Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Fields and Fields)

This is a remarkable and important collection of essays. The authors come out firing, challenging the increasingly popular effort to allow people to identify as mixed as an indication that an initial premise behind racism has been accepted, namely, that there is such a thing as purity. “[R]estoring notions of race mixture to center stage recommits us, willy-nilly,” they contend,  “to he discredited idea of racial purity, the basic premise of bio-racism” (4).

From there, they never let up. They ask the seemingly simple yet vital question: If we know there is no scientific basis for race, why do we persist in maintaining the concept? Do we somehow still need it? Is such acceptance akin to believing in witchcraft?

Like others (George Packer comes to mind), they save some of their must astute criticisms for the bankers whose conduct caused so much trouble recently. “The ‘welfare’ mother,” they say, “can no longer stand for what is not right with America” (15).

We’ve made a circular argument, we’ve created a rationale, and now we can’t seem to get out of the cycle. “[R]acecraft originates not in human nature but in human action and imagination; it can exist in no other way” (18). They articulate the cycle this way – “[P]eople are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature [and] [p]eople are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed” (128).

The Fields’ want us to unpack words, like ‘minority,’ ‘culture’ [“Race as culture is only biological race in polite language” (156)], ‘tolerance,’ and ‘marginalized’ and the words we don’t have to talk about issues of class, as well as wonder about our “will to classification” (29). “Slavery,” they write, “enthroned inequality both among free citizens and between slaves and owners and, in the manner of its ending, left inequality as a permanent bequest to America’s future” (75). The word ‘permanent’ resonates throughout the whole collection of essays.

They effectively end the argument about the legitimacy of Black English by asking why there is no, for example, Black Spanish? They put the fault where it belongs – “the greater prevalence and rigidity of segregated schooling, housing, and sociability, especially among the working class, in the United States. . . Racism, in other words, not race” (103).

The authors argue for the creation of a “politics to uproot” (109) the problem, but know that”ideology is impossible for anyone to analyze who is still trapped in the terrain” (119). “If race lives on today,” [and the Fields’ leave little doubt that it does] “it does not live on because we have inherited it from our forebears. . . but because we continue to create it today” (146). There’s that notion of permanence again. They speak of one of the consequences of racism, namely inequality: “Inequality never stands merely as fact, as the way things are or the way things are done: it requires moral reinforcement in collective beliefs” (277).

The problems arose, the Fields’ say, in the very founding of our country – the fundamental contradictions between the idea of a democracy and the acceptance of slavery. Here capitalism rears its ugly head. After all, “no one stood to make a profit growing tobacco by democratic methods” (122).

This book can be hard going at times. I wish the essay, “What One Cannot Remember Mistakenly,” had come sooner, so I could better understand their process. But the book was well worth the effort; it made me want to read it again. . . and DuBois, Durkheim, Faulkner. . .

 

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