- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
With a Fox News-animated bigot in the White House and inequality at spectacular heights, discussion of American racism has returned to the center of US politics. The wealth of those categorized as black evaporated under the Obama administration, and today, the Trump administration restricts freedom of movement to scapegoat migrants for economic crisis, while casting white supremacists and those who fight them in the streets as morally equivalent, bestowing Oval Office-granted legitimacy to racist violence.
It’s a terrifying situation that that has led many to seek out explanations of its historical roots. A recent criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates by Cornel West became a means to debate not only the origins of racism and class inequality, but also the most effective means of fighting both in the US and globally. In this moment, the US left can advance a deeper and broader conversation about how racism functions in neoliberal, imperial America, and how to build working-class organizations that fight for social justice for all.
But that opportunity requires overcoming a powerful ideological legacy. The dominance of neoliberalism frames inequality as deriving from personal responsibility or the lack thereof and replaces structural analysis with a focus on “race relations.”
This is possible because of the enshrinement of race as a natural category, the spread of the fiction that certain traits define members of one “race” and differentiate them from members of other races. No one has better diagnosed the problems with this categorization than Barbara and Karen Fields, authors of the 2012 book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. In an interview that aired on The Dig, Daniel Denvir interviews Barbara and Karen Fields about the police violence, the illusion of race, and how we can fight for working-class liberation.
The Meaning of Racecraft
A recent Gallup poll found that Americans worry about race relations at a record rate. But the framework of race relations implies that the problems of race in America are based in some unfortunate interpersonal lack of understanding, rather than in racism and the capitalist order that racism helps maintain. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life opened my eyes to the fact that this race-relations framework should be disturbing on an even more basic level. Race relations, after all, presume that there are distinct entities called races: white, black, Asian, native, and maybe even Hispanic. The idea of race, Racecraft shows, is rooted in the practice of racism and the eugenicist, biological racist notion that something — whether it is blood or genes — has created a set of scientifically distinct groupings of people.
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.
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.
And the term racecraft, which you coined, describes that relationship between racism and race?
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.
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.
Racecraft does not end with the performer and the illusion appearing on the stage in their rightful being. It’s a permanent illusion. It can be a death-dealing illusion. One of the examples or groups of examples we keep coming back to in Racecraft is that of the police officer. For example, an Afro-American police officer or, in a few instances, a Latino police officer, is mistaken as a criminal by fellow police officers. This is a consequence of racecraft that can end with someone’s death. A police officer who knows himself to be a police officer appears to be a black man to another police officer, who then carries out an execution.
Then one of the ways that sort of incident is popularly understood is that the person is killed because of his skin color. You both write about how that transfers the action of racism from the perpetrator to the victim.
That’s one of our main points: that race transforms the act of the perpetrator into a characteristic of the target. Race transforms one person’s action into another person’s being. We see this happen every day and people who are the targets participate in it as well because they can’t help it. It’s not a voluntary action. It is part of what we’re engulfed in because we live in a society where racist action is our reality.
People may experience it in a way that they take ownership of it. They believe that they are what racecraft made them. Race is an identification — an attaching of a label or a name to somebody. It’s not an identity of a person for him or herself, but it quickly has that transmogrification in thinking about identity. As a black woman, when I have an identity that’s not a black woman, it’s as Karen Fields, and that comes first.
You see it clearly in an episode that happened in 1999. Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot by the NYPD because the police were looking for a black rapist.
The newspapers talked about it as something that had happened to him because of his identity, which couldn’t have been more wrong. His identity had nothing to do with being a black man as the police probably identified him; he probably, if he didn’t think of himself as a Guinean, thought of himself as a Malinké or whatever his people were. That’s how he thought of himself but it didn’t make any difference. The police officers’ identification of him was what controlled the moment, not his identity as he defined it. That is one of the characteristics of racism. Even though the targets may imagine that their race is their identity, and it is an identification they can choose to identify with as others identify them, racism determines that one can override the other.
One thing that you two talk about is how deeply held this belief — or really, ideology — is that even among devout opponents of racism, there is the idea that racism is prejudice related to something objective called race. How does that thinking play into liberal anti-racism?
Part of it has to deal with the liberal anti-racists evacuating the class content of American society. So they can talk about race and racism in a vacuum. As soon as you do it that way you are in a self-defeating cycle because then you have people you’ve identified as a race who are permanent targets and victims, but they have no access to politics — you don’t even conceive it as a political situation. That’s one of the things that I see going on today with the overdevelopment of whiteness into an all-encompassing something that makes politics and history disappear.
Whiteness has become something that seems to have an all-encompassing explanatory power. One of the most prominent purveyor of this sort of thinking — a smart but in some ways misguided one — is Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is a leading proponent of this kind of whitelash argument that figures white supremacy and whiteness as not only foundational, but seemingly immutable and primordial. The recent popularity of these arguments reminds me of a line from your book that talks about a treatment of race that has it so that race, having arisen historically, then ceases to be a historical phenomenon and becomes instead an external motor of history.
It reminds me of a line from my mentor, the great historian C. Vann Woodward. In talking about white supremacy in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, he said the question was never white supremacy; it was which whites would be supreme. That’s one of things this argument covered up then and covers up now. Not all white people have the same power and not all white people are in the same class position. Even if you can argue convincingly that they all have bigotry and prejudice — even if you do that — then you have to acknowledge that not everyone has the same level of power and responsibility. Therefore, not everybody figures the same way in any plans we might try to have to get out of this situation. We’re living in the midst of the most unrelenting and successful period of class warfare in American history. The targets are working people, all kinds of working people, and the more we allow ourselves to look away from the structural political reasons for it, the more we are helping those who have their feet on our necks.
Why do you think that many on the liberal left find the analysis of Trump’s rise that begins and ends with whiteness and racism — obviously Trump is a virulent racist — but this analysis of racism that lacks political and economic context: why is that attractive to so many?
