Just as the mass incarcerations of the New Jim Crow maintain a brutal, mirrored dance with the old, so evocations of a post-racial America mark a fierce continuity with the cruel realities of our racist history. In Barbara and Karen Fields’s Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Verso, 2012), the new and the post- are “simply” signs of the disavowal of racism: “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.” Post- racialism is the quasi-progressive garb that scarcely covers our old, timeworn racist concepts, a conceptual move that signals a refusal to recognize both how racial concepts muddy our thought and how race and racism function in our contemporary moment. 

In Racecraft, the Fieldses launch leftist strikes on popular and academic versions of race and racism with equal force. Down go quotidian notions of racial “diversity” that implicitly preserve one-drop fictions of racial purity: “today’s talk of ‘biracial’ or ‘multiracial’ people rehabilitates mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, and the like—yesterday’s terms for mixed ancestry.” And down go liberal critics and historians who politely substitute a discourse of race for a host of historical brutalities and use “race” as a metonymic catch-all for “African American”: “‘Race’ appears in the titles of an ever-growing number of scholarly books and articles as a euphemism for slavery, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, mass murder, and related historical atrocities; or as unintentionally belittling shorthand for ‘persons of African descent and anything pertaining to them.’” Modern biology and genetics are likewise targets. Whether cataloguing “race- specific” diseases in epidemiological risk assessments or conflating “genetic” with “racial” in human genomic studies, both disciplines take race as a given only to conjure it up again as an explanation for what is found after the fact. That the Obama era represents a protraction of rather than a disjunction from a racist social order is no revelation, punctuated as it has been with racist policies (stop and frisk), racist rulings (the Voting Rights Act takedown), and the racist killings of black men, young and old (Oscar Grant, Stephen Johns, Kenneth Harding Jr., Kenneth Chamberlain, Ramarley Graham, Trayvon Martin, Chavis Carter, Jordan Davis, etc. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s 2012 annual report offers comprehensive details on the year’s 313 extrajudicial killings of black

men, women, and children by police, security guards, and vigilantes). Racecraft’s fundamental revelation is how nearly everyone perpetuates our current racist order — especially by way of the tricks and traps of language. And if the post-racial era is “simply” racial and racist, then sifting through the linguistic operations, thinking, and ubiquitous offenders that together daily ensure this preservation of racism is no simple matter.

Racecraft is a systematic, yet sprawling account of how the conceptual triumvirate of race, racism, and racecraft functions in contemporary U.S. society and in various key chapters of our historical past, from the colonial and slavery periods to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. It proceeds by a recurring pattern of definition and elucidation, indiscriminately weaving together wrongheaded discursive tendencies and illustrative correctives from a heap of sources — Fields family lore, letters, novels, Congressional records, newspapers, historical accounts, scientific findings, Africanist social anthropology, etc. — in a move that shows the tangled, pervasive, and interlaced character of racial (and racist) language and thought in the U.S. past and present. When its mode is less randomized and miscellaneous, as in the later chapters on the composition of their grandmother’s memoir (“What One Cannot Remember Mistakenly”) and an imaginary conversation between Emile Durkheim and W.E.B. Du Bois (“Individuality and the Intellectuals”), it paradoxically loses focus and drifts from the conceptual tenacity that is the book’s beating heart. The strong suits here, by contrast, are its critical explanations and definitional passages. Here are some selected excerpts from Racecraft’s more vital sections on race, racism, racecraft, and the racecraft/witchcraft analogy:

On race: A “shorthand” for the notion that “nature produced humankind in distinct groups” with shared, “inborn traits”; “Race is not an element of human biology (like breathing oxygen or reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of π) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernable historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons.”

On racism: “The practice of a double standard based on ancestry”; “not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence ... 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.”

On racecraft: An “illusion” denoting the “mental terrain and pervasive belief” of the material existence of race; a set of composite ideas that, nonetheless, “do not exist purely in the mind, or in only the mind. They are social facts—like six o’clock, both an idea and a reality”; “Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively ... Unlike physical terrain, racecraft originates not in nature but in human action and imagination ... The action and imagining are collective yet individual, day-to-day yet historical, and consequential even though nested in mundane routine. The action and imagining emerge as part of moment-to- moment practicality, that is, thinking about and executing every purpose under the sun. 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.”

On racecraft and witchcraft: Parallel “thought-structure[s]” that “readily dispense with material causality” and “presuppose invisible, spiritual qualities [i.e., race or witches] underlying, and continually acting upon, the material realm of beings and events”; where “cause and effect disappear into the smoky notion of ‘witches’ — by definition, people who can ‘do accursed things’ that, by definition, are the things witches can do. Like pure races ... witches enter the world, and come to matter therein, not by observation or experience but by circular reasoning. Neither ‘witch’ nor ‘pure race’ has a material existence. Both are products of thought, and of language. Having no material existence, they cannot have material causation.”

