Race-Racism Evasion

The following is a passage from Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields. I offer it here as an important point is made articulated. The key conclusion to be found is the specific section where the authors write:

Confronted with the intellectual arguments against the concept of race, my undergraduates react by grasping for another word to occupy the same conceptual space. “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘race’ after your class . But I don’t know what else to call it,” is a characteristic response. At the suggestion, “Why not ‘ancestry,’ if that’s what you’re talking about?” they retreat into inarticulate dissatisfaction .

A very good question the authors ask: Why not speak of ancestry?

Nearly everything that is worthy of being spoken of is more clearly and fully found in categories of ethnicity and nationality (although I would also add socio-economic class and other related factors). The classifications of race don’t tell us anything we can’t discover without them. All that race does is conflate separate issues and obscure hidden causes.

From Racecraft (pp. 100-102):

“Race” appears in the titles of an ever-growing number of scholarly books and articles as a euphemism for slavery, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, mass murder, and related historical atrocities; or as unintentionally belittling shorthand for “persons of African descent and anything pertaining to them.” 13 The more dutifully scholars acknowledge that the concept of race belongs in the same category as geocentrism or witchcraft , the more blithely they invoke it as though it were both a coherent analytical category and a valid empirical datum . In place of Jefferson’s moment of impassioned truth-telling, his successors fall back on italics or quotation marks, typographical abbreviations for the trite formula, “race is a social construction.”

The formula is meant to spare those who invoke race in historical explanation the raised eyebrows that would greet someone who, studying a crop failure, proposed witchcraft as an independent variable. But identifying race as a social construction does nothing to solidify the intellectual ground on which it totters. The London Underground and the United States of America are social constructions; so are the evil eye and the calling of spirits from the vasty deep; and so are murder and genocide. All derive from the thoughts, plans, and actions of human beings living in human societies. Scholars who intone “social construction” as a spell for the purification of race do not make clear— perhaps because they do not themselves realize— that race and racism belong to different families of social construction, and that neither belongs to the same family as the United States of America or the London Underground. Race belongs to the same family as the evil eye. Racism belongs to the same family as murder and genocide. Which is to say that racism, unlike race, is not a fiction, an illusion, a superstition, or a hoax. It is a crime against humanity.

No operation performed on the fiction can ever make headway against the crime. But the fiction is easier for well-meaning people to handle. (“ Race,” I have written elsewhere, “is a homier and more tractable notion than racism, a rogue elephant gelded and tamed into a pliant beast of burden .”) Confronted with the intellectual arguments against the concept of race, my undergraduates react by grasping for another word to occupy the same conceptual space. “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘race’ after your class . But I don’t know what else to call it,” is a characteristic response. At the suggestion, “Why not ‘ancestry,’ if that’s what you’re talking about?” they retreat into inarticulate dissatisfaction. Instinctively, they understand that, while everyone has ancestry , only African ancestry carries the ultimate stigma. Therefore, what they are unknowingly searching for is a neutral-sounding word with racism hidden inside, which is what “race” is. The apparently blameless word permits students to reabsorb into the decorum of the routine something whose essence is not just indecorum but monstrosity: the attachment to fellow human beings of a stigma akin to leprosy in medieval Europe, only worse, in that it sets beyond the pale of humanity not the leper alone but the leper’s progeny ad infinitum.

Domesticating such a monstrosity for presentation in civilized company requires believers in race to attempt cosmetic repairs of its most obnoxious peculiarities. One such peculiarity is the fact that, effectively, there can be only one race, since the one-drop-of-blood or any-known-ancestry rule applies only to African ancestry; indeed , the rule ceases to function at all if applied to more than one type of ancestry. The cosmetic applied to the resulting asymmetry and invidiousness is “whiteness ,” whose champions purport to discover “racialization”— and therefore races— all over the shop. A further sleight of hand defines race as identity so that “white” also becomes a race. Similar cosmetic embellishments claim “agency” for the victims in creating race or deodorize it by tracing its origin to “culture” rather than racism. But people no more fasten the stigma of race upon themselves than cattle sear the brand into their own flesh. And, no matter how slipshod the definition of culture, no one can seriously assert that one culture unites those whom American usage identifies without hesitation as one race.

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