It’s a mystery to me unless I consider how little historical knowledge or reading they have about how class societies operate, even our own. It is attractive to think that the thing to consider is our identities and how to learn to get along with each other — how to have good interracial race relations. They didn’t know when cotton was the product produced by slaves in the South and white people that didn’t count in the mills; that didn’t enter into the history our generation has inherited. It’s good to state that there has been some history recently that has brought that into view.
There has also been a period of such intense political demobilization that large numbers of people — certainly it’s true for people the age of my students, but it’s also true of the people who like to think of themselves as the opinion-setters, the scribbling and babbling classes, the people who write for the general public, and so on — can’t tell which end is up.
My sister and I are old enough that we were at the 1963 March of Washington, which has now become almost a mythic event. One thing that is indelibly part of our memory of that occasion is that many of the people in the crowd that assembled were wearing the insignia of the UAW, International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Steelworkers, Mineworkers, and so on. The march’s official designation was a March for Jobs and Freedom. It was part of political mobilization at that time: in the midst of the Cold War and the purges, people understood the connection between labor and civil rights. The honorary leader, the person’s whose idea it was, A. Philip Randolph, was a labor organizer, a union activist as well as an activist in demanding rights for black people. Those connections were so natural that even dummies and political novices understood them. They have been gone for a long time and the result is that when somebody in the press says working class or working-class voters, they invariably mean white people. They forgot that most Afro-Americans in this country are working people. Most Latinos, however you define that ambiguous term, are working people. Southeast Asian migrants, most of them are working people, and indeed the same is true of a good many East Asian migrants.
We have allowed that language to become part of the whiteness talk. The result is that when things happen — as they are happening hot and heavy today targeted against working people — our reaction fragments us so that we cannot even talk about it that way. It’s this attack on people of color or that attack on black people, or immigrants, or Dreamers, or whatever it is. We’re not going to get anywhere that way, because we have defined any possible political alliance out of existence before we even tried to build it. If Ta-Nehisi Coates — I like him a lot, by the way, and have only met him a couple of times and some of his work is deeply moving — but if he were right about the situation, you would have to say there is no exit; there is nothing we can do. It reminds me of what people would say about the prospect of nuclear war back in the days when we had air-raid drills: the only thing you can do about it is put your head between your legs and kiss your behind goodbye.
That seems to be the political prescription that comes out of the primordial white racism argument. There’s nothing to do about it but to put your head between your legs and kiss your behind goodbye.
The corollary argument is that attempts to talk about class are efforts to distract from racism or exculpate the white working class for its bigotries.
That is a devastating, intolerable mistake. It leads people to say that race is fundamental — not economics, not class — and if you bring class in then you’re trying to deny the reality of human existence and identity. That is the big mystification achieved by racecraft. It looks like a relation between people or race relations, but it’s really a submerged economic relation: that’s the American ideology. We have an economic order that is untouchable because people live in identities without understanding that they are living in the world of work. In the era of a strong labor movement, they were fighting fights to get rights and now that’s not even legitimate in the eyes of some people.
I’d like to ask some of the people who believe deeply in the framework that says it all has to do with the white psyche: What do we do about it? Do we sit back and allow this juggernaut to roll over us? Or do we do something about it? And if we do something, what is it? The thing about that argument always was that if this is something that is fundamental, that is built into white people, then it has to be built into everybody. It has to be built into black people as well. If you don’t believe that it’s built into everybody, then you’re back with the first premise of racism, which is that there is not one human species, but many.
That’s a very important point. The primordial account of white racism has as its necessary corollary biological race theory as well.
It has to or they are left saying that this is programmed into white people but it’s not programmed into anybody else. How can this happen that it’s not programmed into anybody else? Well, the only way that can arise is by accepting a really old and discredited notion of separate creation or different races. Otherwise, you have to assume that this whiteness thing is everybody’s creation. I’ve never been presented face to face with someone who is ready to carry this argument through. I’d like to be because I want to hear what they say about this. If white people have this, doesn’t everybody have to have it? If everybody has it, then how do you account for any of the moments in history when it has been possible to break free of some of it? When it has been possible to have cracks in the structure? When there have been alliances among people who are in the opposition?
The other big political problem with the primordial account of racism seems to be that the upshot for self-interested white people reading that account would be to act in defense of white supremacy. If racism is good for white people, won’t that convince white people to be racist? It’s interesting that a lot of contemporary white supremacists or white nationalists refer to white people embracing racism as “race-realism.” Another term that’s in vogue is “human biodiversity.” It’s telling that these avowedly racist white supremacists seem very aware that believing in the primordial account of race is a critical part of racism.
It’s a catechism that includes the inherent distinctness of different people corresponding to the names that human beings invented for them.
It does not serve those of us on the Left to believe that the tools of tribalism will ever be tools of liberation. They can’t be.
Another dimension runs through this. My educational trajectory has gone through the great sociologist Max Weber. In a collection called The Social Psychology of the World Religions, he said that what is fundamental to religion is an explanation of misfortune, a theodicy that explains why some people do well and some don’t. There is calm in society if everyone shares that theodicy.
Race thought is religious in that sense. It is there to answer the question of why people who are doing well are blessed, and to state that those that didn’t do well must have something wrong with them. Let’s find out what it was: Is it the skin color which entails low intelligence or laziness? It becomes a language for explaining the facts or state of affairs without actually doing so, but with a mystique that people then take on because they have the objects, they have the races that have been daily constructed by the rituals that we go through that establish the inferiority of some people and the superiority of others. Barbara and I emphasize those actions that go on because we are not talking about a thing, a set of ideas as a thing. We’re talking about actions that both express and recreate those ideas. Chapter Two of our book is about things you can see if you’re paying attention while walking down the street: rituals that establish bad fortune for some and good fortune for others and the feeling of it if you’re in it yourself. If you are on the committee that designs the segregation law for Charleston, you benefit from it psychologically. You explain the situation of others to your satisfaction.
