The worldview of race is so embedded in our society that it has for centuries been our collective reality tunnel. We don’t even know how to talk about it without using race-based language. Race just seems real to us.
Of course, we have reasons to give for why it seems real, but the reasons are secondary. It isn’t an issue of an opposition between rationality and irrationality. Racialism is both pre-rational and rationalizing.
Far from denying the rationality of those who have accepted either belief as truth about the world, we assume it. We are interested in the processes of reasoning that manage to make both plausible. Witchcraft and racecraft are imagined, acted upon, and re-imagined, the action and imagining inextricably intertwined. The outcome is a belief that “presents itself to the mind and imagination as a vivid truth.” So wrote W. E. H. Lecky, a British scholar of Europe’s past who, looking back from the nineteenth century, tried to understand how very smart people managed for a very long time to believe in witchcraft. He warned that it takes “a strong effort of the imagination … [to] realise the position of the defenders of the belief.” To “realise,” in his sense, is to picture a bygone real world of normally constituted people who accepted, as obviously true, notions that the real world of one’s own present dismisses as obviously false. What if we Americans applied that “strong effort ” to our present? Only if we imagined racecraft as a thing in itself worth scrutiny might we imagine ourselves outside or beyond the belief.
Fields, Barbara J.; Fields, Karen (2012-10-09). Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields
The feeling of it being real is prior to conscious thought. We are raised in this worldview and for most of us we have never known anything else. It is a self-contained worldview and a self-fulfilling prophesy. Its sociopolitical enactment creates its own evidence which proves the reality, necessity and inevitability of its enactment.
Then and there, cause and effect disappear into the smoky notion of “witches”— by definition, people who can “do accursed things ” that, by definition, are the things witches can do. Like pure races a while ago, Luther’s witches enter the world, and come to matter therein, not by observation and experience but by circular reasoning. Neither “witch” nor “pure race” has a material existence. Both are products of thought, and of language. Having no material existence, they cannot have material causation. Strictly speaking, Luther’s explanation omitted nothing essential.
Witchcraft has no moving parts of its own, and needs none . It acquires perfectly adequate moving parts when a person acts upon the reality of the imagined thing ; the real action creates evidence for the imagined thing. By that route, belief of that sort constantly dumps factitious evidence for itself into the real world . In Luther’s day, learned jurists and ecclesiastics produced mountains of such evidence. The specialized language of the proceedings generated evidence by shaping routine modes of narrating invisible (nay, impossible) events. The very pageantry of witchcraft trials yielded more evidence, and drastic executions of “accursed” people still more of it, a kind of material proof that bad things happen to bad people. Lecky concluded: “If we considered witchcraft probable, a hundredth part of the evidence we possess would have placed it beyond the region of doubt.” Correspondingly, if Ripley’s readers had considered racecraft improbable, his classification would have trapped him well within the region of doubt. In both instances, there was vast and varied evidence, but of what?
Of products of imagining, “realised” in everyday practice. Here , paraphrased , is an exchange between an unbelieving interviewer with the American children or grandchildren of European immigrants who believed in the evil eye: Q: How does the evil eye work? A: Some people are known to have it. Q: How do you know that? A: I have seen X’s remedy work. Q: Is it always effective? A: I know for a fact that it worked for So-and-so. Today, as in the sixteenth century, logical hopscotch of that kind is the warp and woof of banal sociability. The talkers respond to, but ignore, the interviewer’s question about the mechanism of the evil eye. It exists, period. The interviewer does not press, and does not need to. Those present do not query assumptions, the nature of available evidence, or the coherence of their reasoning from that evidence. What they know they know intimately, but not well. Such is the stuff that racecraft is made of. It occupies a middle ground between science and superstition , an invisible realm of collective understandings, a half-lit zone of the mind’s eye.
Dr. Watson was operating within it when he prophesied breakthroughs in genetics to account for things that happen when white people like him “have to deal with black employees.” That a scientist of his stature slipped into that half-light demonstrates the ease with which scientific and non-scientific thinking conflate in the minds of individuals. Had he been chatting over his back fence with a like-minded (or risk-averse) neighbor, rather than to a battalion of journalists, there would have been no uproar. And the world would have missed a sober lesson: Science is forever dogged by those seductive cousins and ancient antagonists which Francis Bacon named “Idols of the Tribe.” In their grip, Luther, a powerful dialectician, held both a workaday notion of cause and effect and a phantasmic folk belief that contradicted it, and so, too, did his learned contemporaries. Lecky again: “The acutest lawyers and ecclesiastics confronted evidence that extends to tens of thousands of cases, in almost every country of Europe.” For them, as for less well-educated people, there was little to impose the idea of absurdity or of improbability on stories about “old women riding on broomsticks.”
I realized the power of this social construct when I was once again looking at the genetic data.
The United States is apparently the only country in the world with a bimodal distribution of racial genetics, despite the fact that there are many other countries including both European and African ancestry. The reason for this relatively distinct genetic division of races exists at all (although still not as distinct as the racialists would prefer) is because of centuries of what amounts to eugenics public policies and socially oppressive practices such as miscegenation laws. The pure races of black and white didn’t exist as a natural reality but was only created (and never fully) through careful enforcement of the social construct. No one ever said beliefs weren’t powerful.
