Published: June 18, 2020

Anthropologists on Racism and the History of Inequality

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center
Ryan Williams, Curator, Negaunee Integrative Research Center
Jamie Kelly, Head of Anthropology Collections; Collections Manager, Gantz Family Collections Center


This is a pivotal moment. Will we learn from past societies?

An American flag and a Juneteenth flag fly in front of the Field Museum.

Today, we are living in a moment that has the potential to transform global civilizations as the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racism reveal deeply-rooted fault lines of economic and social inequality.  

As anthropologists who study and document human behavior over the long duration of human history and across the world, we want to empathize with and acknowledge the frustration, anger, pain, and trauma of all those grieving for the ongoing tragedy of lives lost to both the pandemic and to excessive force perpetrated in the name of the State. 

As anthropologists, we feel a responsibility to speak out against injustice and destructive harm of racism because we recognize that our discipline has been complicit in perpetuating pseudo-scientific ideas about racial inferiority. As museum professionals, we also recognize the injury and cultural violence museums have done by harmful and inaccurate representations of the world’s cultures and unethical collections practices. We are working to address this legacy through closer collaboration with communities whose heritage resides in the Field Museum, ensuring that their voices and perspectives are included and privileged in cultural exhibitions and in stewardship of the collections. 

Anthropological research demonstrates that the greater the inequality, the more unstable the society becomes.

We also want to put our research expertise toward placing the current events in historical context and analyzing some of the factors that are shaping them. We understand that the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many others were not merely the acts of individual law enforcement officers (or their deputies). Rather, they were part of a systemic structure of violence designed to maintain an unequal power structure that diminishes democracy. 

Racism is institutional when it is embedded in the laws, policies, and norms of a society and “normalized” by pseudo-scientific claims about physical or social differences. Such institutionalized racism is present not only in the United States but also in many other countries. We are now witnessing protests across Europe, Asia, and Australia against racism in these places.

Ruins of ancient structures made out of stones. Two staircases, low walls, and part of a building are still intact.

Ruins at an ancient Maya site. The Mayan civilization started to collapse around 950 AD.    

Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

Racial inequality is intertwined with economic inequality. Since the 1970s, according to prominent economists like Thomas Piketty, economic inequality has accelerated worldwide as wealth has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. (View the documentary based on Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.) Economic inequality exacerbates the conditions of discrimination based on race. Anthropological research demonstrates that the greater the inequality, the more unstable the society becomes. Some unequal societies of the past (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Moche, Teotihuacan, to name a few) remained functional for centuries, but all eventually collapsed. What does this portend for our current global civilization? How will we work for social change to ameliorate the unequal conditions that are now leading to greater vulnerability for many? How will we respond to the corresponding anger and search for justice?  

One way we can respond is to uplift and empower the voices of people who have been subject to structural forms of violence. In this country, African Americans and Native Americans especially have been cruelly treated since the founding of this country. Additionally, over the years other peoples, including Latinx, Asians, and other Indigenous peoples have been subject to discriminatory laws and policies. In other parts of the world, similar patterns exist. Yet, people have never accepted their conditions but fought in multiple ways against discrimination, displacement, and other forms of oppression. They have shown us how to be resilient, to overcome, and to indeed change conditions. As a museum, we can offer a platform for their voices to be heard, for their experiences to be shared, and for their vision of justice and freedom to be embraced. Join us in the weeks and months ahead as we share experiences of resistance and resilience and the lessons of history. 

Main image: "Des Moines Protests George Floyd Murder" by Phil Roeder


Additional reading

Association of Black Anthropologists

Anti-Racism Resources, American Anthropological Association

Ryan Williams
Curator, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

As department chair, I have primary responsibility for the administration of the department of Anthropology, including curatorial, collections, and conservation activities.

I am an anthropological archaeologist who works on the earliest expansionist states of South America. My scholarly interests are focused on the development of ideological systems associated with early “global” polities.  I am very interested in understanding the material basis for the interaction between different component groups in first generation heterogeneous expansive states, and the nature of the relationships between peer polities at this political scale.  

My research has focused on one of the few cases where we can archaeologically document extensive long term direct contact between two such polities: Wari and Tiwanaku.  I am currently undertaking research at the only known site of such direct interaction.  I also work with colleagues in other regions under the domination of the same cultures in order to obtain a comparative perspective on this relationship.

Jamie Kelly
Head of Anthropology Collections; Collections Manager, Gantz Family Collections Center

Jamie is the Head of Anthropology Collections and an Anthropology Collections Manager. He is responsible for the care of cultural collections from Asia, Europe, and the Near East as well as for archaeological collections from Africa. He works with communities and other visitors to connect them with these collections.