How We Learn Racism
That’s underlining an important point I wanted to ask you about, which is how the practice of racism conjures up and creates race again and again. We discussed the case of Amadou Diallo, who had the category of blackness imposed on him and died in a hail of forty-one bullets in 1999. Other things that come to mind as examples of how racism reproduces race are the huge numbers of black people in prison and how that not only marks black people as criminal but also produces blackness. There are similar things with residential and school segregation, and how the black ghetto or the almost entirely black urban public school seems to many people to be the result of black pathology rather than of racism.
That’s the way it gets translated into the thought patterns of ordinary Americans, that’s an accurate representation about how they form their notions. They read in the paper about the numbers of black people in prison, and that helps solidify their identification of black people with criminality. They don’t have to experience it all to know that it is a reality and a characteristic of black people.
One of my colleagues had me in stitches one year talking about a remark someone had made about how he or she felt seeing a black person approach on the street. They said “I just can’t help remembering some statistic that three out of every four black people are in prison.” The purpose was to say, “I have a reason to feel uneasy when I see a black person approaching me on the street.” My colleague said “well, if three out of every four black people are in prison, then they can’t approach you on the street. So you don’t need to fear them.” It’s reductio ad absurdum, but that is the way people are inclined to form their notions about human beings about whom they know very little. It informs the experiences that they will then have in dealing with those people.
Just before you called I was out walking my dog in an area that is controlled by the NYC Parks Department, and it’s next to a playground where dogs are not allowed. A white man, I have to characterize him this way because he soon proved that’s that what he was, had left his dog tied up next to the playground where it had no business while he was at the far end playing with his daughter on the swing. The dog was standing in a way that made it impossible for me to approach with my dog. I approached the man and asked if it was his dog. He immediately went into attack mode. He said, “Are you the park police? I’m just out here with my daughter? It’s a big park.” I didn’t say anything to him; I thought afterwards that I should have said that one way to react in a situation like this is to say “Oh I’m sorry,” knowing that you are legally in the wrong. Instead, his reaction was that he sees an elderly black woman approaching with her dog, his reaction has nothing to do with respect to an older person or respect with the law, and he is right away a white person facing down a black person. He didn’t say any of that and I wish I had made him say it. I’m a teacher and I missed a moment where I could have taught him something. Because there he is with his two year old daughter and he is teaching her to a be a big so and so-
As he is.
It’s the worst feeling to come up with the best comeback just a minute or two too late.
My friends used to call it the spirit of the stairway. It’s that moment that embodies all the moments like that. It doesn’t just have to be the racist moments, either. Our society being what it is, it often takes the form of racist moments because the person who knows he has put his dog in the wrong place and that he is violating the law, when confronted by a black person, will go right to the ground where he is uppermost and not think that this is an instance where courtesy and fellow feeling should take precedent.
This reminds me of the discussion in the book about DuBois and the notion of double consciousness. Something that was palpable for me reading the book was that it seemed to be motivated by both of your very understandable lifelong frustrations with not being approached as Karen and Barbara Fields, but being immediately interpellated as black women.
That’s right and that’s one of the sources of the book itself. We have gone back and forth about the things of this sort that have happened in the heights of academe. Barbara comes down the street and tries to say hello to someone because they are in the same building and he jumps as if he is going to be attacked. He doesn’t recognize that she is a colleague. There is no amount of time you can be there without seeming like you don’t belong there. In the university, I wrote a draft called Race Matters in the American Academy and described things like using people’s names, things that had happened establishing superiority in subtle and unsubtle ways. I circulated an open list and said “write back if anyone of these things is inaccurate.” No one wrote a word.
Our father was an architect who had a practice later in his career. He was a solo practitioner and a good bit of his work was for the Roman Catholic Church. The thing about being an architect is that often your clients don’t have to see you in person. Many of his clients were dealing with the firm, but they had no idea who the principal of the firm was. He told us that there was not a day that went by without someone reminding him that he was black. His office was upstairs in a three-story federal building in Washington, D.C., and when he had to meet a client, he had to come downstairs, and he described the face of this person as he saw a black person coming down the steps and realized that was the Bob Fields he had been talking to as an architect and suddenly Bob Fields materialized as a black man and he doesn’t know what to do about it.
There were dozens of those situations and they teach all the people who are participating so much about how the world works. I was talking about one of them in the article that appeared in Racecraft. This was a little boy who was the son of one of the staff members of the department where I taught for a semester at Ole Miss. The mother was a white woman but everyone there were merely people. They were all decent people. One day she told me that her son had come back from the playground and his mother asked him if the playmate was black, and the boy said, “No he’s brown.” We all chuckled. For everyone, it was a story about the innocence of childhood and about the fact that children don’t know anything about races. They don’t come naturally to racism. But the next level of the story was about what that little boy learned when his mother chuckled. He learned that the answer he gave was not the right answer. Grown-ups like it and they laugh at it, but the fact that they laugh tells the kid it’s not the right answer. The next time he is asked that question, he knows that to ask if his playmate is black is not to ask for a description but to ask for a classification.
This is every American child’s miseducation in racecraft.
Yes, it is, but it also is Oxford, Mississippi in Ole Miss, which still lives in infamy. It is also an illustration of a white person who is happy because her child is growing up free of racism. That’s what stimulates the chuckle. Here’s a person whose faith is good, whose will is good, whose intentions are good. She’s reacting to a situation that could happen anywhere in the country, but her reaction to it is “I’m so glad that my little boy isn’t a racist” and she winds up teaching him what a friend referred to as “learning how to color.”
Children have to learn it. It’s not programmed. We don’t have it automatically. Somehow, they learn how to color. They can learn in innocent situations, even heartwarming situations, or they learn at a country club swimming pool. Karen knows this story better than I do: there was a country club swimming pool where the children had been permitted to go. The director gave permission, but the members were not privy to it. There was a reaction of horror when all these black children show up. One little girl — these are children they don’t understand what the fuss is about — asked if she was too dark to go swimming.
The black children and maybe also Hispanic, I’m not sure, come into this pool in suburban Philadelphia and white parents are in a panic pulling their children from their water
Running as though something had come from the jungle.
