From the time when I played “les coboilles et les indiens,” 70 years ago, in the streets of small Southern village, I have experienced something, that is, precisely, a “thing” that stood in my way, that I could play with, or fear. This was called “America” by French politicians (etc) as well as five year old boys. “It” (its armies, myths, festivals) was awe-inspiring and also mysterious. After many years establishing myself as an anthropologists of ‘America,’ I would now say that that which still fascinates me is not exactly the kind of object archaeologist might find in some jungle. America, as any other culture I’d say, is more of a set of dilemmas and contradictions that move conversations-with-practical-consequences—and thus, through their consequences do make things that trigger more conversations and things.
Case in point: The recent conversations about what to do (“ask applicants,” “take into consideration,” and other speech acts) when involved in evaluating students for admission into elite colleges.
Like many in these colleges, I have been reading several documents all written by people born, raised, and schooled in the United States (natives?). I read the “Opinion” (certainly not a description of the actual speech act!) by that most bizarre (cross-culturally) of institutions: the Supreme Court of the United States. I read the Opinion, some of the concurring statements, some of the dissenting statements, and many editorials and such summarizing the Opinion and telling what it “really” meant. And so I am left contemplating the ongoing production/construction of a culture (America) that continues to fascinate me as an emergent, and now someone jaded, Franco-European(-American?).
These documents are ostensibly about, “race,” “race consciousness,” or “racism.” But I am never always sure which. My own opinion (interpretation with no authority or general consequence), is that all “justices” agree that racism is bad and that something, that is some thing (act with consequences) needs be (not) done. They are all, in the very evidence of their writing, very much “conscious” or “race” but they do not agree on what kind of “race consciousness” is a good or bad thing. Surprisingly to some observers, they do not seem to care much about “race,” as a concept, category or thing of any sort. And so, most people in the United States, particularly actors in the elite universities, are left to their own devices figuring out what do to next in their various responsibilities as faculty, minor administrator, etc., in one of these universities.
The justices and commentators do agree that racism is bad, but the issue, as argued, is not about philosophy, ideology, genetics and other sciences of the human body. It is about institutional consequences that have direct life-long consequences on people. It is about slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws, separate but equal schooling, limitations on voting, and such matters of state mandates. It is about what the State may allow or require of institutions and people in general. In that sense, it is about facts that constrain people (Durkheim), things with their separate agency (Latour), inevitable objects. That all these facts, things, objects, are man-made (human productions) do not make them less real. I will sometimes say that such constructions may in fact be more immediately real (to be lived and experienced) than matters like gravity or air-pressure, even if, or particularly if, they are so threatened as to continually need reconstructing.
And “race” is now something to be reconstructed in general and in the particularities of admission offices.
In very brief, the ongoing conversations start with a general agreement that America, in its State and mandates, constructed many very bad institutions in the past. It should continue to deconstruct these and construct some new ones. This is, and has been, an ongoing process. To appropriate something Lévi-Strauss once said in his usual pithy way: [America] tends to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come[s] to be combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ( 1966: 233). What Lévi-Strauss might have added was that this palace is continually being reconstructed—as everyone in the United States was reminded a few weeks ago.
But this reconstruction is not guided by any architect. The significant speakers/actors (the six justices of the Supreme Court who made a difference) just told any architect what NOT to build. All architects of future admission procedures will have to construct things in ongoing uncertainty without relying on any specific consensus, common sense, or tradition. The justices themselves, spectacularly, do not agree with what is exactly at stake. All use the word “race.” But only some wonder about what exactly, for this or any other purposes, is to be meant by the word. All, in their more consequential pro or con moments, appear to take it for granted. I suspect all of them might agree that the word is about a social construct of some sort, and not a thing of nature or a property of people (as it might have been in the 19th century and still lingering). The conversation is about what is to be constructed that is somehow related to race. It will involve wondering about materials, institutional places, ecological impact on other constructions, and the imagined future use of the constructed things. On one side, six of justices agree that constructing anything with “race” is a bad thing, as it was in the past. On the other side, three justices agree that, when acting with institutional life-long consequences, those with authority may, or indeed must, make themselves “conscious” of race, using whatever definition they wish. All nine then tar each other, more or less explicitly, with “racism.”
So, what is racism at this moment in United States time: being institutionally “conscious” of race or being deliberately and institutionally NOT conscious of race? Is there anything that anthropology, through ethnography, can offer as part of an answer?
I’d say first that the very ongoing conversations demonstrate that about everyone in the United States is, practically, in their everyday life, “conscious of race.” What is less clear is what, in this everyday life of people with very different responsibilities (university presidents, interns helping sort applications), does this consciousness make happen? I suspect, given “America” that many will transform this into questions of states of mind, identity, or the like. But the Court, most interestingly for an observer, is not actually concerned with states of mind. It is concerned with the State and its statutes and mandates in the minute details of its work as it might be experienced in the everyday life of the people affected. In my own academic world, preliminary local conversations have raised such practical issues as: may an institution still ask applicants for admission to check any kind of box about race (in all its variants)? How can people be given preferential treatment on matters like financial aid? How might this preference be phrased and practically implemented by subsidiary administrators? All these are extremely concrete matters that are continually referred to “legal” since the institution does not want to be sued. All the actors will remain “conscious of race” but that will remain a private matter. My kind of anthropologist will always look, after a cursory glance at the text of a mandate, at what the people will then do with the mandate. This anthropologist will expect that people will resist, play or, as one commentator said, actively “game the system.” As I like to say, it is by looking at such moments that one eventually discovers what is most consequential for a people—that is, for me, not so much “their” culture as the culture they cannot escape.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude  1966/2021 The savage mind/Wild thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.