The Fieldses insist on a more precise language of race, racism, and racecraft that would, against an everyday linguistic inertia, hold these often conflated concepts apart. The force of their directive emerges from a key insight that our prevailing vocabulary of race conflates “race” and “racism” in a barely visible legerdemain that, by means of various “verbal props,” perpetually transforms racism (“something an aggressor does”) into race (“something the target is”). Concealed in the language of race, racism becomes an invisible ontological marker of African American identity rather than a racist action against a particular group or individual. Race remains on the scene as an innate principle of the target, while racism and the racist offender vanish in plain sight. Racecraft — their featured, if somewhat shadowy and undertheorized, neologism — encapsulates this “suspended causality” of race and racism that defines our existing order. The tracks of racecraft’s verbal tricks can be found at countless sites — in histories of Jim Crow, which describe segregation as a characteristic of black America rather than a system imposed on black Americans by dominant whites; in academia where race has undergone a cultural and identitarian turn (a phenomenon to

which they incisively respond: “Race as culture is only biological race in polite language”); in everyday invocations of “race” rather than “racism” as the reason for routine discrimination against African Americans, from cab drivers’ refusals to stop for black passengers (“hailing cabs while black”) to police profiling (“driving while black”). Such an operation, what they call the “race-racism evasion,” has been ubiquitous in the fallout of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. President Obama, in his tentative remarks on Zimmerman’s release, outlined a hypothetical, post-trial plan of action, which included “racial profiling” training for cops (an expression the Fieldses argue is a “misnomer” for “racist profiling”) and a “long-term project” to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys,” as if neglected black youth, rather than racist vigilantism by the country’s George Zimmermans, were the cause for Trayvon Martin’s death. After the verdict, public opinion polls were released touting “racial gaps” and “racial divides” in Americans’ reaction to the decision and perception of race’s role in the tragedy; on national television, progressive media personality Tavis Smiley claimed that the case proved that “color will get you killed.”

“Racial profiling,” “racial divides,” “killed because of color” — the problem the Fieldses have with such formulations is that they are logical fallacies which replace the social practice of racism and racist actors with the principle of race, making race appear an intimate of neutrality, empiricism, and discernible difference. In the sanctioned repetitions of racecraft, such specious notions that skin color itself can kill you become “as hard to uproot as dandelions, even in the face of contrary facts.” In this case, “skin color,” a seemingly innocuous and accurate description of a black teen, stands in for who actually killed him, George Zimmerman, and conceals the double standard that governs this metonymic substitution: “Everyone has skin color, but not everyone’s skin color counts as race, let alone as evidence of criminal conduct. The missing step between someone’s physical appearance and an invidious outcome is the practice of a double standard. It was his [vigilante stalker], not his skin color, that caused [Trayvon Martin’s] death.” With racism and the racist actor eluded, race, a superstitious belief that belongs in the company of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, witches, and the evil eye, is assumed an uncontroversial, obvious fact.

The Fieldses approach these difficulties of language and thought by arguing that proper causality be restored to race and racism. Race should be taken as the problem, not the rationale for the problem, which means returning race to its historical place as a principle ideology of slavery. In the core historical chapter of Racecraft, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” (first published by Barbara Fields in New Left Review, 1990), they explain race as an historical, ideological outgrowth of slavery. Following the tradition of Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams (who goes unrecognized in Racecraft but whose fingerprints are noticeable throughout), they argue that race is a product not a cause of slavery. Race arose as an ideology over a hundred years after the founding of slavery when the decline of European indentured servitude in the colonies established liberty as something that could be taken for granted by the majority of the population and when, as a result, the contradiction of liberty and slavery emerged as something that needed to be reconciled. Race, while not a contradiction itself, slowly developed as a rational and ideological explanation for this paradoxical situation of increasingly generalized, radical liberty under which everyone, save a small minority, lived. It was a concept that Euro-Americans invented and imposed on African-Americans. The historical legacy of race is rooted here, in its fundamental status as an ideological justification for class inequality — a rationalization that continues its original work of disguising class inequality and preventing a public language to address this inequality and foster class solidarity. 

If we then jump ahead to Racecraft’s concluding scene — the U.S. is still in the throes of the global financial crisis. For all of their focus on the rhetorics of race and racism, the Fieldses' aim is not to develop a new idiom of racism but to argue for a politics to deracinate racism so as to eradicate the perceived conceptual gap between racism and inequality in general. In the final instance, the problem with the race-racism evasion is that it conceals and separates racism from other forms of inequality, which, in reality, “share a central nervous system.” Racecraft, then, is an important corrective to the many post-crisis treatises on income inequality (Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence), which grant racism only a marginal role in the current phase of U.S. inequality and fail to grasp the deep historical connection of racism and class in the U.S. Characterized as an appeal for democratic reformism, Racecraft’s final call for eliminating racecraft as the first step in tackling general inequality, though, is a move that mirrors the restricted political horizons that similarly characterize the above mentioned studies of inequality. While the crisis in the democratic rule of law which they call up is certainly a real problem of our contemporary moment, such a single-minded clinging to the very political system that produced the world of racecraft they so convincingly draw out of hiding and attempt to dismantle points to a corresponding crisis of political imagination, a symptomatic tail- chasing in a period when real reform, much less revolution, is out of view. 

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