From what I understood, it’s not that the children were afraid. It’s that their parents were panic-stricken and dragged their children out. Karen was the one who first came upon this episode. The point she made was that if you see it at first you have an immediate reaction, any decent person has a reaction to that. The next reaction on reflection that Karen had was that the news media are prepared to cover this from the standpoint of the black children and how they felt about it. It was one of them that featured the girl who asked if she was too dark to go swimming. Karen asked what the white children thought of the situation.
They didn’t try to find out.
It’s the kind of incident that will teach those young white people to have the same beliefs about race that their parents showed in grabbing them out of the water.
That must have been terrifying.
The other point is that just as the little black child did not know what it was about neither did the white children at first. And some of them will have reacted no doubt, because children react this way when they see something that is not fair. That is a reaction that comes out of young children in their own play situations. Some of those white children probably reacted with distress to what happened.
And were told by their parents that it was necessary, natural, and normal?
Yeah. We don’t know what conversations happened after that and what questions the white children asked. People who make an overwhelming monster of whiteness, they aren’t looking at the textural details of something like that. If they did, they would have to focus on something that is historical and particular to situations.
It is contingent and thus can be defeated.
All of the great thinkers about human societies who have tried to tackle it start with the assumption that if we figured how this thing came into being, then we can figure out how to put an end to it. This was Marx’s approach in talking about capitalism in Capital. C. Vann Woodward did this when talking about segregation: for all the attacks that scholars had on his work since then, his main point was “if I can figure out how this thing started then I can figure out how to stop it.” If we don’t have a historical understanding of these things, then we are trapped in a kind of Groundhog Day. This thing just keeps going on and going and going on, and we have no clue how it began and therefore no clue about how we might put it to an end. That’s the crime of this type of thinking.
The Illusion of Race
You chose the term racecraft by way of analogizing it to witchcraft. Could you lay out how witchcraft operates and why the analogy works?
There’s a reason that the analogy works that doesn’t serve my purposes. People think it means dismissal, that it has no intellectual worth because witchcraft isn’t true. I was working on African religions before I came to this project. There was something happening in the area that I was studying with witchcraft removal revival. It was a very active cleaning of evil out of countries and anthropologists became interested because they wondered how people who otherwise seem practical have ideas like this.
One brilliant scholar, E. E. Evans-Pritchard wrote that we have these ideas, too. He wrote Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande to show the rational processes used. The rational processes evolved along with what we are doing. For example, we usually believe in cause and effect, if you kick a ball, then it usually is going to go down the way. If somebody says that if you touch this black person, you’re going to get sick and it’s believed, then it means that there is a different process. Let’s not assume they’re dumb. There’s a process. One thing that goes along with systems of belief that do not rely on causality is precisely that: you have freedom to invent social reality that everyone shares verbally and experientially. So, I found it useful to read about witchcraft because there was so much kinship. We have bright people and we have things happen. We have foiled predictions and those don’t die. You can’t get rid of the prediction that black people are stupid or violent. You just can’t. For me, it was a lens that allowed me to see better what had existed in my own society.
Maybe looking at Evans-Pritchard’s most well-known examples from that book which I read as a young undergrad anthropology major might help elucidate the analogy further. If I remember correctly there is a scene where some sort of building maybe a granary roof falls down on someone’s head and kills them, and immediately witchcraft is suspected. Can you lay out what happens?
He says that it is an event that falls into the category of things that can happens as a result of witchcraft. The methods Evans-Pritchard describes are oracular methods or divinatory methods. You figure out which it is. Whether it is witchcraft or something else. They are experts at doing that. Then you figure out who in the same way. There are ways where you might find proof in the body of somebody who is a relative who died of the person who is suspected of witchcraft and so on. The things that rationality can achieve on the surface of things are not rational because witchcraft is not possible. It’s amazing. The center of witchcraft is what I was saying a while ago, the theodicy problem again. Why do bad things happen to good people? There is a set of answers. They are not stupid, but it’s a way of thinking that is human to the core.
Independently, we found ourselves comparing race the way it works in American society to witchcraft. I did it in an article in which I was arguing against the primordialists who think that there is nothing to explain historically because it has always been there in white people. We both ended up with the analogy of witchcraft. In both instances, the necessary first step was that we had to have some kind of intellectual detachment from American society and the American version of race thinking. It can be an actual physical detachment, but you have to have a way of taking a distance from it. In another article, I said that otherwise you are trying to lift something up while you are standing on it. You can’t lift it if you don’t step off. The stepping off is taking a distance from the way that people think about race in America.
For me, one of the most dramatic ways that happened was when I spent time in Tanzania, which Karen did before I did. I learned to speak Swahili. In Swahili, the words for black and white were never used to distinguish people of African descent from people of European descent. If they used “nyeupe” and “nyeusi” which are black and white in Swahili, they were using them the same way we might speak of blond or brunette, or light complexion or dark complexion, like the little boy. It was a color distinction. When they were actually trying to distinguish white from black, the way Americans might do it, they had words that had to do with national origin. An African was Mwafrika. A person of European extraction was Mzungu, which could also be an American.
One particular episode that crystallized things for me was an Afro-American woman who had married a Tanzanian and had lived in Tanzania for a long time. She was fluent in Swahili and thought of herself as an African person. She stood out on the streets of Dar es Salaam because she always dressed in elaborate West African boubous and lace and headpieces and all the rest of the costume that a working-class Tanzanian could not afford. While she was identifying herself as African in this way, she was setting herself apart but she didn’t realize it. One day I encountered her almost in tears because a Tanzanian had referred to her as “mzungu,” European, a white person. She said, “How could you call me mzungu, I am mwafrika, how can you say that?” Well, they could say that because she had the money, she had the bearings; she had all the appurtenances of the people who would be called mzungu. That meant that this whole way of talking about people’s origins or their belongings or the way they looked just was incommensurable with the way we talk about it in the United States.
