Barbara J. Fields' engaging and very important book Racecraft: my draft review.
The book can be thought of as composed of several key elements. The obvious starting point is the idea of racecraft as such, but this part has two distinct aspects.
In the Introduction and the first two chapters, we see the emergence of the notion of racecraft itself, as opposed to race, and also racialization. Racecraft begins as a critique of the notion of “race” as something one can have or be, which allows the authors to challenge notions such as “being multiracial” or the idea that there is a biological notion of race which might be grasped through genetics. This is extremely important politically in the present because a biological notion of race has re-emerged into respectability not only among reactionaries, but in mainstream science and so-called liberal discourse through identity, including intersectionality. The use of racecraft to critique this re-emergence of race, which serves to obscure that race itself is nothing more than a by-product of racism, of a certain kind of relationship of power, or as Fields says,
“Starting from “ethnoracial mixture” leads to the great evasion of American historical literature, as of American history itself: the substitution of “race” for “racism.” That substitution, as I have written elsewhere, “transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.”4 Disguised as race, racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do.”
Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (pp. 96-97). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
This point is fundamental to her analysis, but I want to trouble it right from the start. Let us say that we approach nation, class, or gender in the same way. Would we then say that disguised as class, classes becomes something workers are, rather than something classists do? Disguised as nations, nationalism becomes something Americans are, rather than something nationalists do? Disguised as sex, sexism becomes something women are, rather than something sexists do?
Posed this way, we have two choices. The first choice is to say that, yes, in fact, all social forms are products of a definite structured social practicei, and thus class, gender, race, sexuality, nation are all merely modes of expression or modes of existence of some fundamental social relation, and thus not only race but also gender, class, nation and so on are constituted by this society rather than being per se constituting.ii One would then further have to reckon that race is not merely a product of the activity of racists or racialists, but is a determinate social category of this society as much as class, nation, gender, etc. That necessarily entails that as much as race, we have to propose that nation, class, gender, etc. do not exist outside of this form of society and would cease to exist if we managed to get rid of this society.iii
The other option is the one that Fields chooses quite explicitly, that race is distinctly, though maybe not uniquely, not like class or nation or products of material production.iv For example, race doesn’t exist in the same way that the Brooklyn Bridge and nations do. Not only that, but those who refer to “race” use it as “a euphemism for slavery, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, mass murder, and related historical atrocities; or as unintentionally belittling shorthand for “persons of African descent and anything pertaining to them.” Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 100). Verso Books. Kindle Edition. The footnote following this includes David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness and Race and Reunion by David Blight, books one would be hard pressed to say treat race as a euphemism and a belittling shorthand for Afro-Americans, lumping them in over the next few pages with defenders of cab drivers not stopping for African-Americans, promoters of “Black English” and teachers of tolerance in place of equality, a move that seems to seek to deride and defame rather than to reason.
Importantly for my point, Fields argues that “what they are unknowingly searching for is a neutral-sounding word with racism hidden inside, which is what “race” is.” Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 102). Verso Books. Kindle Edition. But then “nation” and “class” (and maybe gender and sexuality?) are not inherently “neutral-sounding” words with oppression and domination hidden inside.
For this to not play out in this way, somehow class, nation and gender would have to be something fundamentally different from race, somehow not merely the mystification of oppression
Racecraft is more than this alone, however, as it also entails a theory of the production of racism and races.v Chapters 3 and 4 in particular take up this idea of how racism and race come to be in the American context as a product not merely of slavery, but of a specific contradiction of the endorsement of slavery by a radically democratic society that has otherwise propounded the natural and inherently universal ‘Rights of Man’. This analysis seems to provide a ground for the production of racism and race and the necessary mystification of racecraft that turns racism into race in order to make racism, that is a very specific kind of unequal relation of power and oppression, disappear into race.
