Black as We Wanna Be

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-18 17:45Z by Steven

Black as We Wanna Be

The Nation
2016-09-15

Matthew McKnight, Assistant Literary Editor


Frederick Douglass, February 21, 1895. (National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC)

Stauffer, John, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright, 2015)

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Brooklyn: Verso, 2012)

Trying to remedy racism on its own intellectual terrain is like trying to extinguish a fire by striking another match. The fiction must be unbelieved, the fire stamped out.

In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explored some questions about the ever-evolving technology of photography and what it does to us, particularly when it’s used to capture moments that would normally make us avert our eyes. “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order,” Sontag wrote, “are those who could do something to alleviate it—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Sontag spends much of the book discussing war photography; scant pages mention images and cruelties closer to home.

In the modern American context, there remains perhaps no more insidious cruelty than the belief—constantly manipulated and reinforced—that race is a natural and constant thing, something that should have any bearing on how we choose to organize our society and our lives. And though the convergence of racism and the photographic impulse isn’t new, the recent pictures and videos of killings by police officers have given renewed life to the questions that Sontag explored—and those she didn’t. Indeed, these images raise fewer questions about the act of looking at them than about the ways in which we view ourselves.

To modern eyes, the photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass are not so remarkable. Douglass was almost always photographed seated, wearing a dark suit, alternately staring directly into the camera and looking off to one side. As he abided by the portrait conventions of the era, only his skin color would have made these portraits remarkable in Douglass’s own time. The real joy of Picturing Frederick Douglass (2015)—a collection of 60 portraits, taken between 1841 and 1895; his four speeches on his theory of photography; and a critical essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr.—is to study his constancy. The changes in Douglass’s facial expressions across all of the portraits are mostly imperceptible: He looks serious, defiant, and proud.

The final portrait of Douglass was taken on February 21, 1895. He’d died the day before. That image shows him lying on his bed in Washington, DC. It is mostly a spectral gray-white. His hair and beard, his clothes, the bed linens, and the wall in the background all appear to be about the same color. There’s a faint outline of his profile, and with his hands crossed over his abdomen, he looks as dignified as ever…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

There is an important difference between identity and identification… …Mistaken identification can put an end to one’s identity by terminating the human being it’s attached to.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-07-10 18:34Z by Steven

“There is an important difference between identity and identification, which Karen and I have talked about in our book Racecraft. Rachel Dolezal was able to define her identity well enough to become what she said she was in her environment, in Spokane. And that’s something available to her partly because of the way that we as a society define who is black and who is not.

Anybody can be black — black is defined as any known or visible ancestry — or “one drop of blood.” So it’s really not based on what you look like, even if you go to the trouble of tanning and wearing a wig and whatnot.

Most Afro Americans don’t have any control over identification. Their identity, how they define themselves, how they perceive themselves, can be overruled by that identification. That’s what happens when we see Afro-American police officers killed by their comrades by mistake. Their identity as a police officer is overruled instantly and fatally because the identification takes precedence.

That’s what happens to people who are visibly Afro American or who are identified that way in our racist society, if not always in so dramatic and terminal a way. Mistaken identification can put an end to one’s identity by terminating the human being it’s attached to.” —Barbara J. Fields

Jason Farbman, “How Race Is Conjured,” Jacobin, (June 29, 2015). https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/karen-barbara-fields-racecraft-dolezal-racism/.

Tags: , , , ,

How Race Is Conjured

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2015-06-29 22:20Z by Steven

How Race Is Conjured

Jacobin
2015-06-29

Karen E. Fields, Independent Scholar

Barbara J. Fields, Professor of History
Columbia University, New York, New York


Cabs in Albany, GA (1962). Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

The fiction of race hides the real source of racism and inequity in America today.

In the three years since Trayvon Martin was killed, the realities of police racism and violence, of segregation from schools to swimming pools, and of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow have returned to mainstream discussions. And now as Confederate flags disappear in the wake of the murders in Charleston, racism is once again at the center of the popular consciousness.

There is a window, then, for the US left to push a deeper and broader conversation about the implications of racism and to build working-class organizations that fight for social justice for all.

But that opportunity will only be open to the degree we can overcome the ideological legacy of the last three decades. Since the 1980s, structural inequality has been increasingly replaced by personal responsibility as the main explanation for gross inequality. At the same time, attention to persistent and structural racism faded, supplanted by a focus on race and “race relations.”