I needed to experience that in order to be able to write about race when I came back home and went to graduate school. That was being in a place where I was surrounded with black people, but not black people — they were Watanzania or Mwafrika. There was a Ghanaian woman in the circle that I moved in when I was there who was actually criticized by some of the local people because she couldn’t speak Swahili and they couldn’t believe it. They thought she was just being a snob. So I had a whole system of classification to understand that was engaged in by people that would be simply called black people by Americans. That turned race into a historical phenomenon for me so when I wrote about it later, I couldn’t write about it the way the primordialists did.
The story you tell about this woman in Dar es Salaam is in some ways the inverse of Amadou Diallo’s story and racial classification systems being lost in translation. In Diallo’s case it was tragic and horrific; in the woman’s case it was farcical. They point towards similar lessons.
I have long thought about that situation, and that if the police officers had realized he was African, they wouldn’t have shot him. They, in other words, make a distinction between black people and Africans. It’s not visible. They may think you can see, but you cannot see. Had they had an inkling when they approached that apartment building that they were dealing with an African immigrant they would not have reacted the way he did.
They would have been more likely to think he was reaching for his wallet, as he was.
Or they might not have assumed he was an armed rapist in the first place. He was reacting to what he thought were armed thugs who came into the place shouting. He thought he could buy them off by giving them his wallet. No white police officer would ever assume a black person would react to a white person as to a street thug. It didn’t occur to them. They dressed as street thugs because it was their undercover outfit. It never occurred to them that they could actual read to a civilian on the street as street thugs. To them, street thug means black person. It doesn’t even occur to them, and it didn’t occur to the news media at the time. He thought he was about to become the victim of a street crime, but they didn’t see it that way. I think that if they had recognized him as an African, maybe they would have believed that an African would see a police officer as a thug. They wouldn’t have seen him immediately as a threat that needed to be taken down with gunfire.
Racism as Ideology
You were both talking about this critical distance needed to see racecraft: you can’t pick something up when you’re standing on it. What you identified racecraft as is ideology, which is a word that you use in the book in its Marxist rather than colloquial sense. Can you define ideology in the sense that you use it and explain how racecraft operates as an ideology?
I can quote from the German Ideology or chapter one, section four of Capital, “Socialism of Commodity and Secrets Thereof” — read that and you see the man coming to grips with the transformation of an ordinary object into something else through the social process of trade. He says in that section in a hilarious way that according to ideology, the objects of trade are speaking to each other rather than passing each other as communication from the source of sender to the returner. It is a crowding of reality that you cannot see in the day-to-day process of whatever it is. It is not there to explain itself; it’s there to operate on understandings of how it works that are already in place or trading would not be possible.
When I talk to my students about this I turn it into a laughing matter. I say isn’t it amusing that we speak of the economy as if it’s a human being: it can be depressed just as a human being can be depressed. There is no such thing as the economy. It is the result of many millions of individual decisions that people make. We speak of it as the economy personified or reified precisely because we cannot get hold of all those individual actions, so we turn it into “the economy.”
If you have a village where the elders say to different families “you grow this much grain you grow that much grain, you plant this field and you deal with that field.” At harvest time, the elders say “you get this much of the harvest because you have this size family, and you get a different part because you have another size.” As a result, the entire product of all the work has been distributed among everybody. I tell the students no one in that society who was not a lunatic would say that these decisions are the product of the economy. They would all see that these are the decisions that the elders made.
We reify those decisions when we can’t see where they come from. That is the way ideologies develop, because ideologies are the way of talking about the world as we experience it. Sometimes we experience the actual process of elders making decisions and sometimes we are seeing through a glass darkly, as St. Paul puts it. We cannot see what is actually going on, but we give a name to the result of what is going on and then we account for it in whatever rough and ready way we may have. That is my understanding of an ideology; it is not a scientific explanation; it is a rough-and-ready approximation.
When you come up to a red light, you don’t sit and ruminate on the philosophy about what you do at the intersection that is governed by a red light. We do have a reason why we stop for the red light, and there is an explanation that actually makes a lot of sense. The explanation is that everybody understands that regardless of our respect for the law or not, we need to know what everybody is doing at the intersection. We have lights there or stop signs or some other convention if there is nothing material like that, so that everybody knows what everybody will do at the intersection. When you are a teenager and your parents teach you how to drive, they will tell you what you are supposed to do at a four way or at a red light or at a flashing yellow and so on. That is an approximation of an ideology; it is what you need to know to get through the day.
It need not be demonstrable by thought process outside of the context in which it is being discussed.
You don’t have to know who designed the first traffic light. You have a habit of doing a certain thing when you come to the light. You have an explanation that is good enough for why you need to do it. Not only it is not scientific, but it cannot be too detailed in how it gets to grips with the underlying reality. Otherwise you are in the situation of the mythical millipede who was asked how in the world he can walk with all those legs, and as soon as he stopped to think about he couldn’t walk anymore. Ideology allows us to walk with a thousand legs and not think about it because if we think about, we can’t do it.
In this country, that’s as good a statement as any because people weren’t a race by virtue of being Africans in European society, but they became that after they arrived. In the United States, they were incorporated into a society where people could take freedom for granted: in other words, it was not a society premised on the normality of slavery. Slavery was normal and became even more normal in part of the country. In the country as a whole, it had been present from the beginning. All thirteen colonies had slavery at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Shortly thereafter, most of them either abolished it or began the process of abolishing it. So enslavement became a sufficiently anomalous situation that it had to be accounted for, but ideologically.
This isn’t science, though it could be couched as science in this era when people began to speak this way. It is really ideological. It’s that there is something different from people of African descent that defines this anomalous situation that they occupy in a country where freedom is to be taken for granted. My argument is that the next step, emancipation, deposits the former slaves for the most part into another social category that is not accepted as a basis for citizenship. Now they are proletarians, they are working people. There were white people in that status, but it still was not accepted. The idea was that one day you are going to have property and power. Abraham Lincoln said that there was no such thing of having to be a hireling laborer all his life. It wasn’t yet accepted that being dependent on working for something else could be a status for a citizen. Yet most of the black slaves were released into this category. Therefore, their class position is the way they are defined as a race. It was when they were slaves, because this was an anomalous category. “Working people” was their categorization as freed former slaves. Both of those are class positions that come to define a racial position. If that is the point that Stuart Hall was making, than I think he had an insight that was correct for the American situation.
