Racism, racists and racecraft

July 26, 2016

I APPRECIATED Kyle Brown's letter ("Yes, Philando was killed by racism") in response to Barbara Fields and Karen Fields' recent article ("Did the color of his skin kill Philando Castile?") on the roots of police murder.

As someone who is also a great admirer of the Fields' book Racecraft--I wrote a review of it for SocialistWorker.org called "Breaking the spell of race"--I also found myself inferring arguments from the book that were not clearly spelled out in the article.

For instance, in the Fields' book, they also discuss an incident in which an off-duty Black police officer was shot by a fellow officer, but offer the following explanation:

The instant, inevitable--but upon examination, bizarre--diagnosis of many people is that Black officers in such situations have been "killed because of their skin color." But has their skin color killed them? If so, why does the skin color of white officers not kill them in the same way? Why do Black officers not mistake white officers for criminals and blaze away, even when the white officers are dressed to look like street toughs? Everyone has skin color, but not everyone's skin color counts as race, let alone as evidence of criminal conduct.

The missing step between someone's physical appearance and an invidious outcome is the practice of a double standard: in a word, racism. It was his fellow officer, not his skin color, that caused the Black officer's death. Even so, the fellow officer was devastated by his error and its fatal consequence. His grief and that of other white officers visibly weighed down the sad procession in blue that conducted the dead policeman toward his final rest. Racism did not require a racist. It required only that, in the split second before firing the fatal shot, the white officer entered the twilight zone of America's racecraft.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

In this passage, it is much clearer what their point is: Racism does not require a racist. The problem is not fundamentally that individual cops are racist, but that the ubiquitous social practice of racism creates perceptions about race (and not the other way around) that require no conscious malevolence on the part of individual perpetrators.

This way of understanding the problem actually points precisely away from the idea that police violence against Black people can be solved simply through better training. Rather, we have to get to the root of where racism comes from and why it persists.

Racecraft offer a compelling explanation for both of these questions. In short, the Fields argue that rather than existing for time immemorial, racism arose at a particular historic juncture for a particular purpose: to maintain a system of economic inequality. This analysis is incredibly important for activists today who aim to dismantle systems of racist oppression. If racism is indeed built into the DNA of capitalism, it is ultimately impossible to get rid of one without the other.

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THIS INSIGHT, however, only takes us so far if we are attempting to devise a plan of action. To say that racial inequality is part and parcel of a system of economic inequality does not mean that racial inequality isn't real, or shouldn't be challenged.

While their recent article seems to suggest a downplaying of racism on the grounds that white people are also killed by the police, one couldn't possibly come away with this impression from reading the book.

Nonetheless, I do think there are some limitations to their diagnosis of how such racism ought to be challenged. For instance, in her otherwise excellent essay on "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," Barbara Fields writes:

Those who create and re-create race today are not just the mob that killed a young Afro-American man on a street in Brooklyn or the people who join the Klan and the White Order. They are also those academic writers whose invocation of self-propelling "attitudes" and tragic flaws assigns Africans and their descendants a category, placing them in a world exclusively theirs and outside history--a form of intellectual apartheid no less ugly or oppressive, despite its righteous (not to say self-righteous) trappings, than that practiced by the bio- and theo-racists; and for which the victims, like slaves of old, are expected to be grateful.

They are the academic "liberals" and "progressives" in whose version of race the neutral shibboleths difference and diversity replace words like slavery, injustice, oppression, and exploitation, diverting attention from the anything-but-neutral history these words denote. They are also the Supreme Court and spokesmen for affirmative action, unable to promote or even define justice except by enhancing the authority and prestige of race; which they will continue to do forever so long as the most radical goal of the political opposition remains the reallocation of unemployment, poverty, and injustice rather than their abolition.

This passage seems to blur the distinction between those who may uncritically absorb racecraft and those who have a stake in actively promoting it. In the case of the former, the seeming elevation of their agency in creating and recreating race seems to fly in the face of the materialist analysis laid out in the rest of the essay, as though merely talking about race is part of the problem.

The Fields contend that race is an ideology and not merely propaganda, but nonetheless, it is one that is actively promoted. Racism may not need racists in every instance, but it does need a set of ruling class institutions designed to perpetuate it. It is not a coincidence that one will find disproportionate numbers of racists in the police force, for instance.

Even more concerning is Fields' dismissal of an important anti-racist reform: affirmative action. While it is true that without addressing economic inequality, such measures would fall far short of winning real equality or justice, I would argue that such demands should be supported in principle, as part of a process of breaking the hold of racism in our society, a necessary component of tackling the broader problem of inequality.

In his excellent talk at the Socialism 2016 conference "Unite and Fight: The Politics of Solidarity in the Antiracist Struggle," Anton Ford raised a critique of those who argue that racism is a byproduct of capitalism. This, he said, implies it serves no purpose. If you are sawing wood to build a house, sawdust is a byproduct. Racism isn't sawdust, it's the saw.

Only by squarely confronting the central role of racism in maintaining economic inequality can we hope to end it. And at least in my reading, most of the arguments laid out in Racecraft point directly to that necessity.
Leela Yellesetty, Seattle

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