Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America


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

In 1988, a sports announcer in the United States lost his job because he enlarged indiscreetly—that is, before a television audience— upon his views about “racial” differences. Asked why there are so few black coaches in basketball, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder remarked that black athletes already hold an advantage as basketball players because they have longer thighs than white athletes, their ancestors having been deliberately bred that way during slavery. “This goes all the way to the Civil War,” Jimmy the Greek explained, “when during the slave trading ... the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid, you see.” Astonishing though it may seem, Snyder intended his remark as a compliment to black athletes. If black men became coaches, he said, there would be nothing left for white men to do in basketball at all.

Embarrassed by such a rank and open expression of racism in the most ignorant form, the network fired Jimmy the Greek from his job. Any fool, the network must have decided, should know that such things may be spoken in the privacy of the locker-room in an all-white club, but not into a microphone and before a camera. Of course, Jimmy the Greek laid no claim to being educated or well informed. Before he was hired to keep audiences entertained during the slack moments of televised sports events, he was famous as a bookie. He claimed expert knowledge about odds and point spreads, not about history, biology or human genetics. But those claiming to be educated—and employed on that basis—have proved to be just as superstitious as Jimmy the Greek. Belief in the biological reality of race outranks even astrology, the superstition closest to it in the competition for dupes among the ostensibly educated.

Richard Cohen, the house liberal of the Washington Post, wrote a column defending the underlying assumption of Jimmy the Greek’s remark, if not its specific content. According to Cohen, Jimmy the Greek was wrong for overestimating what can be accomplished by the deliberate breeding of human beings, not for believing in physical race. “Back in my college days,” Cohen began, “I dabbled in anthropology. In physical anthropology we had to do something called ‘racing and sexing’ of skulls. That entailed looking at a skull and determining whether it was once a man or a woman—and which race.” The circular logic of first defining certain characteristics as “racial,” then offering differences in those same characteristics as proof that the “races” differ, did not trouble him, even in retrospect. In matters of virtually religious faith, logic carries no weight. Cohen capped that shameful display with a tag that ought to have warned him of the intellectual quagmire into which he had strayed: “Yes, Virginia, the races are physically different.”

Most Americans, though perhaps few others, will recognize the allusion. Many years ago, a newspaper editor answered a query from a troubled child named Virginia, who was experiencing her first painful doubts that Santa Claus was a real person and who had written to the newspaper to get an authoritative answer. The answer came in a famous editorial entitled “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.” Cohen spoke more truth than he realized in thus equating his own—and, presumably, his readers’—need to believe in race with a child’s need to believe in Santa Claus. Anyone who continues to believe in race as a physical attribute of individuals, despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists and geneticists, might as well also believe that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are real, and that the earth stands still while the sun moves.

Newspaper and television journalists are entitled to be as silly and irresponsible as they wish, and it usually does no harm, since nobody in his right mind pays attention to them. (Richard Cohen underlined his scientific illiteracy by speaking of “white genes”— entities known to no geneticist that I am aware of.) But in May of 1987, the Supreme Court of the United States provided a much more serious example—more serious precisely because it was the Supreme Court and not a half-baked journalist. The Court had to decide whether Jewish and Arab Americans could seek relief under civil rights law for acts of discrimination against them. Instead of taking its stand on the principle that discrimination against anybody is intolerable in a democracy, the Court chose to ask whether Jews and Arabs are racially distinct from “Caucasians.” If so, then civil rights laws forbidding “racial” discrimination might be applied to them. The Court decided that, because Jews, Arabs, and a variety of other nationalities were regarded as racial groups in the late nineteenth century, they may therefore be so considered today. In other words, the Court knew no better way to rectify injustice at the end of the twentieth century than to re-enthrone the superstitious racial dogma of the nineteenth century. In fact, the Supreme Court had little choice, bound as it is by American precedent and history—bound, that is to say, by its participation in those rituals that daily create and re-create race in its characteristic American form. The Supreme Court acts, no less than Jimmy the Greek, within the assumptions, however absurd, that constitute racial ideology in the United States. Unfortunately, so do historians and other academic specialists, who vitally need to take a distance from these assumptions in order to do their job.

