School of Social Science

A Larger Pattern of Institutional Racism

by Michael Hanchard 

Protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in 2014 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The multiple dimensions of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown youth

I first met Emery Robinson at Albert Leonard Junior High School in New Rochelle, New York. He was two grades behind me, a seventh grader when I was in the ninth grade. He was known as a manchild, not only in terms of size, because he was much bigger than most ninth graders even then, but because he had the physicality and presence of a young man. He could have easily passed for seventeen or eighteen years old when, by my recollection, he could not have been much more than eleven or twelve.

His face, however, betrayed his youth; cherubic, at times shy, an easy laugh and mischievous smile, he was what one would refer to as “not a bad kid,” to indicate someone who was a bit mischievous but not malicious. Because of his size he made the basketball team, though it did not seem as if he had a great interest in basketball. He gravitated to kids who were a little older, bolder, and who occasionally got into trouble, petty theft, but no violence to my knowledge. In my hometown, junior high school was a pivotal point in the lives of many poor and not so poor, black, brown, and working class kids from many diverse backgrounds.

Does Propaganda Incite Violence?

by Richard Ashby Wilson and Christine Lillie 

Ali al-Bahlul waves a sign, "Boycott," printed in Arabic and English, during his arraignment for war crimes related to his work as al-Qaeda media secretary. (Sketch Pool/The Miami Herald)

Over the last ten years, national and international courts have prosecuted a greater number of political leaders and their propagandists who incite others to commit acts of war, terrorism, and genocide. The United States government, a self-avowed promoter of freedom of speech, has pursued al-Qaeda propagandists such as Ali al-Bahlul and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and in 2014 a federal court sentenced Ghaith to life in prison for what his defense attorney called “just talk.” The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted eight defendants, including radio broadcasters and a Rwandan pop star, of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Combatting election propaganda is a priority of the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who warned in advance of the recent Nigerian elections that “any person who incites or engages in acts of violence by ordering, requesting, encouraging, or contributing in any other manner to the commission of crimes … is liable to prosecution either by Nigerian courts or by ICC.” 

Intuitively, we may feel that leaders and media figures who incite genocide and crimes against humanity should bear criminal responsibility. Yet there does not exist any conclusive body of social science evidence demonstrating that extreme speech directly influences attitudes and behavior. Anthropologists and political scientists interviewed hundreds of convicted perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and they reported that peer pressure from male neighbors and kin influenced their decisions to participate in genocide more than government and radio propaganda. Of course, listeners are not always consciously aware of their motivations, and quantitative approaches have yielded divergent findings that identify the harmful effects of hate speech. Economist David Yanagizawa-Drott used an econometric analysis of prosecution rates and radio coverage and found that approximately ten percent of the participation in the Rwandan genocide can be attributed to radio broadcasts, corresponding to an estimated 50,000 murders.

Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago

By Laurence Ralph 

Kehinde Wiley, The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback (2005), oil on canvas, 108 x 144 in.

The following text is excerpted from Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2014). Written by Laurence Ralph while a Member (2012–13) in the School of Social Science, the book combines African American studies, the scholarship on disability, and the field of critical medical anthropology to show how injury plays a central, though underexamined, role in the daily lives of poor urban blacks. Ralph is Assistant Professor in the departments of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University.

Anyone hoping to find quick references to Chicago’s notorious gangs and infamous neighborhoods in this ethnography will be disappointed—as will anyone skimming the pages to find glossy snapshots of gang members. What is real about this ethnography—what hasn’t been altered or rendered anonymous—are the events that I describe and the voices of my collaborators. Their voices bring to life the activities that take place on Chicago’s street corners. Their voices bring dimension to people’s identities and life struggles. Their voices paint a portrait of the variegated desires that stem from imagining life anew.

It’s fitting in this regard that the painting that begins this book—Kehinde Wiley’s work The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback (2005)—accurately captures the spirit of what it means to have a renegade dream. Wiley, a critically acclaimed portrait painter, is renowned for his heroic portraits that capture the status of young urban blacks in contemporary culture through reference to Old Master paintings. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Charles Le Brun painting Chancellor Séguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660, Wiley’s rendition blurs the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation by restaging the figures, and thus creating a fusion of period styles. Dressed in modern army fatigues and sweatpants, bandannas and baseball caps, T-shirts with airbrushed rappers and Air Force One sneakers, the figures in Wiley’s composition are beautifully anachronistic. Yet the genius in Wiley’s work is that it leads us to question: Why can’t urban African Americans assume the delicate harmony and militant posture reminiscent of a Renaissance master? This book seeks to similarly restage urban blacks within societal institu­tions and fields of power from which they are often presumed to be excluded. Despite the statistical odds against their dreams coming to fruition in such a context, I foreground the resilience it takes for black Chicagoans to keep dreaming anyway.

Environmental Turn in the Human Sciences

By Sverker Sörlin 

Will It Become Decisive Enough?

What do the humanities have to do with the environment? As they are commonly understood, environmental problems are issues that manifest themselves primarily in the environment itself. Natural scientists research these problems and suggest solutions, aided by technology, economics, and policy. It was scientists who defined the modern usage of the concept of “the environment” after World War II. Ecologist William Vogt famously used it in his 1948 volume The Road to Survival: “We live in one world in an ecological—an environmental—sense.” He and others at the time thought of “the environment” as a composite of issues that had been in the making for some time—most prominently, population growth, which had been much discussed since the World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927, but also soil erosion, desertification (observed by Paul Sears in his famous 1935 book Deserts on the March), pollution, food, poverty, and starvation.

Curiosities: The Anthropocene: What Is It?

by Sverker Sörlin 

Are Humans a Major and Defining Force on the Geological Scale?

The word “Anthropocene” has had a formidable career in the last few years and is often heard among global change scientists and scholars, in policy circles, green popular movements, and think tanks, and in all spheres where environmental and climate issues are discussed. In the literal, and limited, sense it is a geological concept, on a par with other periods or epochs during the Cenozoic era, such as the Holocene (“Recent Whole,” the period since the last glaciation, ca. eleven thousand years ago). The word anthropos (Greek for “human”) in it indicates that humans, as a collectivity across time, serve as a major and defining force on the geological scale.

Whether this is so is a matter of definition, and it is an ongoing and open issue whether this is the case. The Royal Geological Society of London handles these kinds of issues through its Stratigraphy Commission, which expects to be able to present its view on the matter to the Society by 2016. The chief criterion in their search for evidence is whether there will be enough lasting and significant traits left of the “strata” of the Anthropocene to merit it an individual geological period, or epoch (Zalasiewic et al. 2011). This is less a philosophical or judgmental than an empirical issue. Are the assembled impacts and remnants of human activities in the lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, pedosphere (the layer of soils), and cryosphere (the layer of ice) so overwhelming that we can be certain that the “deep future” will still be able to register the strata of humanity embedded into Earth itself?