Review: Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. By Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields (London: Verso, 2012. Pp. 310).

RacecraftRacecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life argues that the invocation of “race” obscures the nature of social inequality, masking problems of an economic and political nature under the guise of race and racism. Fields & Fields argue that despite the inadequacy of the term, race has become a real abstraction, i.e., an ideology. Key to their understanding of the emergence of race is the role that it played in justifying — and rationalizing — the system of American black slavery. This system of unfree labor was the material basis for the emergence of the ideology of race. Orphaned from this historical emergence in the popular imagination, “race” is understood as a dimension of “culture” or “identity” — a move that further occludes its ideological nature. Thus academics that entertain the notions of positive appropriation of “race” or affirm its validity as a concept, unconsciously reproduce the divisions based on forced inequality. Moreover, those who consider American slavery the “ultimate segregator” do the disservice of naturalizing racial categorization, and thus fail to deal with its historical emergence.(118)

Although a sharp polemic against the perpetuation of racecraft in the academy, there is little in the book on the history of political attempts at challenging the problem of race in America in tandem with economic inequality. Although Fields & Fields correctly underline the entanglement of racial divisions and social inequality, they do not address how challenges to economic inequality have often failed at grasping this relationship, and vice-versa. The closest they come to this is with their brief analysis of the mixed legacy of the Civil Rights movement. How can we as historians today make sense of the political attempts? How do they have a bearing on the practice of “racecraft” (either in furthering it or challenging it)?

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