and around us, rather infrequently.
When we DO apply anthropological descriptions and critiques closer to home, this field of study is more usually called “social science”, and the academic lens is usually trained on communities experiencing social problems – problems such as lack of education, poor health care, crime, domestic violence, drug use and poverty.
Due to the exigencies of minority communities in the USA, it is almost always minority ethnic groups who find themselves the subject of dissertations and theses.
When so-called “white people” find themselves under the magnifying glass, it is usually due to some sort of externally-perceived sense of their “exotica value” or “otherness” – Appalachians and Cajuns spring immediately to mind.
And yet, the most important group/community in the USA today (in terms of how their group outlook bears upon the larger body politic) is rarely examined – or rarely discussed beyond superficial caricature and mockery by those standing outside.
I am talking about self-identified “White American Evangelicals”, a group comprising roughly 1 in 10 American citizens.
When we look at the problems affecting many minority communities, it has become almost automatic for the social sciences to point out historical disadvantage in order to explain current issues. Racism, slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, lynching, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, land appropriation, lack of access to education or business loans – the list of reasons for the current social status of African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, women, LGBTQ+, Romani, and others has been well-documented, if not universally accepted.
And yet, although many “White American Evangelicals” experience many of these same social problems – low educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction (see the meths and opioid crises), poor career prospects, domestic violence, et al, we do not tend to search for socio-historical causes as with other groups.
The most glaringly obvious answer is that because this group does not see itself as being “disadvantaged”, they are not treated as such. Even when this group does perceive itself as “disadvantaged”, they tend to blame those even lower on the social scale, or they blame a nebulous and unspecified group of “elites”. Indeed, this writer suspects – based on his own upbringing – that this group would be outraged to think that their “culture” would be considered a subject worthy of study in terms of “social problems” or “social dysfunction”.
Another reason for a lack of interest from social scientists probably lies, quite frankly, in many of the unattractive traits associated with this demographic – whether fairly or unfairly.
A dislike or mistrust of science and the college-educated. A religious literalism. A love of “gun culture”. A nativist and jingoistic sense of what is “American”.
But surely, if anthropology is a legitimate discipline, we should also apply it to those people nearest to us?
When a nation is fracturing into tribes no longer able to communicate with one another, when one tribe is violently assaulting the institutions of democracy, it becomes clear that we no longer have the luxury of “just living in separate worlds”, or, in modern parlance, “echo chambers”.
It is high time we asked the question, straight-up. Who are “White American Evangelicals”?
Where did they come from? What do they want? Why do they love what they love? Why do they believe the things they believe? Why do they do the things they do?
Is there even an answer to these questions?
During the first weeks of the new Biden administration in Washington, D.C., I have found myself mesmerised by the sound and fury being generated by every utterance made by the freshman congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
I have also involuntarily found myself “code-switching” in my head. For those not familiar with the term, “code-switching” is a thing long familiar to people who must straddle two different worlds, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. African-Americans have been doing it for years – assuming one attitude and mode of expression in a mixed work environment, while assuming another while feeling “at home” among close friends and family.
Code-switching can arise with “white” people, too, and often in reverse. This writer was raised by “White American Evangelicals”, but has lived most of his life away from the social milieu of his early years. On a day to day basis, I no longer sound and act like “my people”. In my own case, this was not really a conscious decision – it just happened following years of travel.
But I can always spot one of “my people”, and the antenna begins to bend, turn, and adjust, retuning itself to the old channel, the original social code.
Both Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are “my people”, even if, in so many ways, I wish it weren’t so. But I understand where they are coming from, quite literally.
Far beyond her immediate upbringing, there are decades of reasons to explain why Ms. Boebert acts the way she acts and does what she does.
There are centuries of cultural reasons for her belief that a gun can make her “free”.
I know, because behind “my people” there is also a history, an ocean, of social problems and malignancy based in “race” issues, poverty, disempowerment, and familial dysfunction – all poorly-disguised by the Sunday born-again Hallelujahs! and Amens!
I doubt that Ms. Boebert would acknowledge any of this, because the very essence of “White American Evangelical” culture is based on a denial of victimhood, a denial of disempowerment.
