AAA President Leith Mullings

AAA President Leith Mullings

AAA President Leith Mullings

Within hours of the US Supreme Court’s announcements to strike down the main provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and, in effect, remove key parts of the Voting Rights Act, the AAA had posted its own statements about these decisions. Perhaps even more important was the placement of anthropological treatments of these topics in the LA Times, the Huffington Post, and the Feminist Wire, among other media sites. We are particularly grateful to our members for their willingness to expeditiously translate their knowledge of the complexity of their subjects into media-appropriate pieces. With the guidance of AAA Executive Director Ed Liebow and the AAA Department of Public Affairs, this timely response and the proactive thinking it involved is an excellent example of the Executive Board’s renewed commitment—expressed in a new EB subcommittee on Communication, Engagement and Outreach—to take concrete steps to raise the visibility of anthropology.

There are many forms of outreach. The Race: Are We So Different? project continues to be hugely successful. It is estimated that since 2007, approximately 3.1 million people have visited the exhibits, which have been shown in over 30 museums nationwide, and that the website has had over one million unique visitors.

The Next Public Education Project

Building on the success of the Race project, the AAA will undertake a second public education initiative on the related issues of migration and displacement. Selecting the topic was a lengthy, but democratic, process. As president-elect, I solicited input from AAA committees, sections, and individual members, as well as from funders and exhibition experts. It was important to select a topic that was both timely and about which anthropology has a special expertise. Migration and displacement are without doubt critical issues affecting vast numbers of people all over the world. For example, China is poised to experience one of the largest urban to rural migrations in history. Migrants to Western Europe from former colonies and failed nation-states are confronting xenophobia and right-wing political projects. Social movements are flourishing among Afro-descended and indigenous people in Latin and Central America who are being expelled from their ancestral homelands by national and multinational concerns. In the US, migrations and displacements are topics of enormous political and public concern, from migration across borders, particularly the Mexican border, to displacement in Central Harlem, a historically Black community in New York City that is now less than 50% Black. What can anthropologists contribute to the public debate about these issues?

Drawing on a century of scholarship in its four subfields, anthropology is uniquely situated to intervene in the public conversation by placing current issues of human movement and migration in a broader historical and cross-cultural context. People have been in motion for 150,000 years, and anthropologists have studied migration and displacement through both time and space, analyzing the many reasons for movement, ranging from climate change to expansion, colonialism, conflict and labor demands, as well as how these are related to each other. Anthropologists document the various forms of migration, from enforced migration, as in the case of slavery or trafficking, to labor and trade migrations, and demonstrate that the various conditions of migration and displacement have different consequences and implications.

Although the AAA project will be international in its scope, we expect to collaborate with the Smithsonian Museum of American History as they mount their seven-year initiative, “Our American Journey,” with the Smithsonian’s 2015 Folklife Festival on the National Mall and a permanent exhibit in 2017. For US audiences, contentious immigration discourse generally centers on post-1965 migrations. It will be important to add nuance to the popular narrative that “we are all immigrants” through interrogating the construction of the nation-state, the displacement of Native Americans, and the forced transport and commoditization of enslaved Africans, as well as exploring the construction of “insiders” and “outsiders” as borders are changed by conquest, war, absorption and annexation.

Migration and Displacement Project Update

We are gratified that Ana Aparicio agreed to be the EB liaison to the project. With advice from the EB, she and co-chairs Leo Chavez and Antoinette Jackson formed a preliminary working group with an eye toward including all four fields and both junior and senior scholars, working in various parts of the world. With the support of an Initiatives Award from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and additional funding from Northwestern University, the working group met at the end of April at Northwestern University to map out themes to be presented and potential formats to embody them. In the next few months we hope to hire a part-time project director and to call on many of our members for assistance. For starters, we are creating a bibliographic database of anthropological work on migration and all forms of displacement, so if you work on these topics, please send bibliographic citations of your work to If you are interested in additional information or involvement, please contact Ana Aparicio at

Through this project and our other initiatives we seek to deploy anthropological knowledge and encourage public conversation by placing contemporary issues in a historical and comparative framework. While it is true that anthropological knowledge competes with other, more powerful forces and that the translation of academic research into accessible formats is a major challenge, it is a challenge that should and must be met. I urge you to get involved and help address that section of the AAA Statement of Purpose that calls for “the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

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