However, this linking of race specifically to the contradictions of the American Revolution and American democracy with American slavery invokes a kind of historical exceptionalism first claimed by the American Communist Party, and it also essentializes democracy and slavery as separate from capitalism. I would argue that for her argument to work, in fact, slavery and democracy must float independently of capitalism because otherwise we might wonder if capitalism has not in fact produced racism and racecraft everywhere. In fact, at one point she makes a very peculiar argument that if race and racecraft were not specific to the American dilemma, how come no one has made the argument for the racial production of the Anglo-Irish relation. The 4th chapter was written in 1990, four years before the publication of Theodore Allen’s the Invention of the White Race, so at the time no one could have known that a book was being written that made exactly this argument, but Racecraft was published almost two decades after that and no mention is made in the footnotes of the presence of exactly such an argument by what is, on all accounts, one of the most widely discussed radical, class-based works on race since 1994. At the same time, as I noted above, books published before Allen (The Wages of Whiteness) and after (Race and Reunion) come in for mention and aspersions, so it feel unlikely that Fields would not be aware of Allen’s work, which was a much larger and more sustained piece by Roediger’s own admission (c.f. Race, Class and Marxism.)
The commitment to American Exceptionalism is expressed in a reification of all notions of “race” as “racism”.
“One such peculiarity is the fact that, effectively, there can be only one race, since the one-drop-of-blood or any-known-ancestry rule applies only to African ancestry;17 indeed, the rule ceases to function at all if applied to more than one type of ancestry. The cosmetic applied to the resulting asymmetry and invidiousness is “whiteness,” whose champions purport to discover “racialization”—and therefore races—all over the shop. A further sleight of hand defines race as identity so that “white” also becomes a race.18” Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 102). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
Aside from the manner in which this throws the idea of racism to the wind for people of African descent in Latin America, for people of Mexican or Chinese descent in the United States, and most notably for Amer-Indian peoples all over the Western Hemisphere, it inherently ties itself to a biological notion of race with the one-drop rule. In the name of unmasking race as racism, a state of being with an activity, all that happens is the recourse to an exceptionalism associated with American peculiarity and cut-off from the broader history of European colonialism and the internal relation between race and nation in the history of capitalist society globally.
That said, she nonetheless makes short work of “amalgamation” and “multiracialism”, notions which takes as their foundation the natural validity of “race”. However, one wonders if there is a simple secular humanism underlying this point of view, one which is sound as far as it goes “racism is wrong because it violates the basic rights of human being and citizen” (Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 107). Verso Books. Kindle Edition), but which takes the abstract human being and citizen i.e. the member of a duly constituted nation, as its limit points.
Unfortunately, despite her often excellent critique of identitarian notions of race, Fields lacks a critique of identity as such and the way in which the production of identity is endemic to capital as the dominant social form. Therefore, she will counterpoise the idea of racial identity with national identity, suggesting the latter is illegitimate and the former is legitimate, in order to make the argument (in what is a point easily overlooked in the 4th chapter) that Afro-Americans did not historically see themselves as an identity or a race, but as a nation. This argument strikes me as difficult to defend, but more importantly, it echoed in my mind the position of the American Communist Party on “the Black Belt Thesis” that Afro-Americans constituted a nation. Having already had recourse to this idea that Afro-Americans are not an identity or a race but a nation, to the expression of American exceptionalism which regards race and racism and racecraft to be uniquely American, and a counterpoising of a false or ideological “race identity” with a true or good “nation identity”, strongly reminded me of the American Communist Party positions. However, nothing more than these brief turns of phrase and logical juxtapositions are present in the essays to justify any claim that Fields herself draws on the positions of the CPUSA from the Third Period, when those ideas were first formulated, or from the post-1948 return to that position amidst the Cold War.
The thesis of American exceptionalism at play in her works relies on a very specific timeline. For example, she locates the production of race as such as an outcome of the years leading up to and resulting in the American Revolution and the subsequent continuation of slavery after the revolution and the necessity of men holding to notions of universal individual rights and humanity having to at the same time make peace with and justify a system of slavery within their midst on which they grew rich and which formed a key foundation of the American republic.