This could not have been possible without 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 articulated why race cannot serve as the starting point for discussions about inequality in the United States — and what we miss when they are — than Barbara and Karen Fields, authors of the 2012 book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life.

Barbara and Karen were interviewed for Jacobin last week by Jason Farbman, a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York…

Read the entire interview here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-12-12 21:35Z by Steven

Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

Los Angeles Review of Books
2014-12-05

Lucy McKeon, Writer and Photographer
New York, New York

THE VERY NOTION of racial “passing” implies a test. Those who believed clear racial categorization was possible might test for race by measuring physical traits to indicate “blood purity”: slight physical traits that could be identified, such as the half-moon of a nail bed or the whites of ones eyes. In apartheid South Africa, the “pencil test” was devised: categorizing people based on whether a pencil would remain or fall from their hair. Physical markers were used to fix and control whole futures.

“White people were so stupid about such things,” says Irene, the narrator of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). “They usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth.”

To pass the faulty test of white scrutiny is not difficult; Larsen’s Passing, and other 18th to 20th century fiction and 20th century film, work to demonstrate that categorization by race relies on arbitrary rules and unsound logic — proving, in other words, the falsely naturalized or socially constructed nature of “race” itself. As Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs reminds us in her recent cultural history A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, the gains and losses of racial passing — when someone from one racial group “passes,” or is accepted, as another — were historically contingent, like “race” itself. Indeed, one’s semblance could rarely be taken as trustworthy evidence. “Skin color and physical appearance were usually the least reliable factors,” writes Hobbs, “whereas one’s associations and relationships were more predictive” of who was deemed white and who was not. If white people can’t actually tell who is white and who isn’t, whiteness is exposed as simply the external perception of being white — the privilege, power, and civic membership afforded to someone recognized as such. This is white supremacy in practice.

Michael Yudell’s Race Unmasked examines the history of the concept of biological race — in large part tied to the history of genetics, which “at its founding was inseparable from eugenics theories” — in order to show that race is “neither a static biological certainty nor a reflection of our genes. Instead, race is a historical and cultural phenomenon.” We’ve known this, of course. But Yudell’s recent book provides scientific documentation of the process of “racecraft,” a term coined by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields in their 2012 book by the same name: the “mental terrain” where our deep and pervasive belief in race as meaningful is conjured, then ritualized into reality. “Race” comes to explain social effects like poverty, as witchcraft might explain failing crops. What’s real is not “race,” but the ideology of racism: the belief in “race” as a tool with which to rationalize cause and consequence.

In this way, while both fictive and biographical representations of passing demonstrate the absurdity of “race,” they also emphasize the very real effects of racial categorization. From the point of view of those passing, Hobbs writes,

race was neither strictly a social construction nor a biological fact. The line between black and white was by no means imaginary; crossing it had profound, life-changing consequences. Race was quite real to those who lived with it, not because of skin color or essentialist notions about biology, but because it was social and experiential, because it involved one’s closest relationships and one’s most intimate communities.

Passing, in other words, demonstrates how “race” is both socially constructed and, as experienced, extremely meaningful.

Hobbs focuses on the experience of great loss in her cultural history of passing. As she points out, “Historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity.” But “racial passing is an exile, sometimes chosen, sometimes not.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Brute Ideology

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2014-12-11 15:55Z by Steven

Brute Ideology

Dissent
Fall 2014

Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History; Professor of African and African American Studies; Director, Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History
Harvard University

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields. Verso, 2012, 310 pp.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis. Knopf, 2014, 448 pp.

The field of U.S. history today is characterized by a mania for management. The “new” history of capitalism has focused its attention on the creation and daily reanimation of the grand abstraction from which it draws its title: the mid-level market makers who take capital and transform it into capitalism. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, increasing numbers of historians have turned their attention to the histories of powerful historical actors we have too long ignored or dismissed as “dead white men” unworthy of the attention of the properly progressive historian: financiers, bankers, and businessmen of all kinds. Despite the obvious importance of the task and the avowedly critical purpose of the turn towards the study of the mechanisms of market practice, however, some of the bolder claims that have been used to mark out the novelty of this “new” history seem unwarranted, perhaps even misguided. Can historians really set aside the study of racial and sexual domination now that they have discovered the economic exploitation underlying all other history? Can they really write a better history of capitalism by simply replacing the history of the marginal with the history of the powerful? Amidst the end-of-historiography enthusiasm for the “new” history of capitalism, two recent books remind us of the enduring importance of some of the questions posed by the old history of capitalism: questions of determination, ideology, and hegemony, and of collective action, resistance, and (even) revolutionary social change.

