Public Anthropologies

This forum features responses to the article “Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy.” In the original article, Junaid Rana leverages a recorded, multipart conversation between writer James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead—published in 1971 as A Rap on Race—to conceptualize white supremacy as both global and related to religion. He deploys the term “racecraft” to discuss the ways Islam and Muslims are racialized through white supremacy and offers an ethnographic example of its workings. The forum below features reactions to the article by four prominent scholars of race and religion.


On Christianity and Universal Values
By Mark Anderson (UC Santa Cruz)

This article represents an important, thoughtful, and sophisticated intervention, drawing on A Rap on Race and the author’s fieldwork to call for anthropological attention to white supremacy as a global phenomenon, beyond the terms of liberal antiracism inherited from the discipline. The recorded dialogue between Mead and Baldwin in 1970 provides an apt frame. Mead, the most publicly visible anthropologist of the era, is representative of “racial liberalism,” Charles Mill’s term for practiced liberalism that, from its foundation, has reproduced white supremacy even as liberal thought provides tenets for promoting antiracism. Baldwin, in contrast, articulates a form of “race radicalism” that refuses the terms of racial liberalism and seeks to disrupt racial capitalism and the white supremacy integral to it.

I enthusiastically agree with Rana that A Rap on Race deserves more attention and is good for pedagogical conversation, in part because it does not offer a single coherent theory or narrative but is characterized by ellipses, wanderings, and disagreement. I have also drawn on A Rap on Race to introduce key themes of my book From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology (Anderson 2019). Examining relations between liberal antiracism, whiteness, and the nation, I pay particular attention to how Mead and Baldwin articulate different relationships to “America,” with Mead refusing Baldwin’s invitation to politically dis-identify with America. Rather, Mead seeks not only to redeem America via the foundational ideals of freedom and equality but also to disavow her own white and imperial privilege (De Genova 2007, 256). In my account, this position is indicative of how liberal antiracism both occludes and reproduces the normative whiteness of America as a nation. These themes resonate with Rana’s article, though he draws more attention specifically to the imbrication of race and religion.

Rana astutely observes how discourses of religion, morality, and theology permeate the dialogue between Mead and Baldwin. It is worth noting that Baldwin was a preacher in his youth, but abandoned organized religion, while Mead was Episcopalian. Early on in the dialogue, Rana notes, Baldwin describes a “theology” underpinning the destruction of Black life. I would like to delve a bit further into the argument Rana discusses between Mead and Baldwin over Christianity, morality, and racism. When Baldwin condemns the white Christian world, Mead queries: “Where do you get your conception of morality?” (RR, 87). Baldwin hesitates, realizing that Mead is insisting that he gets his morality from Christianity. He asserts that he does not get it from the Bible or the church, settling on his mother as the source. Mead insists on the Christian foundations of his outlook.

Mead: I think you have to look at part of the Western tradition out of which conscience it has—out of which the impetus toward peace and brotherhood and all of these things have come. They have come out of the ideas of Christianity. We took them to India and we took them to Japan—

Baldwin: But what I insist on is that these ideas, in respect to the lives of Black Americans or to all the great unwashed, have always been betrayed. Insofar as I can be called a Christian, I became a Christian by not imitating white people. (RR, 88)

This exchange precedes the part of the dialogue that Rana reproduces, in which Mead insists that universal love and brotherhood are Christian ideas, and not Muslim ideas. The assertion is striking, and Rana probes its anti-Islamic animus in relation to the racialization of Muslims and the religious othering that links Christianity and white supremacy. He makes clear that the point is not to dwell on what Mead meant but to ask “how Christianity and Islam are differently situated as religious and racial discourses” (Rana 2020, 8).

But, keeping in this spirit, we might wonder why Mead so persistently insists on the Christian origins of the values of universal love and brotherhood—on what it does to insist that Christianity has universal values, and Islam does not. For one, it allows her to offer a redemptive vision of Christianity—and the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality that she identifies with the founding vision of the United States. It also allows her to positively identify the West with universalism, and to herself affirm an identification with the West, the presumed “we” (in the quote above) that purportedly brought universal ideas to places like India and Japan. Of course, that “we” is also constructed as particular—white, Christian, Western—its colonial character occluded or excused by its association with the universal. Baldwin refuses the effort to interpellate himself into that “we,” into the particular(ist) universal that, after all, destroys him. Rana suggests that anthropologists follow his lead and identify alternatives to racial capitalism and its white supremacy. Who is the “we” prepared to join them?

