Racecraft: A Must-Read Book

Laurie and Debbie say:

Laurie found the book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields) through an interview with Barbara Fields conducted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. When she read it, she started exhorting everyone around her to read it, including Debbie. Now, we are both exhorting you to read it. The news is yet again so horrifyingly full of the tragic and unforgivable effects of racism and racecraft: in Ferguson, in New York, in your communities and ours.

racecraft-max_221-f1c6c1580d34a0cbcd634ae9bb25b434Karen and Barbara Fields are sisters. Karen Fields is a sociologist working as an independent scholar and Barbara Fields is a professor of history at Columbia University. They are, to use their preferred term, Afro-American. Their joint analysis of racism and inequality is fresh, compelling, challenging, and paradigm-changing.

The book relies on two underlying premises: first, that although it is commonly agreed that “race” is a social construct, almost none of us take this concept to heart. If we did, we would not use the word “race.” “If the scientific logic is indeed non-racial, the folk classification ought to wither under its influence. To adhere to both old and new is to pick up and put down modern science with shameless promiscuity.”

The second premise is that the concept of “race,” however fictional, is a pillar of American thought. The title word “racecraft” was chosen for its relationship to “witchcraft,” specifically because witchcraft was something scientifically unreal and untrue which nonetheless saturated every aspect of life for many centuries, in many cultures … and then effectively went away in much of the world, forcing an entire rethinking of language, thought, and everyday assumptions. Once you accept a concept such as witchcraft, it becomes part of the unexamined structure of your culture. Africanist scholars habitually “grant the rationality of witchcraft despite its dependence on presuppositions that are demonstrably false according to modern science.” The Fields argue that the same must be done to examine racecraft.

The term race stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. … Fitting actual humans to any such grid inevitably calls forth the busy repertoire of strange maneuvering that is part of what we call racecraft. The nineteenth-century bio-racists’ ultimately vain search for traits with which to demarcate human groups regularly exhibited such maneuvering. Race is the principal unit and core concept of racism.

Racism refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard. … Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness. The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. …

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear in close-up. It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief. Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. … Do not look for racecraft, therefore, only where it might be said to “belong.” Finally, racecraft is not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene.

Before this work, the argument “there is no such thing as race” was an argument for “color-blindness,” for using “equality” as a reason to refuse to recognize racism. The Fields, however, reject the concept of race while completely believing in the devastating power of racism. Looking at the concept of “post-racial America,” they say, “Whatever the ‘post’ may mean in ‘post-racial,’ it cannot mean that racism belongs to the past. Post-racial turns out to be — simply — racial, which is to say, racist.” To carry this one step further, simply using the word “race” in daily life is a way of reinforcing and supporting racecraft.

To believe in race, we must believe in racial differences in blood: their kind of blood, our kind of blood.

Understood as kin and as kind, blood inhabits the profoundest layer of mystique that humanity has carried with it from time immemorial. As a natural substance, blood is far older than the mystique, and entirely independent of it. … “The scientifically established universal truth,” declared the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, fuming over the Nazis’ efforts to read the evidence otherwise, “is that all human beings, no matter of what creed or complexion they may be, are of one and the same blood.”

By contrast, metaphorical blood and dispense with the moving parts of natural blood and has always had everything to do with human groups. When nature made room for human society, human beings made room for nature in society. And blood made in society by human beings has properties that nature knows nothing about. It can consecrate and purify: it can also profane and pollute. It can define a community and police the borders thereof. Natural blood never does that sort of thing: it only sustains biological functioning. If it is to perform metaphorical tasks, human beings must carry out those tasks on its behalf.

Barbara Fields, talking about the relationship between racecraft and witchcraft, says:

I have been struck over and over again by such intellectual commonalities … as circular reasoning, prevalence of confirming rituals, barriers to disconfirming factual evidence, self-fulfilling prophecies, multiple and inconsistent causal ideas, and colorfully inventive folk genetics. And to these must be added varieties of more or less legitimized collective action such as gossip, exclusion, scapegoating, and so on, up to and including various forms of coercion (which is to say that the logical and methodological byways of racecraft, like those of witchcraft, are rife with dangers to body as well as to mind). Taken together, such traits constitute a social world whose inhabitants experience (and act on) a marrow-deep certainty that racial differences are real and consequential, whether scientifically demonstrable or not. Obviousness is the hallmark of such a world.

Writing less than two weeks after the acquittal of police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown, and the same day as the acquittal of police officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner was completely captured on video, one can hardly deny that racecraft is “rife with dangers to body,” dangers which people who are not the victims of racism do not face.

The Fields are, as you can see, remarkable writers in the realm of theory, but they are also eloquently specific: about details of racism in recent American history, about their grandmother’s experiences, and about how witchcraft and racecraft play out in various everyday lives. Here’s an account they took from sociologist Emile Durkheim about members of the Kangaroo clan in Africa:

A Kangaroo, shown a photograph of himself by anthropological investigators, uses his relationship to his own photograph to illustrate for them his relationship to the kangaroo. “Look who is exactly the same thing as I,” he tells them. “Well! It is the same with the kangaroo.” Durkheim adds that “the Kangaroo was his totem,” which is to say that he traced his descent through membership in a clan with the name “Kangaroo” and was as much like his fellow clansmen as he was like the kangaroo. Such statements must not be taken, Durkheim warns, in their “everyday empirical” sense. The Kangaroos do not resemble the kangaroo, nor do they necessarily resemble one another. Moreover, they do not resemble one another (or differ from White Cockatoos, for instance) in ways that would give both groups internally unifying and mutually exclusive common traits. What makes them alike is the abstract notion of common essence.”

And it is that “abstract notion of common essence,” not in Kangaroo and White Cockatoo clan members, but in you and me and our neighbors, which the Fields are examining, challenging, and destroying. The book is vastly more nuanced, layered, and rich that we can convey here. Even when you find yourself disagreeing with something they say, you will still find it illuminating and find yourself examining the complexities.

Read Racecraft.