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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

  • Labor in White Skin: Race and Working-class History

    This essay was first published in The Year Left Vol. 3: Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1988. It was later reprinted in Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History.



    The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.

    ‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'

    James Baldwin (1980)[1]

    Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . .  lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.

    W.E.B. DuBois (1946)[2] 

    “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.

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  • The Panther’s Prophecy: Angela Davis on black feminism and contemporary American politics

    Luciana Castellina reports on a talk on black feminism and contemporary American politics given by radical black activist and scholar Angela Davis at Roma Tre University on the 14th of March. The article was originally published in Italian in il manifesto and is translated by David Broder.



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  • Race and Social Theory: Towards a Genealogical Materialist Analysis

    Cornel West's "Race and Social Theory: Towards a Genealogical Materialist Analysis" first appeared in The Year Left Vol. 2: Towards a Rainbow Socialism - Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender, edited by Mike Davis, Manning Marable, Fred Pfeil, and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1987.


    (Cornel West, 1988, via The SCI-Arc Media Archive

    In this field of inquiry, sociological theory has still to find its way, by a difficult effort of theoretical clarification, through the Scylla of a reductionism which must deny almost everything in order to explain something, and the Charybdis of a pluralism which is so mesmerized by 'everything’ that it cannot explain anything. To those willing to labour on, the vocation remains an open one. - Stuart Hall

    We live in the midst of a pervasive and profound crisis of North Atlantic civilization whose symptoms include the threat of nuclear annihilation, extensive class inequality, brutal state repression, subtle bureaucratic surveillance, widespread homophobia, technological abuse of nature and rampant racism and patriarchy. In this essay, I shall focus on a small yet significant aspect of this crisis: the specific forms of Afro-American oppression. It is important to stress that one can more fully understand this part only in light of the whole crisis, and that one’s conception of the whole crisis should be shaped by one's grasp of this part. In other words, the time has passed when the so-called ‘race question’ can be relegated to secondary or tertiary theoretical significance. In fact, to take seriously the multi-leveled oppression of peoples of color is to raise fundamental questions regarding the very conditions for the possibility of the modern West, the diverse forms and styles of European rationality and the character of the prevailing modern secular mythologies of nationalism, professionalism, scientism, consumerism and sexual hedonism that guide everyday practices around the world.

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