Guest Blogger Book Review: "Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life" by Karen E. Fields & Barbara J. Fields

Friday, July 12, 2013

This post was written by a guest blogger, Timothy Karcich. 

Probably the most insulting short-term ramification of the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act was the plight of discussing it in the wake of the court’s marriage equality decision. Occupy Wall Street earned a considerable victory when it put class into the national consciousness for the first time in decades, but because marriage is usually framed as a social issue, and not, as James L. Gordon explains, a means for rich people to consolidate and concentrate their wealth, any allusions to the class aspect of either decision made you sound like a curmudgeon. Yet racism is all over the news: whether it’s the VRA, or Paula Deen, or Big Brother, we know that racism is embedded in our culture. But why is it? How is it? In 1964 Malcolm X said that we couldn’t have capitalism without racism. Historically, we would have to be blind to not see that link, but in their book Racecraft, Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields argue that the corruption of language is much more the explanation for racism’s prevalence in our society than our economic system.

The book’s namesake is a play on the similarities between racism and witchcraft. As with the other terms dealt with in the book, the authors go to great lengths to define it as referring to “mental terrain and pervasive belief existing not in human nature, but in human action and imagination. It is not a euphemistic substitute for racism, but a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene.” The authors argue that the principle features of both racism and witchcraft are invisible as they are presented. With regards to race, color is visible, but a positive or negative ranking based on color is not visible. So what we call “race” and think of as physical is something other than physical presentation. As for witchcraft, we know that there have never been any such things as witches. People have come to be accused as witches for all sorts of reasons, but all of the things that define them are impossible. Thus we think of both as by-products produced by social life.

But their point is better made due in large part to their radical conceptions of two everyday terms:
Race – the term that stands for 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. The principal unit and core concept of racism.
Racism – refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard. It is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. It is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Creates the concept of “race” by transforming itself from something an aggressor does, into “race,” something the target is.
Ex: In the sentence “Black southerners were segregated because of their skin color,”          segregation ceases to be an action on the part of segregationists and forces skin color to become a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.

This linguistic upending is what makes Racecraft unique, and the Fields’ deconstructions only begin there. Their obvious distaste for the term “race” itself is especially provocative, so much so that I am self-conscious about using it in everyday conversation now. Additionally, for readers who believe race to be a social construct (as I did), the authors make the point that just because race isn’t built into biology doesn’t mean it can’t categorize us. Again, it is not a perception of difference (a “social construction”) that gives rise to race, but racism that gives rise to it. Thus they view the term as misleading and irresponsible. Shit blew my hair back.

That said I wouldn’t call the book fantastic. I give it major points for radically redefining and deconstructing basic terms as I understood them, but the tone of the book is fairly academic. While the first 5 chapters and the conclusion are accessible, the second half of the book, particularly chapters 6 and 8, focus more on the authors’ scholarly interests in their grandmother’s memoir and Emile Durkheim than I found interesting. But that’s a small criticism for a book consisting of revised lectures and previously published journal articles. For me, the new definitions, deconstructions and explanations found in Racecraft made it more than worth the read.

-Timothy Karcich, Guest Blogger