Race, Racism, and Racecraft

From Foster's 1899 The Races of Europe

We present an excerpt from Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields'  Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, out now in a new edition.


We strive to think rigorously about the world of experience that Americans designate by the shorthand, race.

That very shorthand is our abiding target because it confuses three different things: race, racism, and racecraft. The term race stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. For example, The Races of Europe, published in 1899 to wide acclaim and lasting influence, set out to establish scientifically the distinctness of the “Teutonic,” “Alpine,” and “Mediterranean” races. After compiling tens of thousands of published measurements (of stature, shape of head and nose, coloring of skin, hair, and eyes, and more), the author, William Z. Ripley, had more than enough quantitative evidence to work with—indeed, far too much. A “taxonomic nightmare” loomed up and forced on him a certain flexibility of method: shifting criteria as needed, ignoring unruly instances, and employing ad hoc helpers like the “Index of Nigrescence” (to handle the variable coloring of persons indigenous to the British Isles)*. Fitting actual humans to any such grid inevitably calls forth the busy repertoire of strange maneuvering that is part of what we call racecraft. The nineteenth-century bio-racists’ ultimately vain search for traits with which to demarcate human groups regularly exhibited such maneuvering. Race is the principal unit and core concept of racism.

refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard. That may be what the economist Glenn Loury intends when he identifies “a withholding of the presumption of equal humanity.” Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed, because most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness. The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. Consider the statement “black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color”—a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality. But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke—puff—reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole. In similar fashion, enslavers disappear only to reappear, disguised, in stories that append physical traits defined as slave-like to those enslaved.

Jefferson became so entangled in the reversals as to declare that the very people white Americans had lived with for over 160 years as slaves would be, after emancipation, too different for white people to live with any longer. He proposed that slaves be freed and promptly deported, their lost labor to be supplied through the importation of white laborers. His catalogue of differences went from skin color (they do not blush) and internal organs (“They secrete less by the kidnies”), to intellect (“In imagination, they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous”) and even emotion (“Their griefs are transient,” he asserted without irony). Even so, as a man of science, Jefferson qualified: “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” He thus recognized the oddity of his position—even if intermittently, through the off- and-on blinking of racecraft.§ 

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear in close-up. It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief. Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. Unlike physical terrain, racecraft originates not in nature but in human action and imagination; it can exist in no other way.¶ The action and imagining are collective yet individual, day-to-day yet historical, and consequential even though nested in mundane routine. The action and imagining emerge as part of moment-to-moment practicality, that is, thinking about and executing every purpose under the sun. Do not look for racecraft, therefore, only where it might be said to “belong.” Finally, racecraft is not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene. 

* That fine phrase and analysis are drawn from Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: Norton, 2010), 212–27

† That maneuvering, as applied to intelligence, is nowhere dissected better, or with greater concision and elegance of expression, than in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), 62–175. 

‡ Thus, in 1962, the Harvard anthropologist Carlton S. Coon found in the skulls of Afro-Americans a supposedly child-like trait: the “bulbous forehead,” a trait formerly held to bespeak superiority. Gould, Mismeasure of Man, 132–35, 149–51. 

§ He contradicted himself four queries after the one he was answering when he laid out the differences that supposedly required deportation (see Chapter 3, below, and Jefferson, Writings, Query 18, 162–3). Answering a critic who had disputed his arguments, he admitted that, even if the negroes’ inferiority could be proved, it would not justify their enslavement. Thomas Jefferson to Henri Grégoire, February 25, 1809, in ibid., 1202. 

¶ Such artifacts are independent of subjective belief. See Karen E. Fields, “Political Contingencies of Witchcraft,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 16:3 (December 1992), 567-93, esp. 586.


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