It is sort of like claiming that your belief is true and real and that someone’s belief is false and not real. You can kill or banish everyone in that group and so eliminate their beliefs. In doing that, you have proven that their beliefs don’t exist by the fact that they literally no longer exist (you can even wipe out all documents that gave any evidence of their existence) and, through Social Darwinism, you have proven that your religious beliefs are better. That isn’t unlike what happened in America. Those who fought against the racial order, especially blacks, disproportionately had their ideas and genetics removed from being passed onto future generations.
Evidence that supports is thusly created and evidence contradicting it is eliminated or made to seem irrelevant. It’s not just that race is a social construct. The societies and social orders we live in are themselves socially constructed and act as proof for the validity and reality of the social construct.
This, however, requires constant enforcement with threats of fines, imprisonment, violence, death, and/or banishment. The miscegenation laws have only been ended a half century or so. Yet already the racial divisions are breaking down. When given freedom to act according to their inborn human nature, people will marry and have children with a diversity of people, as is proven by the increasing number of interracial marriages and children. Some research even shows that people with more mixed genetics appear more attractive.
What about here and now? Americans acquire in childhood all it takes to doubt stories of witchcraft, but little in our childhood leads us to doubt racecraft. For us, as for bygone believers in witches, daily life produces an immense accumulation of supporting evidence for the belief. Think no further than the media -borne miscellany of things tabulated “by race ”— from hardy perennials like teenage pregnancy to novelties like “under-representation” among blood donors and “disproportionate representation” on Twitter, constantly churning out factitious evidence for an ever-expanding American immensity, the so-called racial divide. A recent instance , carried out under the sign of sociological theory, includes familiar features: for example, mapping genomic data onto “census” (that is, folk) racial categories and assuming a genetic origin for social conduct, with the absent supporting evidence expected any day now. Lecky’s subjects had authoritative sources in the science and law of the day. So do we. For them, but no less for us, it often is (or seems) “impossible for so much evidence to accumulate around a conception which has no basis in fact.” To them, witchcraft was obvious, not odd.
Most Americans are born in and grow up in America. They’re never seriously confronted with entirely different social orders that would challenge their racial views.
Even in visiting Europe, the social order isn’t so alien as to necessarily challenge the American worldview, although some black Americans have noted the vast differences. Many European countries don’t put much emphasis on white versus black and instead focus on other divisions such as Protestant versus Catholic, upper classes versus lower classes or even Western versus non-Western. Black Americans aren’t necessarily seen as any more ‘other’ to many Europeans than how white Americans are seen.
Still, it requires an entirely non-Western country in order to get the experience of having one’s racial assumptions fully thrown back in one’s face. Eugene Robinson was shocked that dark-skinned people he met in Brazil denied they were black. They didn’t live in the American reality tunnel. They recognized race as a social construct specific to a particular culture rather than a universal truth of human reality. Eugene Robinson couldn’t accept this and argued they were in denial. It was just real because he knew it was real. Everything about his experience in America proved it was real.
The American racial order is something that has to be constantly created again and again with each generation. We aren’t born knowing races. Infants and young children do begin to pick up racial cues from adults, but full enculturation/indoctrination takes many years to solidify into a fully realized worldview that dominates one’s every thought and perception.
If one is able to recollect one’s earliest memories, one would find some early experience(s) that demonstrated a non-racial understanding or the beginnings of racial consciousness. In my readings, I’ve come across numerous examples of people telling of such memories. I’ve read about a white man in the South who remembers the first time he was made to understand why a dark-skinned older man was a “boy”. I’ve read about other memories from Southerners of both races where they describe playing with children of a different skin color until a certain age when it suddenly became a taboo.
I too have such memories. But my having spent my early life in the North and often in liberal towns created a quite different young experience than is more common for Southerners, especially older Southerners.
In the town I live in now (Iowa City), I moved here when I was in third grade and didn’t move to the Deep South until 8th grade. Iowa City is a liberal and multicultural college town which offers a distinct experience of the world. During that period of my childhood, I went to school with a number of minorities, but I don’t recall ever thinking of them as different than anyone else nor do I remember them acting differently. Part of the reason for this was that I knew a black brother and sister who were raised by white parents and an Asian brother and sister also raised by white parents. At the same time, I knew an Asian kid raised by Asian parents. It apparently never occurred to me that the skin color of children had to match that of their parents or else it just didn’t seem important.
It was only with moving down South that I had my own culture shock. Race became real, not as a skin color but as a regional culture. I watched the same MSM as any other kid when I was growing up. I saw that black kids from the South or the Inner City acted differently, but they didn’t act in the way that the black kids I knew at school acted. I had no evidence-based reason to think those culturally different blacks were somehow categorically the same as the blacks in my school. However, in the Deep South, everything on a daily basis sought to confirm the reality of the racial order.
In America, we tend to mix culture and class with race. This conflation forms a part of our sense of reality from a young age, if it is to form. The sense of reality forms before we ever become fully conscious of it. We don’t consciously think about ideological philosophies and then logically analyze their merit according to scientific evidence. It is only as adults that we even begin the process of questioning deeply and thinking analytically.
This is why rationalization is such an easy trap to fall into. We lack the tools to entirely look outside of our shared reality tunnel. We need to develop those tools.