Bringing together previously published and new essays treating U.S. history from the time of the American Revolution to the eve of the Occupy movement in 2011, Racecraft reminds us that, at the very least, the “new” history of capitalism has some very distinguished antecedents. Taken together, the writing of the historian Barbara J. Fields and the sociologist Karen E. Fields (sisters; hereafter “Fields and Fields”) provides a sustained and brilliant exposition of the history and practice of race-marking in America. If race is “socially constructed,” as virtually every educated person in the United States knows it officially to be, then why do we believe we can determine the race of the person on the other end of the line as soon as we pick up the phone?

As the title’s invocation of witchcraft suggests, the book is framed by the idea that there is something occult about such everyday practices of divination. For the authors, race is a kind of magical thinking, a way of isolating a few of the surface features of near-infinite human diversity and over-generalizing them into an architecture of biological, social, and even metaphysical difference. Race thinking, they suggest, is a sort of transubstantiation that adduces essence out of circumstance, made up of turns of phrase and ways of thinking so familiar and yet so powerful as to persistently remake the material world in their own image.

Fields and Fields illustrate and expose this sort of magic through a close reading of the printed matter of our times: newspaper accounts of proudly segregated high-school proms and white supremacists carrying guns to Obama campaign rallies; peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly journals and the bureaucratic memos that established the “multiracial” category in the U.S. census. They juxtapose the “troglodyte racism” of the crypto-Klan birthers to the breathless intonations of historical transcendence (“the end of racism??!!”) common among twenty-first-century white liberals. The main argument of the book is with the latter’s sometimes unwitting, sometimes self-congratulatory engagement with the dark magic of racial difference itself.

Take the “multiracial” moment—the idea that the bad old days of “black” and “white” may finally be giving way to an embrace of “mixture” and “difference.” But wait: “mixture” of what with what? According to Racecraft, the Census Bureau defines a “multiracial” person as “someone with two monoracial parents.” Through the heart of the celebration of the new multiracialism circulates a notion of blood purity worthy of The Birth of a Nation. For Fields and Fields, any invocation of “race” as an explanatory or even descriptive category is in and of itself racist. The use of “race” to explain anything from ancestry to economic inequality unwittingly reinforces the false belief in deep-rooted biological differences between black and white people. “Ancestry,” according to the authors, should be understood as a way that individuals are linked across generations without being thickened into “race.” Heredity, whether responsible for visible traits like curly hair or hidden ones like the sickle cell, is just that and nothing more: “‘genetic’ is not equivalent to ‘racial.’”

If we had only to worry about a mediascape where relevance is measured by the ability to attach ideas to beginnings and endings (the “post-racial” election of the “first black president”) things would be bad enough. “Racecraft,” however, has infiltrated even the hallowed ground of academia. Precisely and compellingly, Fields and Fields demonstrate that scientists use “racial” causes to explain what are in fact social effects. A recent scientific study of high asthma rates among schoolchildren in the South Bronx, for example, concluded that—in addition to heavy traffic, dense population, poor housing, and lack of preventative health care—the neighborhood was characterized by “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with very high rates of asthma.”…

Read the entire review of both books here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science, United States on 2014-12-11 15:20Z by Steven

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Verso Books
October 2012
310 pages
Paperback ISBN: 9781781683132
Ebook ISBN: 9781844679959
Hardback ISBN: 9781844679942

Karen E. Fields, Independent Scholar

Barbara J. Fields, Professor of History
Columbia University, New York, New York

Tackling the myth of a post-racial society.

Most people assume that racism grows from a perception of human difference: the fact of race gives rise to the practice of racism. Sociologist Karen E. Fields and historian Barbara J. Fields argue otherwise: the practice of racism produces the illusion of race, through what they call “racecraft.” And this phenomenon is intimately entwined with other forms of inequality in American life. So pervasive are the devices of racecraft in American history, economic doctrine, politics, and everyday thinking that the presence of racecraft itself goes unnoticed.

That the promised post-racial age has not dawned, the authors argue, reflects the failure of Americans to develop a legitimate language for thinking about and discussing inequality. That failure should worry everyone who cares about democratic institutions.