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
De Genova, Nicholas. 2007. “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7 (2): 231–77.
Mead, Margaret, and James Baldwin. 1971. A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Demystifying White Supremacy in Anthropology
By Zareena Grewal (Yale University)

It is an honor to respond to an article in what is the most exciting, stimulating, and courageous issue of American Anthropologist that I have read in years. In his thought-provoking article, “Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy,” Junaid Rana identifies white supremacy as not only a global political problem anthropologists must tackle but an analytical problem because of the conceptual confusion between racism and white supremacy, defined as a global “system, ideology, practice, and structure.” Against the commonsense understanding of white supremacy as merely “the ideological machinery that defines the objects of racism,” Rana argues that religion, theology, and struggle are productive and underappreciated analytical lenses anthropologists can use to theorize and analyze white supremacy more expansively.

Rana does not make explicit why he singles out theology as a subcategory or discipline within religion as an especially productive site for an anthropology of white supremacy, and it does bring to mind critiques about the privileging of belief as religion’s essence. The anxieties around the fraught category of belief notwithstanding, analyses of theology may direct our attention to normative investments and claims in ways analyses of ritual or music or religious systems of law may not. Perhaps it is easier for us to “see” normative investments in white supremacy through investigations of theology. This is the method Rana deploys in his fascinating close reading of the transcripts and audio documentary of A Rap on Race, featuring Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. Rana mines their famous exchange as a theoretically generative text and a model for deconstructing settler-colonial racial liberalism in the same spirit as the clips from the program that now circulate the internet as clap-back memes of Baldwin taking down Mead.

As an analytical point of departure for the anthropology of white supremacy, Rana identifies the fundamental incommensurability between Mead’s racial liberalism and Baldwin’s race radicalism. Throughout his argument, Rana productively delineates the normative investments of Mead and Baldwin in Enlightenment values and antiracist strains of Christianity and Islam, respectively, and he also demonstrates how Mead’s antiracist commitments sit comfortably with her normative investments in white supremacy. In the second part of the article, Rana responds to Mead’s claim that Islam lacks the theological concept of universal fraternity with an ethnographic portrait of resistance against white supremacy from his fieldwork with a racialized mosque community in Brooklyn, New York. This Muslim community led a successful moral campaign to push drugs and alcohol out of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, creating what Rana calls “a different kind of gentrification . . . a morally righteous development of the community in the face of racial dispossession.” Their Islamic ethics-praxis of care (both theological and legal), which does not discriminate among recipients, is his rejoinder to Mead. Through his contrasting cases, Rana demonstrates that religion and theology are constitutive elements in both upholding and undermining white supremacy.

Like religion, white supremacy benefits from mystique. This mystique—or, as Rana puts it, conceptual confusion—is an obstacle in sharing analyses and insights in scholarly spaces as well as public-facing venues. I admire the fact that Rana models not only a reflexive critique of the ways anthropologists have talked around white supremacy even when making antiracist arguments but also how anthropologists might demystify white supremacy analytically. I want to express both my deep appreciation for this intellectual labor but also my anxieties about the loss of analytical precision and ethnographic depth in lieu of political expediency in scholarly and lay discourses.

My trepidation should not be misconstrued as an expression of caution over the intellectual project of the anthropology of white supremacy but a trepidation over connecting dots too quickly and sloppily. In conversations with my students (my most immediate public audience), I caution them against what strikes me as a pervasive analytical imprecision in comparative analyses. “White supremacy is not the answer to every question,” I warn them when, for example, their analogies between global white power movements and global Hindutva movements become too crude, too neat, too removed from the particularities of the cases, even as I recognize both are repurposed, reproduced, and given new political purchase in relation to one another.

Rana makes the same point a different way, I think, when he says, “White supremacy is a system of thought, not all thought.” Historical anthropologist Anupama Rao (2009) offers us ways to think about race, caste, religion and emancipation together without simply collapsing the categories or leaving the work of the analogy uninterrogated (even Mead echoes Du Bois and refers to her whiteness as a racial caste). Like Rana, Rao excavates a genealogy of theorizing beyond white intellectuals, thinking about emancipation and subject formation with Ambedkar, Du Bois, and Washington. Her work exemplifies the best of what anthropologists have to offer to scholarly and lay discourses: an attention to deep, local, contextualized knowledge in its particularities that exceeds our taken-for-granted ways of knowing. Rana and Rao and others are doing what I consider the most urgent kind of critical work, daring to name alternatives through the wreckage of their critique.