This requires her at one point [citation] to claim that no such notions were forthcoming from England, which had little problem in the early years of the colonies with forms of indentured servitude for Englishmen and her claims rests to no small degree on the historical timeline put forward by Edward Morgan, which denies that there is any significant distinction between English indentured servitude and African enslavement until late in the 17th century. However, there is documented evidence that definite legal distinctions between African slaves and English indentured servants were already developed by the early 1650’s. In fact, Re Negro John Punch (1640) already began to make significant distinctions leading in the direction of the racist production of racevi and “Virginia was one of the first states to acknowledge slavery in its laws, initially enacting such a law in 1661.36 The following year, Virginia passed two laws that pertained solely to women who were slaves or indentured servants and to their illegitimate children. Women servants who produced children by their masters could be punished by having to do two years of servitude with the churchwardens after the expiration of the term with their masters. The law reads, “that each woman servant gott with child by her master shall after her time by indenture or custome is expired be by the churchwardens of the parish where she lived when she was brought to bed of such bastard, sold for two years. . . .”37”vii. This undermines Morgan’s timeline, though not necessarily Theodore Allen’s from Invention of the White Race, which argues that racism and race were produced as a conscious policy of social control in response to acts of rebellion in which “Africans” (having already been stripped of tribe and people by enslavement) and Englishmen worked together, leading up to Bacon’s Rebellion.
It also requires the idea that no substantial notions of the universal, natural equality of all men was forthcoming from England in the early-mid 17th century and that American democratic impulses were largely formed against English colonial status. However, the colonial venture to North America was already a product of burgeoning hopes for free expression of religious minorities who would themselves become an essential part of the English Revolution from 1642-1651. That revolution would itself produce radical moments such as the Diggers and Levellers, who, to quote Wikipedia, “were a political movement during the English Civil War (1642–1651) that emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, all of which were expressed in the manifesto "Agreement of the People".” While I am not aware of specific historical research about the political backgrounds of those coming to the American colonies to the end of the English Civil War, it would not be surprising if a few people fleeing persecution and debtors prison in England might have been Diggers and Levellers or inspired by them, but most certainly with notions of personal liberty that would extend among the American colonialists.
In fact, as John Clegg has noted in an as-yet-unpublished paper, the distinctions between Africans and Englishmen no doubt began to develop when they did exactly because there was a history of struggle between Englishmen of different classes in which the English laborers and yeomanry had, even as they were being turned into a property-less working class, established for themselves certain rights and expectations as custom. Africans held no such history, no such fought-over rights and claims, and were thus eventually more easily turned from “not Englishmen” into “not men”, lacking themselves claims to English citizenship and the rights thus due.
Thus the idea that a notion of systemic racism and with it the ideology of race and the practice of racecraft only came into being with the suspending of the contradiction between American revolutionary idealism and American slavery strikes me as unsupportable. Allen’s own points regarding the religio-racial oppression of the Irish further addresses Field’s earlier complaint of the absence of such a point.
And yet there is a subtlety to Fields’ argument utterly lacking in Allen’s. The idea of a conscious system of social control is actually unsupportable on a number of grounds, not the least being the idea that there was in the American colonies a ruling class of unified opinion. I believe Fields is moving in the right direction, but cannot grasp the essential move of the production of non-citizens within the state, which relates to the production of Nation as a valid identity, but not race. In fact, nation and nationalism have been even more murderous and criminal than race in the last few hundred years by quite a bit. If in the name of race, tens of millions have been oppressed and killed, in the name of nation, billions have been oppressed and hundreds of millions killed. There is no ground from which to counterpoise race and nation and in fact one would be more correct to say that without race there is no American nation. Instead of taking up the complicated interplay of racism and nationalism, of the production of race and nation, these brutal fictions, Fields’ settles for Nation over Race.
