Barbara and Karen Fields discuss their new book, "Racecraft"

Historians in the News
tags: Barbara Fields, Karen Fields, Racecraft

DD: My guests today are the authors of this seminal book, the brilliant sister duo comprised of historian Barbara Fields and sociologist Karen Fields. They make a persuasive case that our continuing commitment to the very idea of race helps perpetuate and strengthen racism. It also bolsters capitalism by placing a huge obstacle in front of working people realizing their common interest in coming together to fight their bosses. I want to start by asking you both to lay out the central argument of your book. I’m going to take a stab at it first and see if I get it right. “Racecraft” doing its work in the shadows naturalizes and reifies the visible existence of race, and race is a prerequisite for racism, but it is the action or practice of racism that is really the motor of the historical roots of race.

BF: There are some problems there. One of them is your statement that race is a prerequisite for racism; it’s the other way around. Racism being an action: it is acting on a double standard based on ascribed or putative ancestry. Racism, in other words, is neither attitude nor bigotry nor prejudice. It is an act, and it is a repetition of the act of racism that makes race looks like a real entity. That is what has happened in American history.

DD: And the term racecraft, which you coined, describes that relationship between racism and race?

KF: Racecraft encompasses the fact that the race that is pictured by the subjects as real in fact is not; it’s made to be real and envisioned collectively as something real. People begin to think, “I have a racial identity, I have a race. As a black person or white person, I have certain characteristics: I’m smart; I deserve to be at the bottom, and so on.” These things are programmed into people through the activity of doing that first thing, the act that is ostensibly based on heritage. That puts somebody in his or her place.

BF: The way I sometimes explain this to my students is by comparing it to a sideshow. There used to be a part of carnival sideshows where a magician would cut a woman in two. It was all done with mirrors and so on, but it looked real and the audience was spellbound by it. By the end of the show, the lady would come back on the stage along with the magician so that everyone could see that it was a conjuring trick. Racecraft is a conjuring trick that does not need a conjurer. The onlookers’ minds are also conjuring the spectacle for them. ...

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