From Walter White to Rachel Dolezal
Today, how do race and racism continue to reproduce and justify the political-economic order?
Let me recommend the work of Adolph Reed, as well as Cedric Johnson. Despite what a good many of what the race-first people say, a number of Afro-Americans are part of the bourgeoisie, not the black bourgeoisie. When Franklin Frazier used the term, he was talking sarcastically about people who were not bourgeoisie, but petty bourgeois. We have a lot — not a lot statistically, but there are a number — of Afro-Americans who are in fact incorporated into the bourgeoisie, but most are working people and are at the hazard of whatever happens to working people. They are working people but in the parlance of American discourse don’t get to be working people because that’s reserved for white people. We have a whole part of the American working class that the scribbling classes don’t consider part of the working class.
That brings up an issue that you both said you didn’t want to discuss, but your analysis would provide interesting insight: why Rachel Dolezal identifying as black even though she was actually “white” so infuriated people on the Left, and delighted those on the Right.
I wasn’t aware of people on anything that I would call the Left being infuriated by it. My reaction was: why would someone need to put up a pretense? The history of agitation on behalf of the rights of black people on is not based on identifying yourself as a black person. The NAACP had white leaders before it had a black leader.
Its first black leader was a white man. He opens his speech by saying “I am a Negro, my skin is white, my hair is blond, my eyes are blue, but I am a Negro.” He was the first black or rather Negro head of the NAACP: Walter White.
Yes, A Man Called White was the name of his book. Part of his effectiveness was that he could go and investigate lynchings in the South because he could mingle without people knowing that he was a Negro. He recounted an episode on a train about a group of white people on the train talking what they would do if they could get their hands on this Walter White character, this Negro from the NAACP. They didn’t know he was right there.
In Dolezal’s case I wonder why people were so upset about the unusual situation of a white woman passing as Black and being exposed. Why was this oddity that turned the historical pattern on its head so troubling to people?
I said all that to say that it didn’t trouble me except that I thought: who cares? There are more important things going on. I didn’t understand why she needed to pose as anything. She could be the leader of the NAACP as a white woman. I don’t understand why anyone would be upset by this except for the fact that it was a stupid episode that was treated as if it was something that was of major importance. That’s why we shot it down. We are tired of people talking about racial identification as if that is the issue. It is not the issue. Whether somebody calls themselves white or black isn’t something that we need to focus on. You can understand why the media likes that for the same reason they like stories about a white woman who gives birth to twins and one of them is dark skinned and one of them is white. I know they are going to go nuts with the woman who is going to marry the Duke or the Prince of whatever it is in Britain.
For many it is an issue of justice that Dolezal passing as black is — people would use this language — doing some sort of violence to black people.
The category I would put it in would also include the people who get angry that a white woman wears her hair in cornrows. It’s the same kind of anger you are talking about. I call it adolescent behavior by people who can’t think of anything more important to do.
I think that’s precisely it. It’s a way of talking about certain things.
And to not talk about the real thing.
Explaining Racial Inequality
It’s analytically important to identify the way that racism has different impacts on different groups of people within capitalism. You make a very important point about the exclusive focus in certain quarters on racial disparity. By implication it proposes that once the working class, ruling class, and poor are demographically representative, then everything will be great. You write of people whose most radical goal is the reallocation of unemployment, poverty, and injustice, rather than their abolition. Tell me about the focus on racial disparity: for someone who believes that it needs to play some role in the analysis, what role if any do you think it should play in a left-wing critique of the economic order?
Everyone must know that it exists as a well-documented fact. That fact will not carry a lot of water elsewhere. It does matter when you are making a claim to an action to affect North Carolina’s allocation of funds for the support of agriculture, when they lost out as they did on exports. It is important to speak of facts, but speaking of facts is not a politics or a guide to policy. You must use the facts.
You need to know what you are going to do with it. If we know that agricultural workers working for the big growers: they are not farmers, they are growers. We know that people who work in those fields are subjected to pesticides as well as all kinds of substandard conditions. If you turn that into an issue having to do with the identities of people of color, then you have let the agribusiness farmers off the hook. We know why they take advantage of the workforce that has to approach the pesticides and work without proper sanitary conditions. It is not because they have anything in their hearts about so-called people of color. It is because they are getting their work done in the cheapest way they can. They don’t care about which people they are exploiting to do that.
Vann Woodward has a moment in Origins of The New South where he talks about the publicity of poor white people in the South, and how they were marketed to would-be investors from the outside because they are not amenable to unionization and will accept low wages and so on. The prospectus they were selling to people was “here are people out of history and out of time with an Elizabethan flavor.” When they were selling the workforce they didn’t distinguish that much the color of the wares. The people who are buying don’t care. They care what they are going to pay people.
This is the asymmetry of it. The people who are the engine of this kind of exploitation — whatever they may say — have their eyes on the prize. We who are trying to dismantle it take our eyes of their prize all the time. We allow ourselves to be carried off into conversations about racial disparities this or racial identities that. When you mentioned racial disparities I thought of one of Adolph Reed’s article when he quotes an item that appeared in the the Onion. It just said these people are “the most likely.” It didn’t have a predicate, just the most likely. It was a comment on the disparity argument and that was the context that Reed talked about it. I do think of it as a rope-a-dope strategy. You get people focused on something that is not really essential, and you let others off the hook.
Racism not only legitimates a class project, but also obscures it. It obscures people’s ability to see the class project underway. You point to the reception of the Bell Curve. They are neo-eugenicists, and racists no doubt, but you write that the focus on racism at the exclusion of all else misses that their overall argument was about the degeneracy of poor people as a whole.
They were justifying class inequality. We recently had another go around here at Columbia, because Charles Murray had been invited to speak. I doubt most of the good-hearted students who wanted to agitate against it and faculty supporting them had read the book. Certainly, they had no clue about the class dimension of it because all they knew was that they had heard that he was a racist.