Tags: , , , , ,

Of Rogues and Geldings

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-06-20 05:33Z by Steven

Of Rogues and Geldings

The American Historical Review
AHR Forum: Amalgamation and the Historical Distinctiveness of the United States
Volume 108, Number 5 (December 2003)

Barbara J. Fields, Professor of History
Columbia University

David Hollinger has performed a valuable service by insisting on the historical uniqueness of the Afro-American experience, rejecting the false history, spurious logic, and expedient politics that collapse the situations of Afro-Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and indigenous Americans into a single category. He correctly insists that there is no counterpart for any other descent group to the one-drop or any-known-ancestry rule that, with minor exceptions, has historically identified Afro-Americans. He criticizes the bankrupt politics that has resulted from treating a multi-century history of enslavement and racist persecution as a simple variation on the immigrant experience. (He might have added that the immigrants-all version of American history, while labeling as immigrants Africans and Afro-Caribbeans who arrived as slaves as well as Indians and Mexicans whose country was taken over by outsiders, omits from its central narrative persons of African descent who truly were immigrants.) And when he gets too close to some of the very misconceptions that his own analysis ought to preclude, his good sense draws him back; as when, after speculating that greater recognition of mixed-ancestry offspring might result in greater acceptance of unambiguous African ancestry, he quickly acknowledges that greater isolation is just as likely. But the focus on “ethnoracial mixture” with the suggestion that historians should “see the history of the United States as, among other things, a story of amalgamation” is a different matter. It brings to mind an anecdote about an Irishman who, when asked the way to Ballynahinch, responds: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”

…Whether called assimilation or amalgamation, the goal of blending in the discordant element operates on the rationale rather than on the problem. Framing questions in those terms guarantees that the answers will remain entangled in racist ideology. For example, a pair of sociologists investigating the degree of Afro-Caribbean immigrants’ assimilation into American society unquestioningly adopt as their measure of assimilation the rate of intermarriage between Afro-Caribbeans and native white Americans, rather than the much higher rate of intermarriage between Afro-Caribbeans and native Afro-Americans. The American ancestry of most native Afro-Americans goes back to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, whereas native white Americans are apt to be only first or second-generation Americans. Racism thus enters unannounced and unnoticed, to define eleventh or twelfth-generation black natives as less American than the children and grandchildren of white immigrants.

The race evasion compounded by the equation of race with identity explains why the siren song of multi-racialism attracts so many people. The point is best approached by way of a question: What is wrong with racism? One answer, whose historical pedigree includes such antecedents as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr., holds that racism is wrong because it violates the basic rights of human being and citizen. Most decent people would assent to that view, if it were put to them in so many words. But the ever-widening campaign for recognition of a “multi-racial” category of Americans suggests a different answer. What is wrong with racism, in that view, is that it subjects persons of provably mixed ancestry to the same stigma and penalties as persons of unambiguously African ancestry. The anguish of the Jean Toomer or the Anatole Broyard rests, ultimately, on a thwarted hope to be excused, on grounds of mixed ancestry, from a fate deemed entirely appropriate for persons of unambiguous African ancestry.

Such a view, for all the aura of progressivism and righteousness that currently surrounds multi-racialism, is not a cure for racism but a particularly ugly manifestation of it. For Jean Toomer and Anatole Broyard, as for today’s apostles of multi-racialism, it is mixed ancestry, rather than human status, that makes racism wrong in their case. If there is pathos in their predicament (bathos seems closer to the mark), it arises from that fact that American racism, while making no room for fractional pariahs, vaguely supposes that, logically, it ought to. White Americans have conceded little space for those claiming immunity by reason of mixed ancestry, and generally regarding passing as a particularly insidious form of deceit. The Anatole Broyard who passes without detection is like a leper who neglects to strike his clapper dish and shout “Unclean!” before approaching an inhabited area. Still, a latent strain of sentimentality has sympathized with the predicament of the person of mixed African and European ancestry: the tragic mulatto of racist literature and pop culture. Consistency seems to require that injustice be visited on the pariahs according to their quantum of pariah blood. But the imitation-of-life, tragic-mulatto plot-line works and appears tragic only if the audience simultaneously accepts two conflicting views, both racist: on the one hand, that the penalty for African taint should be proportioned to its extent; on the other, that there can be no such thing as a fractional pariah: one either is or is not…

Read or purchase article here.

Tags: , , ,