Racecraft: Political Correctness & Free Marketplace of Ideas

Here is a passage that is absolutely brilliant. The authors cut to the heart of the issue like a surgeon with a scalpel.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields
pp. 40-44

Sometimes the fog of racecraft rolls in at the last minute, as a derailing non sequitur to an otherwise logical argument. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that scientists who conducted an epidemiological study of asthma among schoolchildren in South Bronx produced damning evidence about environmental pollution caused by heavy truck traffic. Their study identified the particle emissions, cited the location of major highways, and, through resourceful data collection, drew conclusions about the children’s exposure, in specific neighborhoods, at different hours of the day, to “very high fine particle concentrations on a fairly regular basis.” The correlations emerged: “Symptoms, like wheezing, doubled on days when pollution from truck traffic was highest .” It would seem as clear as noonday that class inequality had imposed sickness on these American schoolchildren. Yet the article’s summary tails off into confused pseudo-genetics. To a list of contributors to high asthma rates that includes heavy traffic, dense population, poorly maintained housing, and lack of access to medical care, the article adds “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with high rates of asthma.” Racecraft has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes. Susceptibility to filthy air does not depend on the census category to which the asthma sufferer belongs. And even if that susceptibility is (to whatever degree) genetically determined, Dr. Venter’s account of his own asthma stands as a reminder that “genetic” is not equivalent to “racial” or “ethnic.”

Some of the oddest racecraft moments come when scientists yoke modern genetics to folk notions. In the controversy over Dr. James D. Watson’s remarks in London, some of his defenders charged his critics with a “politically correct” retreat from science, insisting that good science requires a free marketplace of ideas . Researchers must be free, they implied, to salvage the old bio-racist ranking of superior and inferior races, regardless of the collapse as science of its core concept, race. But it is doubtful that those foes of political correctness would wish to rehabilitate that part of bio-racism that once identified inferior white races.

If they took their own position seriously, they would applaud the writings of such eminent American scientists of the late nineteenth century as Edward Drinker Cope and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (dean of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School during the 1890s) on the inequality of races, not simply their work on dinosaurs and the earth’s history. Cope advocated both “the return of the African to Africa” and restrictions on immigration by “the half-civilized hordes of Europe.” Shaler agreed, characterizing those hordes as inferior “by birthright ,” “essentially in the same state as the Southern Negro,” and distinct from “the Aryan variety of mankind.” Popularizers hustled bio-racist “science” into public policy. Madison Grant, who advocated “Nordic” superiority in his 1916 best-seller, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History, purported to map class inequality onto physical traits, such as height:

The Nordic race is everywhere distinguished by great stature. Almost the tallest stature in the world is found among the pure Nordic populations of the Scottish and English borders, while the native British of Pre-Nordic brunet blood are, for the most part, relatively short; and no one can question the race value of stature who observes on the streets of London the contrast between the Piccadilly gentleman of Nordic race and the cockney costermonger [street vendor] of the old Neolithic type.

In 1924, the lay and scientific streams of bio-racism converged in the Immigration Act of 1924 (which excluded European races deemed undesirable) and the Virginia Racial Integrity Act (which prohibited “miscegenation”). In the same year, Virginia adopted a law (upheld by the US Supreme Court three years later) providing for compulsory sterilization of persons held to be “defective and degenerate,” a group that included “the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” The Nazis followed these developments closely. When they decided to weed out the “unfit,” they had American models of how to proceed, from administrative searching of family trees to sterilization. They became “the dark apotheosis of eugenics.”

In 1946, Leslie C. Dunn, a distinguished geneticist and part of a group intent on severing genetics from eugenics, wrote that the field “had developed … out of the racial problems presented so vividly to the United States by the great immigration of the early part of the century.” Consistent application of the “free marketplace of ideas” principle today would restore to bio-racism and eugenics the respectability they once enjoyed. Instead, “inferior white races ” vanished from the lexicon of bio-racism, to rematerialize outside its purview as “ethnic” groups. The “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless” white people vanished altogether. No one attributes to political correctness the demise of bio-racism as applied to white persons. So, the free-marketplace-of-ideas apologia for Watson’s bio-racism as applied to black persons turns out to be a familiar interloper, the practice of a double standard.

One of the present authors some years ago tested the limits of the free market in racist ideas. A crotchety yet likable right-wing colleague approached, looking disquieted and in need of moral support. He was “having trouble” with a certain black student in his bio-psychology class. What was wrong, he wondered, with saying that “black people may, or (mind you) may not, prove to be intellectually inferior to white people? In science, you frame a hypothesis, devise an experiment, find out.” The student raised her hand and, when recognized, blasted him. “Do you know So-and -So (the student in question)?” asked the bio-psychologist. (The author did happen to know the student in question, an eighteen-year-old single mother of twins who was as bright as they come and not one to brook insult.) “Why can’t she grasp that there’s a scientific approach to things , blah , blah?” Finally, the author put a question. “If, as you say, there is no hypothesis that science excludes, why not try this assignment ? Let your students pick any white ethnic group and any stereotype commonly applied to it, greedy, mendacious, dumb, drunken, gangsterish, and so on, then formulate a hypothesis, design the experiment, find out.” The colleague’s face froze.

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.

Racial Reality Tunnel

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
pp. 19-20

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.”

pp. 22-24

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.

p. 24

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.