That was how they marketed the book at Free Press.
Yes, that’s the photogenic part of the argument. The part of the argument that is not photogenic is that working-class white people are where they are because they are not very smart, because they are backward.
That was the entire focus of his book, Coming Apart. It is about reaching the degenerate white working-class people of Philadelphia.
When the well-meaning progressives here wanted to agitate against it, that wasn’t what they picked. Here they are in what they think of as a “Trump moment,” with the perfect opportunity to draw attention to a very explicit class project, but they let it slip because calling him a racist and talking about what he says about black people is going to generate more favorable publicity from their standpoint. It will get the choir on its feet, and they are not talking to anyone else.
The race project is one that Hillary Clinton could condemn, but the class project is one that she wouldn’t and couldn’t.
She is all for it. In a sense, that is what Obama was about. That is why the bankers who came as close as possible to destroying the economy were bailed out and not held accountable for what they had done. That wasn’t part of the program. You can’t wonder why it is that the people who suffered in all of that, who bought subprime mortgages — and I’m talking about the white people not just the black people — were sour at the end of the day. They thought that we are here holding the can, and the people who did this were not held to account. Where do we go for someone that understands our situation? Well, you don’t go to Hillary Clinton.
Such a lie.
I heard those criticisms, then I would see videos of Sanders rallies and there was always a healthy representation of Black Lives Matter there. A lot of the young people could see through Hillary Clinton.
The polls make it clear that young people of all sorts backed Bernie over Clinton. It reminds me though; I did want to ask you what role racial identification can have for black people fighting for freedom who have had these categories imposed on them? If blackness is a category imposed on black people by racecraft and racism, is it possible for people to have a collective racial “we” in fighting against racism without falling into the trap of essentializing race? I’m thinking particularly of this at a time when many young people are mobilizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), which has that racial category right in its first word.
I’m not sure it’s a racial category, although it certainly is a category that draws attention to racism. That confusion of race and racism is one of the things that we try to highlight in Racecraft. Over the years, Americans of African descent have had numerous ways of referring to themselves as a people, because they have been a people and have been made a people through the conditions they were faced. Whether those conditions were slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement, job discrimination, or whatever it was, they faced common circumstances that made them recognize themselves as a people.
Every time they designated themselves as a people, that became a racial designation. When colored as a term was replaced by Negro and Negro was replaced by Black, every one of those was a way of defining a people. When it gets into the general vocabulary, it became a racial designation. When Black Lives Matter activists say black lives matter, they are not making a racial statement.
Couching it that way, I have to say this though: the slogan “black lives matter” disturbs me mainly because it seems too self-effacing. Having to declare that “black lives matter” is making too large a concession to the enemy. It reminds me of perhaps the most famous Frederic Douglass oration: his Fourth of July address that he delivered in Rochester in the 1850s. He was brought there by abolitionists. He said, “I don’t know what you want me to say, you don’t need me. We are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of the Republic. You don’t need me to tell you slavery is wrong. I don’t need to say that to Republicans. You don’t need me to tell you that slaves are human beings — even the slave-owners know that. If they didn’t, then they would not have so many provisions in their legal codes that define acts committed by slaves as crimes. A mule can’t commit a crime. A wagon cannot commit a crime.” He built the whole rhetorical structure on “I don’t need to tell you people these things because you know them. You are Republicans, you are Abolitionists, and so you know all these things.”
I think about that when I think about young people having to say, “black lives matter.” Do Americans have to say that other Americans, and for that matter, other human beings’ lives matter? To have to say, “black lives matter,” and open yourself up to an enemy who tries to trump that with “all lives matter,” when in fact the slogan BLM always meant all lives matter. It was a way of saying, “yes, ours too.” I don’t like the way they had to say ours too as though there could be a question about whether ours matter, because everybody’s matters.
It seems like the two of you would prefer Freedom Now or something of that sort.
Yeah, but I don’t think either of us is criticizing the young people who did that because they responded to a moment in which much of this history has been lost, including “Freedom Now” and Frederick Douglas. They are having to build the world anew. It is a commentary on us that we are requiring our young people to build the world anew, that they don’t have something to build on. This is because of a long demobilization and a purging a persecution that has left us without a political heritage on which to build. So everybody has to start again from the beginning and each time we do that we have lost momentum and ground. There may not be an alternative to doing it. You can’t fabricate a historical knowledge that isn’t there. Having to operate without a historical knowledge means that you are operating with one hand behind your back, so I am delighted that we have an opportunity to remind people that in 1963, the slogan was Jobs and Freedom. In other words, everybody understood how one thing was related to the others.
Perhaps we should prepare broadcasts of those speeches to enrich the arguments that people are making as they attempt to resist and formulate what resistance should be made up of.
Remember when that young white man whose name I cannot remember was shot in South Carolina?
In the marijuana bust where he was trying to drive away and they shot him to death?
The point is: in Seneca, South Carolina, there was a white man killed by the police. The only way that episode was publicized was because some of the Black Lives Matter people put it on Twitter and it was picked up by the media. That was how it came to public knowledge. I’m saying that to illustrate that black lives matter always meant that all lives matter. It’s just that the young people who were saying that thought that others need to be told “Ours too.”
They did not forget that all lives matter. They didn’t get very far because as it happens, the white neighbors of the family whose son was killed didn’t stand up for the family. They couldn’t figure out a safe place to put their feet in what looked like quicksand. They probably assumed that in these confrontations, the police are the good guys and whoever is on the other side are the bad guys. Racecraft would allow themselves to make that assumption when the person on the other side was black. Here is a white person that they know in small-town Carolina, but they cannot allow themselves to call it what it is because it’s out of the pattern and they don’t have a way to understand that. If all lives matter were a serious declaration rather than just a way of hitting BLM people, then the all lives matter people would have jumped on it, but they didn’t, did they?
How could they make sense of this white young man being treated the way they thought black men deserved?
