Make Your Voice Heard

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Jennifer Jackson

Turn Your AAA Paper into a Public Issue Article

I often remind my students that our job as linguistic anthropologists is to expose how the rabbit got put in the hat in the first place. This exposure comes from a good bit of research and analysis, and we tend never to make quick explanation. But this process comes from a respect both for the complexities and the simplicities in the magic of social interaction. Thing is, such bunnies in hats are almost never a benign magic. And as anthropologists, we are in a unique position to respond to this in public fora without diluting the richness of our ethnography and the progress of our theoretical arguments.

In an effort to encourage public outreach of this nature, the AAA and its Sections have worked in various ways to train members on media interviews, public affairs and ethics of doing anthropology in the public. The website provides lists of committees, task forces, social media tools, and now an open access journal, Open Anthropology. These media give members and non-members ways to learn about and address critical social issues and policy debates.

After last year’s AAA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I thought of another idea that would allow anthropologists to share the work we do and its potential impact on daily life with a broader community: turn that eight-page, double-spaced, AAA-panel-version-of-a-longer-paper-we-eventually-plan-to-write into a piece for a wider audience in the popular press print or online media. The paper is already of short length and because the piece is meant to be read aloud, the style is (usually) already more accessible. Consider the following example in revealing hat tricks.

“Enough Said”: US Housing Foreclosures and the Voice of the “Minority Lender”

Silencing the human voice through various arresting means—fancy sound wave silencers, the gun, or even just rights that hold anything you say against you—has endured as a form of US state-sanctioned intimidation and subjugation to direct civic action. It has endured since the first slave stepped foot on the lands he and his brethren were about to turn into a vast capital market to which they would not be privy. But, almost daily, subtle forms of silencing creep in to inhibit the transformative work of the civic voice, the citizen of that voice ignorantly complicit. This is particularly the case when the citizen simultaneously maintains the role of consumer. And, he always does. And the seam between where government ends and corporate America begins holds no distinct boundary. Because of this interdependence, US democratic governance has always stared down democratic crisis at its threshold. And yet, its representatives—from politicians to pundits to special interest publics—have done every “check and balance” to make this appear untrue. This was notably so for the “minority lender” during the 2008-present mortgage crisis and bailout catastrophe that handed out $400 billion taxpayer dollars with great urgency to keep the financial markets from free falling. At the same time, the civic role of the citizen to argue as plaintiff to his own cause receded dramatically.

Branding Deflection and Blame onto African American Borrowers

When the mortgage crisis was made apparent to consumers through the conversations and debates held in Congress and its mass-mediated information troughs to the public, the talk about the impact of distortions made in mortgage markets was trained away from obvious causes and toward a demagogic great and urgent need to act, to bailout failing banks in order to save the US economy and the whole global finance market. To ease the agitation of a public, mass-audience news corporations took a blunt instrument to the complexities of an obtuse and corrupt system and quickly came in to pin culpability on an “Ah hah, of course, that makes sense” narrative: It wasn’t the dereliction of Citizen Wall Street but the usual excess of “minorities,” African Americans, on the dole. Politician and news straw man attacks of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fit snuggly in with ongoing Republican scorn of entitlement programs, a dog whistle for minority government assistance. And, the language for blaming the crisis on minority lending alone was packaged for easy dissemination: “folks working for a living” against the “intrinsically” moral question of loaning to minorities and risky folks. All broadened the issue of lending to attach to America’s history and institutionalized ideology of extending rights of property ownership to only some of its society versus to “push for home ownership for everybody”? For sure, minority lending was not at all to blame. Although white borrowers obtained the nominal lion’s share of subprime mortgages and suffered 300% more foreclosures, minority neighborhoods were targeted for predatory-subprime mortgages.

But, this kind of talk works for the uptake because the mass-mediated deployment of the singular term “minority” is that loose signifier to “enough said”. It stands like an ad brand that represents an historical legacy—minority indexes race indexes black indexes risky—the whole of a crisis is pieced together to cohere as a single message of dereliction by an entire group of people. In this case, it is an attempt to own a piece of America, a persistent struggle for African Americans throughout America’s slavery and segregation historical antecedents. And, in a place where people have been kept from property ownership and treated as property, this branding of “enough said” limits how to save that piece of home.

Being Able to Actually Talk Matters

The current typical consumer finance contract—whether you are buying a vacuum, getting a new roof, or mortgaging a house—denies the procedural, communicative, privilege of due process (the right to sue, in this case) in lieu of the communicatively binding process of privately-mediated arbitration. In arbitration, parties give the power to decide the dispute to an arbitrator they do not choose and who is not required to hold a JD. Different than mediation in which parties retain the right to decide whether or not to agree to a settlement, Claimant’s tend never to win even as facts are on their side. If they do win, their remedies are limited—no rights to injunction relief or punitive damages. Rules of the proceedings are set by private companies, which block due process. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the American Arbitration Association, the nation’s largest arbitration firm, owns millions of dollars’ worth of stocks and bonds in major corporations whose legal disputes its arbitrators have heard”. Aside from this structural bias, arbitration tends to be extremely expensive: filing fees and the common requirement for plaintiffs to travel to a location of the corporation’s choosing. This also makes discovery a privilege.

At its simplest form, actual talk, the process distinctly arrests the communication resources of the claimant to argue his claim: Testimony is limited, there tend to be no transcription records of the process, and the cooperative force of class action is prohibited, limiting any democratic process of testimony, collective political action, or judicial review. Claimants are limited to the process of arbitration, but the corporation has the contractual right to sue in the courts. In 27 states, non-judicial foreclosure through arbitration is the only communicative context in which to save one’s home.

“Enough Said”

With the mortgage crisis, the deflection of blame and demagoguery apparent in the continuing sub-prime crisis corroborate the government’s end game in any social, economic, or political rumble: to quickly find resolution in order to protect the market, not the people. This quells the checks and balance made through the voice of political action and brings any arrangement of democracy to its knees.

Let Your Work Be Heard by a Larger Audience

Anthropologists already make a place in exploring and analyzing such imbalances in the social interaction between talk, people, and their institutions. Deflection of blame, demagoguery and forced arbitration requirement’s fettered access to due process invite the anthropologist’s public voice to expose and address market and government collusion to protect the flow of their entanglement, not their consumers or their publics. Without our research and our own voices interjecting into the cacophony mediating public knowledge, “enough said” and its consequences will continue to suffice.

This year, after you’ve presented your AAA paper, think about where it can be shared in the wider world. If you don’t know where to start, start with AAA. Anthropology News welcomes essays that are short by scholarly journal standards, but longer than standard op-ed pieces. You can also look towards the AAA blog as well as AAA’s Huffington Post blog.

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