This denial of victimhood is usually lauded as a sign of “bootstrap culture” and a deep pride in self-reliance. This is only superficially true. The full truth runs much, much deeper.
This visceral denial of victimhood has historically allowed “poor whites” and “not quite whites” to put some clear water between themselves and the other underclasses they once lived alongside and among – the “fully colored” underclasses. The kind of people with the least power in America by almost every metric.
For centuries, a denial of disempowerment and a loud self-assertion of individual agency, was always the first and most important part of “becoming white”.
And for the “not quite white” underclasses looking to cross over into “full whiteness”, the years between The American Revolution and post-Civil War Reconstruction would be the most crucial.
After distancing themselves from people of color, nothing, absolutely nothing, would separate these newly “fully white” people from “colored” people as much as the right of the “fully white” to carry arms.
The rewards which accrued from this right were clear, tangible, and substantial.
A man (or woman) with a gun or rifle could squat indigenous land and hope to survive anti-settler raids. A man with a gun or rifle would be able to feed his family by hunting when crops failed. A man with a gun or rifle could take part in any number of community actions requiring a firearm – defense of settlement forts, slave raids, skirmishing with bandits, slave patrols, posse and militia service, and more.
Even more significantly, war veterans received land grants and land bounties for their “service” in fighting the almost ceaseless wars against various “enemies” – Powhatan, French, Cherokee, British, Creek, Iroquois, et al.
In short, a man with a gun or rifle had access to resources, land, and economic improvement in a way denied to African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and various other “people of color”.
But if a man of mixed ethnicity or indeterminate “color” had stood beside a “white man” and covered his back during an Iroquois raid on the fort protecting their collective wives and children, this man of color was often extended the “benefit of the doubt” regarding his “whiteness” in 1775.
So in a brutally real and tangible way (especially during the era of Manifest Destiny), the right to carry arms offered a shot at “freedom” and prosperity to a range of people usually denied the privileges of “whiteness” – frontier bandits, fur traders, longhunters, outright murderous ruffians, and people of mixed ethnicity – almost all of whom were people of little or no formal education.
The step up from simple “freedom” to actual “respectability” would eventually require additional participation in other communal activities like fort building, bridge and road construction, tax-paying and voting.
But more than any of these things, “respectability” and “whiteness” was acted out publicly through a “profession of faith” and through regular church attendance…
A nation of people raised from the cradle to celebrate individualism and self-determination might be shocked or even disgusted by anyone presuming to “explain” their behaviour, beliefs, culture, or social status in terms of their deep socio-ethnic history or in anthropological terms.
And yes, it is true that at some level “we are all individuals”, as the crowd in the Monty Python film memorably chanted – in unison.
And yes, we CAN indeed often escape our culturally determined identities and mark out our own destinies.
But history almost always tells another story. Most people tend to be swept along by forces they do not even recognise or understand.
If we can claim to “explain” current social phenomena in minority communities in terms of socio-economic history, then we can, and should, do the same for “white communities”.
To understand people like Lauren Boebert, we must also understand the foment of pre-Revolutionary South Carolina, and Florida’s changing of hands from indigenous culture to Spanish culture. From Spanish to British, back to Spanish, and eventually to “American” control.
We must look to the multi-ethnic underclasses from South Carolina – both “Tory” and “Patriot” – who fled or emigrated to colonial Florida. We must examine the social legacy of those who later took part in the decades-long, brutal Seminole Wars there.
We must check the signatures, and more often “marks”, on petitions seeking government sanction, approval, and assistance for the extermination or “removal” of the earlier inhabitants of Florida.
We must view the earliest land, court, and census records, and see for ourselves just how many of these Florida immigrants – settlers later called “Florida Crackers” – were once enumerated and named in records as people other than “white”.
Only once we have done this, can we begin to understand people like Congresswoman Boebert, and the time before many of her people, my people, were socially constructed as “white”.
© Brian Halpin. 2021
#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #LaurenBoebert #GunRights #FloridaHistory #WhiteChristianEvangelicals