Racism, Racecraft, and the Folly of Tolerance

I just finished reading Karen and Barbara Fields’ fine 2012 publication Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who discusses the book here and here) I found that some of the book’s essays were more difficult to read than others, and there were times when I did not understand the arguments being made. But the main idea of the book–that the concept of “race” in America is an invention of racism–really challenges me to reconsider how the language American society uses to discuss “race” is oftentimes embedded with racist connotations, even if those doing the talking have good intentions.

The Fields’ point out in the introduction to Racecraft that Martin Luther believed in witchcraft: men stealing milk by thinking of cows; a mother getting asthma because of a mean glare from a neighbor; seeing demons at one’s deathbed. In each of these cases, Witchcraft became a strategy by which Luther explained his everyday experiences and the world around him. Witchcraft became an ideology for Luther, as it did for many people for many hundreds of years before and after his time. But at some point the ideology of witchcraft no longer sufficed as an explanation for the everyday experiences of peoples’ lives. Today we would never attribute someone’s asthma to witchcraft, much less suggest that witchcraft is the direct cause for anything in society. The illusion of witches produced the concept of witchcraft in Luther’s time; the Fields’ argue that the illusion of race produces the concept of racecraft in our own time. The comparison is significant not because both concepts are silly superstitions, but because both concepts have been so widely accepted as plausible explanations of fundamental truths about human nature.

The concept of “race” was originally conceived by Enlightenment-era thinkers as a way of classifying and categorizing people and justifying transatlantic slavery on the basis of skin color and ancestry. But “race” as a biological concept has been discredited by the scientific community today, and there is actually no genetic basis for race. (see Jason Kelly’s brief list of resources on scientific racism here and information from the PBS program “Race – The Power of an Illusion” here) What constitutes “black” in the United States is not the same as what constitutes “black” in Brazil or Colombia. People who fall outside the U.S. racial paradigm–say, a Muslim immigrant–oftentimes aren’t attributed a “race” within that paradigm.

Racecraft, according to the Fields’, fails to explain inequality because it mutes class inequality. They cite a recent case in which a white electrician in Ohio fell on hard times after the 2008 Great Recession and was forced to rely on government aid. The electrician went out at midnight to buy groceries and, in a fit of disgust, had no qualms commenting in a New York Times article his exasperation with seeing large “crowds of midnight [food-stamp] shoppers once a month when benefits get renewed…Generally, if you’re up at the hour and not working, what are you into?” The Fields’ point out that even though the electrician was out at midnight with food stamps and ostensibly conducting legitimate business, “he assumed that the people in the crowds were not on legitimate business…Racism tagged the midnight shoppers as ‘into’ something unsavory because they appeared to be out of work; racecraft concealed the truth that the electrician and the midnight shoppers suffer under the same regime of inequality” (269-270).

Racecraft also uses “race” to explain racism, when the opposite is the actual reality. The Fields’ point out that while scholars and school teachers often argue that “legal segregation was based upon race,” legal segregation was actually based upon racism and the false science that justified the classifying of “races.” Thomas Jefferson justified slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia on the scientifically “factual” basis that the ancestry of slaves in America made them biologically inferior people, but in reality racism sustained slavery’s justification and expansion in the United States. In sum, “racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do” (97).

In chapter three, Barbara Fields pushes the race-racism paradigm to its outer boundaries by suggesting that the notion of “racial tolerance” masks racial discrimination through “good intentions.” In response to an author who argued that the refusal of cab drivers to stop for black passengers was attributable to “intolerance,” Fields clearly outlines the problematic nature of “tolerance”:

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…). As a political precept, tolerance has unimpeachably anti-democratic credentials, dividing society into persons entitled to claim respect as a right and persons obliged to beg tolerance as a favor. The curricular fad for “teaching tolerance” underlines the anti-democratic implications. A teacher identifies for the children’s benefit characteristics (ancestry, appearance, sexual orientation, and the like) that count as disqualifications from full and equal membership in human society. These, the children learn, they may overlook, in an act of generous condescension–or refuse to overlook, in an act of ungenerous condescension. Tolerance thus bases equal rights on benevolent patronization rather than democratic first principles, much as a parent’s misguided plea that Jason “share” the swing or seesaw on a public playground teaches Jason that his gracious consent, rather than another child’s equal claim, determines the other child’s access (104-105).

There’s a lot to digest in Racecraft, but it’s well worth the read and I learned much. While race is a biological fallacy, discrimination and double standards against people based on their ancestry–racism–is very real. The logic of racecraft–the illusion of race–masks inequality through false scientific explanations for why some people are supposedly inferior to others. Racecraft also challenges me to consider how public historians, museum practitioners, and classroom educators approach ideas of tolerance, equality, and understanding in their work with students.



2 thoughts on “Racism, Racecraft, and the Folly of Tolerance

Comments are closed.