Breaking the spell of race

April 20, 2015

Leela Yellesetty explains why Karen Fields and Barbara Fields' book Racecraft, now republished in paperback, needs to be on your list of required readings for the struggle.

THE RISE of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police shootings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and many, many others has forced the question of racism in U.S. society back to the forefront of the national discussion.

People mobilized by the movement have rightly challenged the often-repeated idea that we live in a "post-racial" or "color-blind" society since the end of Jim Crow segregation, as evidenced by the election of a Black president. Instead, they draw attention to the obvious: the systematic oppression of Black people exists in all facets of life. That such a point even needs to be made--much less the basic assertion that Black Lives Matter--is obscene in itself.

Given the uphill battle that activists face just in making the case that racism matters, it may seem strange to recommend reading a book that argues that race does not actually exist. Not only that, but that the American belief in race is akin to the medieval belief in witchcraft.

Yet Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Karen Fields and Barbara Fields' book of essays recently released in paperback, provides an essential resource for a new generation of activists looking to understand where racism comes from, why it persists and how it might ultimately be defeated.

Protesters gathered in the wake of the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman

This book will also blow your mind. The Fields sisters make use of their respective backgrounds in anthropology and history to turn an ethnographer's eye on contemporary society. They force us to step outside our own socially conditioned assumptions and examine their validity--like making a fish see water. While at times their approach can make for a challenging read, if you follow their argument, it will forever change your perspective.

THE STARTING proposition is perhaps the most difficult to swallow, while at the same time the most objectively verifiable: that there is no such thing as race. The idea of distinct, biological races has no basis in science. It never did, even in the heyday of the eugenics movement, as the authors point out:

The one [question] that stumped the scientific racists of the late 19tth and early 20th centuries: how to assign the subjects of the experiments to one "race" or the other without assuming the very racial distinction the experiment is supposed to prove. Try as they would, the scientific racists of the past failed to discover any objective criterion upon which to classify people; to their chagrin, every criterion they tried varied more within the so-called races than between them.

One would think that this sort of bio-racism had been put to rest by modern genetics. Yet the same folk categories and the assumptions behind them persist, even in scientific literature, despite all evidence and with the same circular logic: designate a group based on arbitrary, unscientific distinctions and then "explain" their differences by employing these same distinctions.

Likewise, the shift in social science to talking about "culture"--which is also depicted as an unalterable feature of certain groups--merely resurrects bio-racism in a new disguise. "Racecraft," the authors summarize, "has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes."

In reality, one's "race" doesn't cause anything. There is no physical property of Black skin that attracts bullets from the guns of police officers, for instance. It is only through the act of racism--that is, a social practice of unequal treatment--that race acquires meaning. But in our society, this is perversely flipped around, the two Fields write:

Consider the statement "Black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color"--a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality. But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke--paff--reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.

Once cause and effect are reversed, it is easy to see how the fiction of race becomes self-reinforcing. If Black people are measurably worse off in numerous ways because of racism, the fact of their inequality can then be held up as evidence of the inferiority of their race--and hence, justification for further discrimination. Through a series of illuminating examples, the authors dissect all the commonly held assumptions about race to reveal the absurd logic at their core.

It is in this way that racecraft can be compared to witchcraft, but not, perhaps, in the way one would think, the authors write: "We regard neither witchcraft nor racecraft as 'just mischievous superstition, nothing more.'...Far from denying the rationality of those who have accepted either belief as truth about the world, we assume it."

Just as the existence of a spirit world was taken for granted in other societies and, once assumed, proffered all sorts of evidence of its existence in daily life, so does the existence of race operate in our society. Race is thus real, as the authors put it, "in the same way that 6 o'clock is real"--as a fabrication that gets its meaning through a collective understanding based in a given organization of society. This rootedness in an underlying social practice is what gives the imaginary category of race its enduring hold.

This is one reason why race cannot be simply willed away through education and appeals to science. Rather, race is continually invoked, recreated and verified through the ongoing practice of racism. The authors write:

Race belongs to the same family as the evil eye. Racism belongs to the same family as murder and genocide. Which is to say that racism, unlike race, is not a fiction, an illusion, a superstition, or a hoax. It is a crime against humanity.

IF RACE is understood as not the cause but the consequence of this crime against humanity, then we must search for its causes elsewhere. One of the most essential essays included in Racecraft is "Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America." If you're not sold on reading the whole book yet, start with this essay.

In it, the authors argue that American racism has specific and relatively recent roots in the economic requirements of the slavery system. One of the most memorable passages is worth quoting at length:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations--as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery "the ultimate segregator." He does not ask why Europeans seeking the "ultimate" method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the "barbarous" Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

American slavery produced a much more elaborate and systematic racial ideology attendant to it than these other places--though it was only codified after the fact. The authors offer a number of reasons why this was the case. One of the most significant was the contradiction of upholding slavery in the wake of a revolution which declared that all men are created equal.

