When Bill O’Reilly can blame “black culture” for the persistence of racial disparities in the US, and Bill Maher can blame “Islamic culture” for the violence of the Middle-East, our cultural anthropologist ears should perk up. We might spend a lot of time in our journals, upper-level classrooms, and conference halls debating the merits of the concept of culture, but, as a discipline founded on its application, we are responsible for cultivating its use in wider discourse and for combatting its misuse for socially and morally detestable ends.
The problem is that, by appealing to culture to account for the problems they see, the Bills and others believe that they have escaped the charge of racism. “Obviously, it isn’t skin color that causes people to behave badly,” they can argue, “it’s culture. And if you suggest that there are racial disparities or any other racially associated problems, then it is YOU who is being racist by perpetuating the belief in race (which is a myth), and thus keeping Black and Brown people from escaping the culture that keeps them from succeeding!” To their minds, culture is the perfect explanation because people can escape their culture – thus we see individuals who do not exhibit the problematic traits or behaviors – and because it can explain the problem of individual failures among their own racial group.
But it is still racism, even if thinly veiled. It is racism because these arguments are used to write off an entire group of people and justify the continuation of racist policies that keep those groups from having a reasonable chance at success. It’s obviously racism, but these talking heads are able to get away with it by the circularity of their logic, and it’s this same circularity that appeals to many middle-class white people who resent their diminishing position in the world and are looking for a way to reassert their authority without appearing overtly racist. Blame the culture, and the superiority of white culture will, once again, prevail.
This is why anthropologists must take a stand against the misuse of the culture concept. It isn’t a new phenomenon – “Black culture” has been blamed for the failures of Black Americans since the days of slavery. In fact, anthropologists themselves have misused the concept of culture in the past to justify the exploitation of people of color around the world. But we hopefully know better now, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the concept of culture cannot be used to perpetuate racism, but only for anti-racist ends.
How do we do it? First, by reminding the public that culture is complex and heterogeneous. There is no culture that maps onto any national, racial, religious, or other ethnic community. There are always cultural differences among these groups, and it is these differences that matter more than the similarities. Second, by emphasizing that culture is only one factor among many many others – social, political, economic, environmental, and so on. Understanding why racial disparities and other circumstances exist requires a full examination of all of the potential causal factors. Culture may be one of them, but it cannot be the only one and is itself contingent on all of those other influences so that cultural change can never be a sufficient solution to these problems.
There are probably many other ways anthropologists can fight racism and the racist misuse of the culture concept. But these two are a good start, and I hope more anthropologists will take up the care for the culture concept once again, rather than simply relegating it to the dustbin of academic discourse.