To say that race is entirely a social construction provokes a surprising level of resistance, even amongst the liberals. Though it’s no longer socially acceptable to presume inferiority based on descent, so-called racial “difference” of one kind or another continues to be used by even well-meaning individuals who seek to explain the injustice that continues to characterize the treatment of people of African descent in the United States. The authors of Racecraft, Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields (a sociologist and an historian, respectively), argue that it’s not enough to simply say that race is a social construction, because social constructions still have power, and granting the notion of race any kind of power is dangerous and obfuscating.
Fields and Fields explain, “Consider the statement ‘black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color’– a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality. But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke — paff — reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.” “The shorthand,” the authors continue, “transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is.” This magic trick of taking the very real act of racism, and explaining it by reference to the fictional construct of race, is racecraft. Racist acts do not occur because of race; rather, we justify racist actions by creating the fiction of race.
Racecraft is a scholarly work, one that is the product of many years of thought and research on the part of its two authors. It’s introduction and conclusion bookend several chapters either previously published in journals or presented at conferences. It makes reference to other scholarly works that many readers may not be familiar with. For this reason, certain subtleties of the authors’ arguments, where those arguments intertwine with, for example, the works of C. Vann Woodward, Emile Durkheim, and W.E.B DuBois, will be lost to some readers in varying degrees. However, the power of Fields’ and Fields’ central thesis is such that it strikes the reader with overwhelming clarity. Scholars and non-academics alike will find themselves forced to re-examine long-held assumptions, some of which they may not have been aware they had.
In particular, the chapters “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America”, and “Witchcraft and Racecraft: Invisible Ontology in Its Sensible Manifestations”, are accessible and convincing. The former debunks the notion that American slavery evolved as a result of racism. Rather, Fields and Fields posit, slavery was an economic expedient that constituted a glaring contradiction to the ideals of freedom and natural human rights that were touted as the cornerstones of the young nation. The concept of race was gradually created to rationalize the institutionalization of slavery without flouting the beliefs our nation was purportedly based on. This act of racecraft transformed a nation’s grasp for wealth and power at the expense of others into a “natural” subjugation of one set of people by another.
The latter chapter, “Witchcraft and Racecraft”, is the heart of Fields’ and Fields’ argument, and demonstrates the very real reasoning and circular logic that perpetuates the belief in things that do not exist, and thereby perpetuates the behavior of people who believe in the non-existent. Through use of a historical example in the earlier chapter, and a well-conceived analogy in the later, Fields and Fields provide both concrete and abstract evidence for the concept of racecraft and the staunch doublethink required to suspend disbelief.
In the opening and final chapters, written especially for the publication of this book, Field and Fields outline some of the ways in which talking about race hinders us from addressing inequality, for instance, discussing terms such as “racial justice”. What is racial justice, if not justice for all? Where, then, does race enter into the discussion? These bookend chapters provide a very necessary context for the seven chapters they enclose, since they are related only thematically, and not necessarily in subject matter. Even as they are, some of the chapters contain ideas that are relevant without being entirely of a piece with the book as a whole chapter.
But then, Racecraft is not a book that offers any easy solutions. If racism is not, in fact, caused by race, it follows that it can only be caused by something inside us, and only by first looking inward and examining our own misconceptions and motivations can we begin to know what is real. This demanding and intelligent text is a worthwhile start.