Barbara J. Fields: "We Left Democracy Behind a Long Time Ago"

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In an interview with Christopher Lydon of Radio Open Source, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life co-author Barbara J. Fields explains why "there’s no race story in this [presidential] campaign. There’s a racism story and there’s an inequality story."


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Christopher Lydon: Barbara Fields is an esteemed historian of the South, where she was born, and teaches at Columbia University in New York. She fights racism by denying race categorically. The problem that has taken this country to the precipice, she told us this week, is inequality. She says racism is the evil code of group privilege and invented differences. In this light, race is a non-science and ‘racecraft’ is a process of self-deception.

Barbara J. Fields: There’s no race story in this [presidential] campaign. There’s a racism story and there’s an inequality story and the two are connected. Racism and inequality have the same central nervous system. They’re apart of the same process. People should not think, for example, Bernie Sanders isn’t addressing the problems of black people because he doesn’t have a black label on it, with a bow tied around it, saying this is for black people. But, when he speaks for a new minimum wage and for higher-education to be within everybody’s reach, these are the inequality problems that plague everyone. And they’re one of the reasons why racism, not race, is intense and resurgent in this country.

We have a white working population that, by and large, expected to be taken care of, to be treated fairly, so long as they abided by the rules. And now, with good reason, they feel left out. Not just since the crash but, in years probably going backs as far as the 1970s (certainly from the 80s), they’re watching the situation deteriorate. The same has been true for black working people, if anything, to a more intense degree. Of course the difference is black people never expected fairness. So they don’t react to unfairness in the same way.

You don’t see them going after Donald Trump. It’s not the lashing out or the looking for a scapegoat. That’s what you have when you remove the possibility of a serious politics to address grievances related to inequality, such as what we have where white people are concerned. They don’t have a language for talking about why they are angry and why they feel aggrieved. What they have is a language of racism or a language of ‘let’s go after the Muslims’ or ‘immigrants have taken away our this, that, or the other,’ and that’s because they can’t frame it in terms of a class grievance to do with inequality.

Because we don’t have that language available. And, for me, it’s heartening that Bernie Sanders is speaking that language. It does seem that there are white working people listening to it and responding to it, largely because they haven’t heard anybody else taking seriously the deterioration they notice in their own circumstances. To me, that is a favorable thing for black and white people.

Lydon: Since the death of Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, The University of Missouri’s football team, Flint, Michigan, there has been evolving not only news but a kind of serious reflection, Ta-Nehisi Coates, maybe most famously, on an underlying racial reality that we just haven’t dealt with – how does that, how should that, intersect with our presidential campaign?

Fields: I’ve told you that I don’t believe in race. That’s a meaningless category to me. ‘Racecraft’ has disappeared 44% of the population of Flint because ‘majority black’ is easily transmuted into ‘black’ in the mainstream media. So now people think of Flint as a ‘black’ city. That means 44% of its population has been disappeared. Those people are part and parcel of the same story about an unsafe water supply and an infrastructure that ignored Legionnaires’ disease. It ignored lead in the water. It ignored the need to provide what, in a civilized society, amounts to basic infrastructure for all of its people. Very quickly that became a ‘racecraft’ matter, because it turned into something racial.

What does it mean to say it's racial? Flint is not an all-black city. But, in the eyes of most of the public that reads the newspapers, that’s probably how it looks. That’s the only way they can account for that kind of callousness toward human beings living in that place.

Lydon: And how do you account for it, Mrs. Fields?

Fields: I account for it by saying we left democracy behind a long time ago.  And that class inequality has become something so taken-for-granted that we don’t even think it merits another look. We make international trade agreements without any regard for what’s going to happen to American working people, when the global corporations are in charge of things and are only looking after their bottom line.

Nobody has to care what happens to automobile workers when global corporations decide, in the cutting up of this pie, ‘we’re just going to take these jobs away.’ If they are white peoples’ jobs, they disappear. Many of those white people say they disappeared because of affirmative action. If they are black peoples’ jobs that disappear then people looking on – not black people but other people looking on – may think, ‘Well, you know how those people are. They probably don’t show up to work. Or they’re probably drug addicts, or this, that, and the other.’ But, when we start to see large numbers of white people dying of drug overdoses, it’s amazing. It’s an anomaly. We have to have special news articles to deal with it.

It’s not as though we haven’t seen drug epidemics happen in the past. But we’ve decided those are a matter of race, not of racism. When it happened to black people, it’s because it was their nature. Now the drug overdose epidemics aren’t happening among black people; now it has moved to other communities. The news articles are saying, ‘what’s happening to white people?’ It won’t be interpreted as something wrong with them. But it will be that something special has happened to them.

Excuse me, the same thing is happening to anybody who happens to be at that level of our society. Anybody could have said, if this has happened to black people living in inner-cities, it’s because they’re at the leading edge of a phenomenon that is across the board. Now we’re seeing it across the board. And people are still saying, ‘what’s happening to white people?’

You know exactly what’s happening to them because this is exactly what happens to working people and we’ve see it again and again!

To listen to the entire Radio Open Source program, "Race and the Race for the White House," click here

For more on Racecraft, click here

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