The Single “Race”

One of the most important of the absurd assumptions, accepted implicitly by most Americans, is that there is really only one race, the Negro race. That is why the Court had to perform intellectual contortions to prove that non-Negroes might be construed as members of races in order to receive protection under laws for- bidding racial discrimination. Americans regard people of known African descent or visible African appearance as a race, but not people of known European descent or visible European appearance. That is why, in the United States, there are scholars and black scholars, women and black women. Saul Bellow and John Updike are writers; Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison are black writers. George Bush and Michael Dukakis were candidates for president; Jesse Jackson was a black candidate for president.

Moreover, people in the United States do not classify as races peoples of non-European but also non-African appearance or descent, except for purposes of direct or indirect contrast with people of African descent; and even then, the terms used are likely to represent geography or language rather than biology: Asian or Hispanic. Even when terms of geography designate people of African descent, they mean something different from what they mean when applied to others. My students find it odd when I refer to the colonizers of North America as Euro-Americans, but they feel more at ease with Afro-Americans, a term which, for the period of colonization and the slave trade, has no more to recommend it. Students readily understand that no one was really a European, since Europeans belonged to different nationalities; but it comes as a surprise to them that no one was an African either, since Africans likewise belonged to different nationalities.

A second absurd assumption inseparable from race in its characteristic American form takes for granted that virtually everything people of African descent do, think, or say is racial in nature. Thus, anyone who followed the news commentaries on the presidential election primaries of 1988 learned that, almost by definition, Afro-Americans voted for Jesse Jackson because of racial identification—despite polls showing that Jackson’s supporters were far more likely than supporters of any other candidate to identify him with specific positions that they agreed with on issues that mattered to them. Supporters of the others regarded their men as interchangeable, and were likely to switch again and again, in response to slick advertising spots or disparaging rumors.

Perhaps most intellectually debilitating of all is a third assumption: namely, that any situation involving people of European descent and people of African descent automatically falls under the heading “race relations.” Argument by definition and tautology thereby replaces argument by analysis in anything to do with people of African descent. Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery “the ultimate segregator.” He does not ask why Europeans seeking the “ultimate” method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa. No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the “barbarous” Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

Loose thinking on these matters leads to careless language, which in turn promotes misinformation. A widely used textbook of American history, written by very distinguished historians, summarizes the three-fifths clause of the United States Constitution (Article I, Section 2) thus: “For both direct taxes and representation, five blacks were to be counted as equivalent to three whites.” The three-fifths clause does not distinguish between blacks and whites—even, using more polite terms, between black and white people. (Indeed, the terms black and white—or for that matter, Negro and Caucasian—do not appear anywhere in the Constitution, as is not surprising in a legal document in which slang of that kind would be hopelessly imprecise.) The three- fifths clause distinguishes between free Persons—who might be of European or African descent—and other Persons, a euphemism for slaves. The issue at stake was whether slaveowning citizens would hold an advantage over non-slaveowning citizens; more precisely, whether slaves would be counted in total population for the purpose of apportioning representation in Congress—an advantage for slaveholders in states with large numbers of slaves—and of assessing responsibility for direct taxes—a disadvantage. The Constitution answered by saying yes, but at a ratio of three-fifths, rather than the five-fifths that slaveholders would have preferred for representation or the zero-fifths they would have preferred for taxation. When well-meaning people affirm, for rhetorical effect, that the Constitution declared Afro-Americans to be only three- fifths human, they commit an error for which American historians themselves must accept the blame.

When virtually the whole of a society, including supposedly thoughtful, educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason is not hallucination or delusion or even simple hypocrisy; rather, it is ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to analyze rationally who remains trapped on its terrain. That is why race still proves so hard for historians to deal with historically, rather than in terms of metaphysics, religion, or socio- (that is, pseudo-) biology.

Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among otherwise sensible scholars that race “explains” historical phenomena; specifically, that it explains why people of African descent have been set apart for treatment different from that accorded to others. But race is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains than judicial review “explains” why the United States Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than Civil War “explains” why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865.

Only if race is defined as innate and natural prejudice of color does its invocation as a historical explanation do more than repeat the question by way of answer. And there an insurmountable problem arises: since race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise historically. The most sophisticated of those who invoke race as a historical explanation—for example, George Fredrickson and Winthrop Jordan—recognize the difficulty. The preferred solution is to suppose that, having arisen historically, race then ceases to be a historical phenomenon and becomes instead an external motor of history; according to the fatuous but widely repeated formula, it “takes on a life of its own.” In other words, once historically acquired, race becomes hereditary. The shopworn metaphor thus offers camouflage for a latter-day version of Lamarckism.