This is a function of the stuff that I was talking about earlier. He must have done something to deserve this. It’s not his black color, but whatever he did must have been Negro-like to have that consequence. I’d like to walk through and ask people why they think this all happened.
The way that racism functions is to legitimate policies that harm working-class people as a whole by spectacularly harming black people and Hispanic people more. You have mass incarceration which justifies itself by disproportionately locking up so many black people but also locks up an extraordinary number of white people. The same with welfare reform: because welfare was disproportionately received by black mothers, the Clinton administration was allowed to end welfare for all mothers.
You can go back further to disenfranchisement in the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which was supposed to be the disenfranchisement of Afro-Americans but ended up disenfranchising large numbers of white people. It was the beginning of the low voter turnout that continues to be part of American political society. The difference between that time and our moment is that the white people who became the targets were not fooled by it. They knew what was going on. Today, it may be that people aren’t aware. It can be successfully hidden that this weapon wielded against black people can be wielded against you as well.
In your book, you write that the debacle of the bankers talking about the financial crisis rubbed the gloss from the justifications of inequality that prevailed since the 1980s. The welfare mother can no longer stand for what is not right in America. All these horrible things that have happened have been justified via racism, and obviously with Trump in office, racism is a real part of elite class warfare in this country. Since 2008, we’ve seen Bernie, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter: do you see people getting that critical distance from racecraft that you have been talking about, and being able to take collective action against this system that has done so much harm in this country and all over the world?
We hoped to put some ammunition in the hands of people who were trying to fight the most recent wave of capitalist oppression because we recognized how useful the race card had been. So we said that one of the things to do is to get this information that we have out because we need to be able to hear each other as Americans, and not this nonsense that we hear about racial identity today. Racecraft provides an explanation for the bad that happens to black people, and it is a rope-a-dope for people who might otherwise put their fists into people who are exporting their jobs abroad.
Part of the present moment is that we are seeing a program, even if it has been slowed down, a program as part of the right-wing Republicans and the Trump people — they are an ox team not always pulling in the same direction, but they do have in common a class program even if they are sometimes representing different parts of the class that is on top. In many ways, they are building momentum because they are changing the nature of the game. They don’t expect to have to pay for what they are going to do to a good number of working because they are working on ways to curate the electorate, to prevent people from voting and prevent people’s votes from counting. It’s easier to buy a state legislature than to buy the US Congress, but these people can do both. They are establishing a momentum that is quite frightening by which they hope to insulate themselves from being punished by the people they injure. They may imagine that there isn’t much that black people can do about it.
Except that black people will be punished for their injury. Blame will be shifted into stories about welfare again. The welfare mother stories came back when this process happened in the 1980s.
It’s true of many classes with overweening projects of power that they don’t see their opponents clearly. So they may not always be aware of what they are unleashing. While they are confident that they can handle anything that’s going to occur because of the racism and homophobia and all the other ways that they provide fuel for anyone that wants to blow up the social structure, I don’t think they truly realize what it will be if they unleash a white population that is both angry and hopeless. If they imagine that it will all be directed against scapegoats, maybe that’s because they don’t know what happens when no holds are barred and all limits are off.
Why Bernie Sanders Was Different
What are the openings and challenges for the Left in this moment of incredible uncertainty?
I don’t know if it is an opening because too many progressives are not thinking about these things in class terms. So what opening is there for them if their only answer to a general souring of working people with good reason is to say so and so black people and racism so and so and so Hispanics so and so and so gay marriage? They have a map with all different pieces, but it almost seems as if they are not aware that their map comes from an era that the enemy has superseded. It’s just not working the same way. I watch the Democrats in Congress and there is something almost laughable about watching Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer when they lumber into action with something that is a day late and a dollar short. An opening depends on someone capable of spotting it and exploiting it.
That was Bernie Sanders, don’t you think?
Sometimes, the Bernie Sanders people are also the progressives who feel defensive about it and think they should do some of that. It’s deadly. What stood out about Sanders was that he found a way to talk about the overall inequality and injustice without trying to speak to individual designated portions of the populace as though they were separate entities. I don’t want to lose that. That was a grace that this country was offered without deserving it. I blame the Democrats mainly for it because they decided they rather keep their apparatus and apparatchiks who benefit from this. They were threatened by someone who could leapfrog there.
They threw away a grace we were given, and so we got instead Donald Trump and his people. I don’t just mean the people around him, but the billionaires who have come into their own. They have a way of multiplying their power so it keeps going up exponentially. That’s what having that level of money and that type of power is going to do. It goes back to what Thomas Jefferson warned about in the constitution of the state of Virginia and the need to guard against corruption. He said we need to nip it in the bud before we have so many people holding so much power that we can’t fix it anymore. He said the trouble is that the objects of this kind of power are also the engines of it. With men, we will get money; with money, we will get men: it turns around in an expanding circle. It gets bigger as it goes along. It feeds on what it is seeking.
People remember that he was a slaveholder, and he did all he could do to keep the Haitian Revolution from spreading. He and his fellow slaveholder James Madison understood how power works. While we dismiss the other things they bequeathed us, we need to remember the other things we have forgotten. When Ronald Reagan was elected, I was working at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. I ran into Henry Fairly, to my mind a big-mouthed conservative Brit who worked for the Washington Post, and here he is telling Americans how to organize our society. I said to him “at this moment there is only one politician that I have any faith in and that is James Madison, I hope that he has made this machinery sufficiently unworkable that these guys can’t do what they want to do.” Apparently, it was not unworkable enough. Reagan may not have been able to do everything he wanted to do or those who came after him, but the machinery has not been unworkable enough to stop this onslaught.
We have all the historical precedents to tell us how deadly the bourgeoisie is if they ever think their backs are against the wall. I remember somebody making a warning like that after the coup in Chile. One thing this teaches us is how bloodthirsty the bourgeoisie are if we even look like we are mounting an effective opposition, but that’s what it is.
If Sanders represented unearned grace, the take-home message is that we can only be saved by works, not grace.
Even if our work is our work of accepting grace. Work is what is required, but it has to be work informed by knowledge and understanding.