Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
Karen E. Fields
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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.
instant, inevitable—but, upon examination, bizarre—diagnosis of many people is that black officers in such situations have been “killed because of their skin color.” But has their skin color killed them? If so, why does the skin color of white officers not kill them in the same way? Why do black officers not mistake white officers for criminals and blaze away, even when the white officers are dressed to look like street toughs? Everyone has skin color, but not everyone’s skin color counts as
characteristics that they cannot change.” The issue, in that view, is intolerance rather than injustice.23 Tolerance itself, generally surrounded by a beatific glow in American political discussion, is another evasion born of the race-racism switch. Its shallowness as a moral or ethical precept is plain. (“Tolerate thy neighbor as thyself” is not quite what Jesus said, Edward Mendelson, a colleague in the Columbia English department, reminds students in his classes.) As a political precept,
and materially there; but the knowledge of what it is, where it is, and that it is, they carry in memory. The memory I am talking about is not the individual’s own. It is instead the fruit of collaboration among the inhabitants of a common social locale. Having said this much, I think I can avoid the troubling yet expressive term “collective memory,”11 although I mean something like it. Or, rather, I mean to say that fundamental features of human memory are not grasped at the level of the
pieces from Forms travel separately from it, reduced to glib formulas about the “social construction” of “collective identities.”7 As a result, we lose sight of the living subjects and active verbs by which Durkheim arrived at the hard-won discoveries of Forms. We also overlook the historical context in which he won those discoveries: that of the Dreyfus Affair. This huge storm exposed a racist undertow in the politics of France’s Third Republic that arrested Durkheim’s attention—and that of W.
one source of a tormented double-consciousness among black Americans. He sought to disrupt the social processes that invented “the Negro” as the object that he called a tertium quid: more than an animal, less than a human being. Turn to Durkheim, however, and the corresponding battles become indirect and convoluted. In an 1899 article, he conceded that certain failings of “the Jewish race” could be invoked to justify anti-Semitism, but insisted that those failings were counter-balanced by