Karen E. Fields, and Barbara Jeanne Fields, Racecraft : The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London; New York: Verso, 2012).
At the very beginning of the Alternative Reading List Project, we organised around a series of questions: what perspectives are missing from mainstream curricula? What fields of study are absent from Oxford altogether? What books irreversibly changed the way we think about our fields? While the first two of those questions went on to form the core of our mission, the last one always stuck with me. Why read radical texts, after all, if they don’t have a lasting impact on the way you see your field, or see the world? What also struck me about this question was how quickly I came to an answer. My field is race and racism, and Racecraft is, quite simply, one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Fields and Fields’ argument is built on powerful simplicity: racism is not derived from the perception of human difference—race—; instead the practice of racism gives rise to the concept of race itself—what they call ‘racecraft’. Framed as a response to the myth of ‘post-racial society’, Fields and Fields ground their theory firmly on real, recent events: the 2009 beating of an African American paramedic by a white traffic cop (35); the continued assessment of sickle-cell anaemia as a ‘black disease’ in the highest levels of the medical establishment (53); the harrassment of Obama voters by friends, and the media, in 2008 (32). The ‘post’ in ‘post-racial’, they argue ‘clearly does not mean that it belongs to the past’.
Similar is their approach to the idea of race as a ‘social construct’, an argument used by scholars as a kind of ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card that then allows them to continue using race as a concept without acknowledging their own complicity in its perpetuation. By flipping the emphasis from ‘race’ to ‘racism’, from the construct to the construction, Fields and Fields force awareness of the racism, and the violence (structural and physical) that lies under this liberal reflex.
The book’s wide disciplinary frame of reference—sociology, anthropology, literature, oral history, current affairs—was initially criticised, and it is true that there is an occasional lack of coherence between chapters, but this breadth only serves to strengthen the core point. Chapters range from analyses of the proceedings of medical conferences, a series of interviews with the authors’ grandmother, to a fascinating imagined conversation between contemporaries Emile Durkheim and W. E. B. Du Bois. In every situation, in every discipline, it seems to say, racecraft is alive and well.
Any book that seeks to present the realities of contemporary American racism and inequality will not make for comfortable reading, and nor should it. The conclusion that emerges from the central comparison of anthropological discourse on witchcraft and society’s thoughts on ‘racecraft’, though—like the rest of the book—continues to surprise me with its wry, cautious optimism. We are not, of course, in a ‘post-racial’ society (and that might not be desirable anyway). But embedded in the book’s central thesis is a plan for how we might get there: an idea grounded firmly in historical and contemporary experience of oppression and inequality. Reading this book now, toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, marked by unfulfilled potential, leaves one with the feeling that some of this optimism was misplaced, but it would be wrong to paint Fields and Fields as naive. The book’s optimism lies not in vain hope that the political process might bring about change. Instead, it is grounded on the hope that a very simple idea—the idea of racecraft—can be conceptualized, understood, and spread. Not coincidentally, it is this same intellectual optimism that animates the Alternative Reading List Project, and has given me a degree of confidence in my own work. Racecraft demonstrates how scholarship and activism can form a powerful synthesis; a synthesis, in this continuing flashpoint of racism in America, that is perhaps more necessary than ever.