It is hard to say if this is from a prior set of essentially unspoken political commitments, such as to something like the CPUSA theses on The Black National Question, or if it is a part of the working out of her philosophical underpinnings through Emile Durkheim. There is a further critique of Durkheim to be made and it is unclear to me if Fields is committed to a Durkheimian sociology or if she simply finds him engaging in thinking through the problem of race. After all, as she herself notes, Durkheim deifies, or as she says, divinizes [citation] society and for Durkheim, nation is society. The philosopher Gillian rose critiques Durkheim’s move as one which he grants validity to Society, but cannot grasp why this society has these particular values, that is, he sacrifices a comprehension of values in exchange for the validity of society over values as such, the opposite of the classic Weberian move in which the values we hold to are comprehended, but their validity is ultimately uncertain.
One wonders if there is something important to this point, which treats racism somewhat individualistically: “Disguised as race, racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do.” [Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (pp. 96-97). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.] It seems to take the structural and systemic element out of race and again replace it with a voluntaristic notion of practice.
There is something in the defense of nation as valid identity, and thus identity as somewhat unproblematic, requiring only the distinction between actual identity and fake identity, that is not worked out in her work. That this functions as a naturalization of Nation and thus of the bourgeois nation-state ought to seem odd. In fact, Fields is, to the best of my knowledge, an opponent of so-called Black Nationalism, but so was the CPUSA. That is, from the perspective of the Communist Party, nationalists were incapable of realizing the Black Nation because the Black nation was a necessary liberatory moment in the proletarian revolution. Nationalist parties were incapable of truly serving the Nation, pace Lenin’s Imperialism and his later theses on national liberation. Again, I have no idea if Fields herself has any relationship to or interest in the CPUSA on these matters, but the logic of her argument seems to me to make so much more sense if the CPUSA’s theses on the Black Nation are are a part of her inheritance.
Where does this leave us? If the fundamental thesis of Fields’ work is to be cashed out, then the critique of race cannot rest on 1) an American Exceptionalism both in the production of racism and race and in democratic values, 2) a mere contradiction between democracy and a natural rights notion of universal individual liberty on the one hand and slavery on the other, and 3) a distinction between a valid National identity that is real (like the Brooklyn bridge) against an identity that isn’t one (race), that is, a missing critique of nation in particular and identity in general.
iI am going to explicitly dodge the argument over structure and agency here, not because it is not important and not because I do not have a definite point of view on the matter, but because it will take us rather far afield.
iiHere too, it would be going a bit too deep to explicate the notion of what is constitutive and what is constituting beyond saying that what is constituted at one moment becomes constituting at another moment.
iiiIn fact, she comes very close to this when she says that “and slavery, rather than something slaves were, became something slaveholders did—to the corruption of themselves, the injustice of the slaves, and the probable destruction of the country.” Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 99). Verso Books. Kindle Edition. Slavery, after all, was racialized and racializing, but it was ultimately a form of organization of labor for exploitation and thus a relation between classes, an enslaved proletariat and a group of capitalist slaveholders. But a problem arises insofar as capitalism is not merely something capitalists do and the working class is not merely something done by capitalists.
ivI add the “though not uniquely” because I am not aware of her views on gender or sexuality, she only counterpoises race to Nation and to bridges.
vIn the beginning of “Rogues and Geldings”, Fields makes this clear: ““Race” too often recommends itself as a guiltless word, a neutral term for an empirical fact. It is not. Race appears to be a neutral description of reality because of the race-racism evasion, through which immoral acts of discrimination disappear, and then reappear camouflaged as the victim’s alleged difference.” Racecraft might best be understood as the evasion itself, the activity of transforming racism into race. Fields, Barbara J.. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (p. 95). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
vi FN 35, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/slavery.html “Three indentured servants—John Punch, James Gregory, and Victor —ran away and were recaptured. James Gregory and Victor, both white, were given “thirty stripes” and an additional four years of servitude, whereas John Punch, a Negro, was sentenced to serve the remainder of his life. Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, 5 vols. (1926; reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1968; KF4545.S5 C3 1968), 1:77”
viihttps://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/slavery.html including fn 36-38 citing the Virginia laws.