"American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself," the authors write. "Those holding liberty to be inalienable, and holding Afro-Americans as slaves, were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth." Of course, they add, "Afro-Americans resolved the contradiction more straightforwardly by calling for the abolition of slavery."

Racism also became a central mechanism of regulating class divisions between whites. In the antebellum South--unlike, say, the slave societies of the West Indies--the vast majority of whites did not own slaves. Hence the specter of unity between the mass of slaves and poor whites--made terrifyingly real by a series of rebellions up until the late 17th century--loomed large for the tiny elite planter class.

The solution, deliberately planned and skillfully enacted, was to offer poor whites what W.E.B. Du Bois characterized as a "racial bribe" to bind them to the planter elites and head off a challenge to their power. In a subsequent chapter on how a new racial order was consolidated in the post-Civil War era, the Fields note this calculus at work yet again:

If allowed the rights of citizenship, Afro-Americans potentially held in their own hands the balance of power between contending groups of white people. If stripped of the rights of citizenship, they still potentially held this power, only not in their own hands. Settling the future of Afro-Americans in the New South inevitably also meant settling the future of white people there, for better or worse (that is, better for some white people and worse for others.)

IN THIS way, the authors pan out the camera to allow us to view American racism in its native context: as a system of maintaining not just the subjugation of African Americans, but of overall class inequality. This, they argue, is key to understanding the ongoing centrality of race in American society, and why it must be continually conjured anew. At every step, it serves to conceal the broader inequality from which it stems and confound those who would otherwise oppose it. They write:

In America, straightforward talk about class inequality is all but impossible, indeed taboo...On the other hand, divisive political appeals composed on a different register, sometimes called "cultural populism," enlist voters' self-concept in place of their self-interest; appealing, in other words, to who they are and are not, rather than to what they require and why.

Thus, the policies of the 1980s radically redistributed income upward...It had a simple melody about the need to enrich the "investing" classes (said to "create jobs"), and an encoded percussion: "culture wards"; "welfare mothers"; "race-and-IQ"; "Black-on-Black crime"; "criminal gene"; and on and on. Halfway through the decade, as the band played on, a huge economic revolution from above had got well under way.

The authors' point with this passage and throughout Racecraft is not to downplay the oppression of Black people, but to reveal how this oppression is intentionally deployed in order to convince poor whites not only to accept racism, but their own economic immiseration and political disempowerment. Thus, we find the absurd phenomenon of white food stamp and welfare recipients opposing funding for those same programs because they have accepted the false image of most recipients as "undeserving"--read: Black--even as their own lived experience contradicts this.

This point underscores the problem with reducing racism to a question of attitudes that can be educated away. It also raises the limitations of well-meaning anti-racist activists who strive for "diversity" and "inclusion" without taking aim at the broader structures of inequality in which they are to be included. As the two authors write:

Racecraft makes democratic possibility hard to imagine for all Americans, not just those who are directly in the crosshairs of racism. Racecraft is a ready-made propaganda weapon for use against the aspiration of the great majority of working Americans. Sooner or later, tacitly or openly, any move to tackle inequality brings racecraft into play.

The crude and stunted language available to discuss inequality and to stake claims for our due as Americans illustrates the powerful ideological undertow that racecraft sets up. For example: "Discrimination" and "reverse discrimination" are the closest we have to terms in which to claim a right to a sustaining job. They are not very close. Such terms presuppose that jobs are a scarce good, to be fought over by those in need of them, rather than something Americans claim as a matter of right. They presuppose, too, that the moving of jobs overseas or their destruction in a banking collapse is an act of God, rather than a matter of public policy in which all of us have a stake and in which all of us should therefore have a say.

There are many more valuable insights contained in this book than can be covered in a brief review--including essays that approach all these concepts more tangentially, from a collection of individual histories of the American South to an imagined conversation between Emile Durkheim and W.E.B. Du Bois. While less essential (and seemingly aimed at a narrower academic audience), they provide rich case studies to flesh out the central arguments of the book and explore them from different angles.

While some of the parts of the book can be difficult to unpack--they benefit from repeat reading and discussion--Racecraft stands out for its refusal to lose sight of the real relations of power that animate our conceptions of the world and how to change it.

At a time when race may seem, for many, to be an intractable, even inevitable phenomenon, Racecraft urges us to tear off this mask to reveal its underlying mechanism. "Only after doing so," the Fields argue, "will we be prepared for the still harder work of tackling inequality. Are we up to it?"

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