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Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Tackling the myth of a post-racial society.

Most people assume that racism grows from a perception of human difference: the fact of race gives rise to the practice of racism. Sociologist Karen E. Fields and historian Barbara J. Fields argue otherwise: the practice of racism produces the illusion of race, through what they call “racecraft.” And this phenomenon is intimately entwined with other forms of inequality in American life. So pervasive are the devices of racecraft in American history, economic doctrine, politics, and everyday thinking that the presence of racecraft itself goes unnoticed.

That the promised post-racial age has not dawned, the authors argue, reflects the failure of Americans to develop a legitimate language for thinking about and discussing inequality. That failure should worry everyone who cares about democratic institutions.

Reviews

  • “A most impressive work, tackling a demanding and important topic—the myth that we now live in a postracial society—in a novel, urgent, and compelling way. The authors dispel this myth by squarely addressing the paradox that racism is scientifically discredited but, like witchcraft before it, retains a social rationale in societies that remain highly unequal and averse to sufficiently critical engagement with their own history and traditions.”
  • “With examples ranging from the profound to the absurd—including, for instance, an imaginary interview with W.E.B. Du Bois and Emile Durkheim, as well as personal porch chats with the authors’ grandmother—the Fields delve into ‘racecraft’s’ profound effect on American political, social and economic life.”
  • “Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields have undertaken a great untangling of how the chimerical concepts of race are pervasively and continuously reinvented and reemployed in this country.”
  • “The neologism ‘racecraft’ is modelled on ‘witchcraft’ … It isn’t that the Fieldses regard the commitment to race as a category as an irrational superstition. On the contrary, they are interested precisely in exploring its rationality—the role that beliefs about race play in structuring American society—while at the same time reminding us that those beliefs may be rational but they’re not true.”
  • “It’s not just a challenge to racists, it’s a challenge to people like me, it’s a challenge to African-Americans who have accepted the fact of race and define themselves by the concept of race.”
  • “Demanding and intelligent.”
  • “Racecraft forces a quite profound reconsideration of familiar categories, by navigating between what is real and what is made-up, and by deeply probing how economic inequality gets reproduced. It is impossible to read this rich book without being challenged and enlightened.”
  • “I love the simple elegance with which they hammer home that race is a montrous fiction, racism is a monstrous crime.”
  • “This is a very thoughtful book, a very urgent book.”
  • “Barbara and Karen Fields show that racism creates race, not the other way around. So correct. So on point.”

Blog

  • 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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  • Australia Day: Patrick Wolfe on the Racialisation of Indigenous People in Australia

    On the 26th January every year, people from all over Australia celebrate the founding of the British colony there. But what about the indigenous people who came before the British?

    In this unsettling extract from Patrick Wolfe's new book Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Racism, Wolfe focuses his attention on the process of racialisation of the indigenous people of Australia. This racialisation was a product of Britain's insatiable lust for land which would be used to cultivate the raw materials needed for the booming Industrial Revolution. In this way, settler colonialism was intrinsic to modernity. Yet, as Wolfe notes, "for Indigenous people, the concept of settler democracy can only be an oxymoron. Their attrition at the hands of that democracy reflects the core feature of settler colonialism, which is first and foremost a project of replacement. Settlers come to stay. In relation to Natives, as I have argued, settler colonialism is governed by a logic of elimination."



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  • From #BlackLivesMatter to Anti-Austerity: Women of Colour and the Politics of Solidarity

    The experiences of women of colour in left-wing anti-austerity movements in Britain and the Black Lives Matter movements in the United States highlight the persistent problem of our erasure in these supposedly radical democratic spaces. Women of colour’s struggles to have our intersectional social justice claims taken seriously by ‘allies’ exposes the fragility, and in some cases, the impossibility, of building solidarity across race, class, gender, sexuality and other categories of difference in protest movements. 


    (Photograph: Liberated Souls Wordpress)

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