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Karen E. Fields

KAREN E. FIELDS, an independent scholar, holds degrees from Harvard University, Brandeis University, and the Sorbonne. She is the author of many articles and three published books: Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa, about millennarianism; Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir (with Mamie Garvin Fields), about life in the 20th-century South; and a retranslation of Emile Durkheim's masterpiece, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. She has two works in progress: Bordeaux's Africa, about the view of slavery from a European port city, and Race Matters in the American Academy.

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  • Race, Racism, and Racecraft

    As the first in a series of posts related to Black History Month, we present an excerpt from Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields' Racecraft below.

    We strive to think rigorously about the world of experience that Americans designate by the shorthand, race.

    That very shorthand is our abiding target because it confuses three different things: race, racism, and 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 the members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. For example, The Races of Europe, published in 1899 to wide acclaim and lasting influence, set out to establish scientifically the distinctness of the “Teutonic,” “Alpine,” and “Mediterranean” races. After compiling tens of thousands of published measurements (of stature, shape of head and nose, coloring of skin, hair, and eyes, and more), the author, William Z. Ripley, had more than enough quantitative evidence to work with—indeed, far too much. A “taxonomic nightmare” loomed up and forced on him a certain flexibility of method: shifting criteria as needed, ignoring unruly instances, and employing ad hoc helpers like the “Index of Nigrescence” (to handle the variable coloring of persons indigenous to the British Isles)*. 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.


    (from Foster's 1899 The Races of Europe)

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  • Race and Ethnicity Undergraduate Reading List


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  • How Race is Conjured: Jacobin interviews Barbara and Karen Fields on Racecraft


    The common refrain, “race is a social construction” can obscure the fact that race is a ultimately results from racism itself. “We see race not as a physical fact, but as a product of racism,” Barbara says in the interview with her sister Karen, the co-author of Racecraft and Jacobin’s Jason Farbman.

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