Rao, Anupama. 2009. The Caste Question. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Racial and Religious Fascism and Indigenous Communities
By Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj (Stanford University)

Regarding Professor Junaid Rana’s article, “Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy,” I would like to address two points. As a Maya-K’iche’ woman, I find it important to reflect on the racial fear that millions of people live in in the United States and beyond. More specifically, in order to protect themselves, people wind up acting and living according to the parameters that white supremacy imposes because they want to avoid a situation where the strong racial fear emerging in speeches by governments, power groups that control Washington, and international elites leads to more attacks against their lives and bodies.

First, I do not know if anthropology can confront white supremacy. Decades of study, books, classes, or conferences show that instead of being dismantled, white supremacy is stronger. It feeds on transnational capital, which, like never before, controls almost every corner of the world, to the extent that it mobilizes emotions like fear—the fear of walking, speaking, seeking medical attention, protesting, organizing based on skin color, fear of an accent, being an immigrant, or thinking differently. Those who live in the United States face this, but so do Indigenous people around the world who are pressured to migrate to any capital as a way to survive; students who are kidnapped, murdered, and disappeared, like the case of forty-three poor, rural, and mostly Indigenous students from the community of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, on September 24, 2014; or the forty-one young women from marginal areas of Guatemala who were criminalized and eventually burned alive by the state on March 7, 2017, after denouncing the violence—including physical and sexual violence—carried out against them by the institutions charged with caring for them.[1] These cases—where living beings were raped, disappeared, tortured, kidnapped, and burned—show white supremacy’s reach, which further guarantees impunity for the intellectual and material authors of these racial hate crimes.

Meanwhile, anthropology departments are being dismantled and stripped of their critical capacity. In this sense, James Baldwin’s reference to “the enigma of white supremacy,” as Rana points out, gains importance. In 2020—when we believed that another stage for the construction of equality would come, given the failure of multicultural policies—we find that the little achieved during the final decades of the twentieth century is being reverted, leaving a racially confronted society rife with distrust and racial resentment of some toward others.

Second is the reach of white supremacy and racism in religion. A recent case was the coup d’état against Bolivia’s Aymara president Evo Morales carried out by political forces and national and transnational capital on November 10, 2019. Almost immediately, Jeanine Áñez, a senator who represents the white, Protestant, and extreme-right faction of Bolivian elites, assumed the presidency, even though the Congress had not accepted Morales’s resignation. And with the presidential sash and Bible in hand, Áñez “declared that her commitment is to ‘return democracy to the country,’” saying, “This Bible is very meaningful for us, God is our strength, God is power.” Áñez’s actions demonstrate the overlapping of politics, religion, racism, and white supremacy. This materializes in the hatred of the Indian that ex-vice-president Álvaro García Linera has described: “Racial hatred is the political language of this traditional middle class. Their academic titles, trips and faith are of no use; because at the end everything is diluted before the linage. Deep down the imagined lineage is stronger and appears adhered to the spontaneous language of the skin it hates, its visceral gestures and corrupt morals.” He added that, in the case of the mayor of Vinto, Cochabamba, a peasant woman who was brutally beaten by those who hate Indians: “The female is their favorite victim, they grab a mayoress from a peasant community, drag her thru [sic] the street, humiliate her, beat her, urinate on her when she falls to the floor and when they realize that they are being filmed throw red paint onto her, symbolizing what they will do to her blood.”

Finally, I conclude by sharing García Linera’s question for us about how white supremacy is also joined to the fascism that we now live through and must face in every space where we fight: “How is it possible that this traditional middle class could incubate so much hatred and resentment to the indigenous, leading it to embrace a racialized fascism focused on an indigenous as the enemy? How did it irradiate its class frustrations to the police and military and become the social base for this ‘fascistization,’ state regression and moral degeneration?”

[1] See; and; and

On the Reality and Globality of White Supremacy
By Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne)

I enjoyed the many issues raised by this article both through its analysis of the Mead–Baldwin dialogue and through the ethnographic material associated with the Masjid el-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn. All open difficult analytical spaces, which is a considerable achievement. Nonetheless, these spaces clearly require further reflection, clarification, and analysis. It is in that spirit that I want to speak critically to two points the piece led me to think about.

Firstly, the article shows how white supremacy is diffused into the social environment and becomes invested in objects and issues that do not appear as if they are “screaming” white supremacy. I think this is an important and useful analytical emphasis. However, by the end of the article I was a bit unsure as to what kind of “reality” the author is claiming white supremacy to be. On the one hand, we have arguments associating white supremacy with structure, system, etc. Yet, on the other, both the debate between Mead and Baldwin and the ethnography highlight that white supremacy is a matter of experience. To put it simply, white supremacy is lived differently according to whether one is white or not. So can anthropology do an ethnography of “white supremacy” writ large? Or are we bound to do ethnographies of specific experiences of it?

It seems to me that Rana’s ethnography is itself very clearly an ethnography of white supremacy as it is experienced by racialized people. It is in this lifeworld that objects that for others might appear to be passive can be shown imbued with white supremacy. And again, the difference between Baldwin and Mead is not merely a difference in ways of thinking, but ways of inhabiting the world. The article shows this again and again, yet it continues to speak of white supremacy as something that exists without being experienced by anyone—which really means white supremacy as it is experienced by the analyst, the anthropologist or the sociologist.

To be clear, I am not opposing objectivist and subjectivist realities here, as I think all of these perspectives bring out objective dimensions of reality. But we end up with very different politics and a different conception of the role of anthropology when we think people are having a misunderstanding over a shared reality that we call “white supremacy” and when we think that they are inhabiting different realities. To my mind, anthropologists in particular are far more inclined than sociologists to study experiential realities. As such, anthropology enters the world of white supremacy as it is experienced by white supremacists and/or the world of white supremacy as it is experienced by those racialized within it. It does not enter “white supremacy” as an object hanging there by itself without being experienced by anybody.

Secondly, Rana—rightly, I think—pushes us to consider that white supremacy is not just your everyday sociological problem of power and domination, but that it is also deeply embedded in the very theology/cosmology of society. There is a difficulty here, however, in establishing where sociology and religion end, and where cosmology and theology begin, where we move from white/superior/good and Black/inferior/bad people, to angels and devils. There is no formula here, and what is needed is a lot of comparative international work. Indeed, I would say that more so than what is mentioned by the author, what is lacking in the anthropological tradition in this domain is a “comparative analytics of different international forms of white supremacy.” The article calls on a number of occasions for a “global” understanding of white supremacy, but I have to say that for a person not based in the United States, the usage of “global” comes across to be as global as Major League Baseball’s World Series comes across to be about “the world.”

In White Nation (2000), I showed, for instance, how in Australia Christianity can be converted into white cultural capital: Christian Lebanese immigrants who are subjected to white racism wear their cross visibly on their chest to ensure that they are not mistaken for Muslim Lebanese. In the process, they see their Christianity as a form of “accumulating whiteness.” Here, whiteness is seen as a possession in the sense described in the article in relation to the work of Lipsitz and Harris. Some Muslim Lebanese I speak to, on the other hand, argue that they experience Australian secularism as a form of white Christian domination. Here, the whiteness and Christianity of Australian society is more a total defining quality of their racialized and racializing Australian lifeworld. Even more deeply, most Indigenous Australian scholars, and anthropologists interested in the role of Christianity, see that the British colonization of Australia—that is, the domination and exploitation of both the Australian Indigenous people and the landscape—is a domination by a white Christian capitalist colonial assemblage. It is not absolutely clear to me where here white supremacy in Australia becomes a theological rather than just a more sociological/religious problem.

To move to a completely different example from another time and place, early Christian Maronite history in Lebanon offer us some understanding of the way those Maronites used to perceive Muslims and Jews before the advent of capitalism. For instance, in the writings of the monk and historian Ibn el-Qilai (b. 1450), we can read references to Muslims and Jews. While both, and particularly the Jews, are perceived as people who are different theologically, there is no sense of them being classified hierarchically. After all, to have white supremacy, we have to have not just a sense of domination but a sense of superiority (I think, by the way, that Rana makes too little of this dimension). In fact, the ones perceived hierarchically at that time are Christian “heretics” with whom the Maronites have theological differences.

All this changes when Christianity in Lebanon becomes articulated with colonial capitalism. From the eighteenth century, we start seeing a transformation in the way Muslims are classified. From people who are of a different faith, they become people who are inferior. At the same time, the Christian Lebanese sense of self becomes increasingly racialized as white (see Hage 2004). But again, I am not sure here if one can speak of a fusion between colonialism, whiteness, and Christianity as a religion or Christianity as a theology. Again, I think each implies a different politics and a different anthropology.

Hage, Ghassan. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge.
Hage, Ghassan. 2004. “Identity Fetishism: Capitalism and White Self-Racialisation.” in Racialisation: Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by John Solomos and Karim Murji. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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