On “Culture” as Racecraft

11 Apr

I keep returning to the perennial interest among liberals and conservatives, black and white, in the supposed ills of black culture. It seems important to see the work–ideological and material–such framing of the problem does. I think Karen and Barbara Fields’ notion of “racecraft,” related to witchcraft insofar as it promotes mystical explanations (the witches made the crops fail) and can quickly turn to scapegoating, while obscuring other, larger concerns.

In an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barbara Fields defines racecraft (around 39:30) as

the process by which racism becomes race. You don’t start with a perception of people being different, you start with racism which is a practice and an ideology out of which race emerges. You learn to recognize people as belonging to a race because you have been in the rituals of racism with them.

In her book, co-authored with Karen E. Fields, they define racecraft in slightly different terms:

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear to be 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. […] 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….(18-19)

Yet later, again stressing the relation of their coinage to the English witchcraft, “racecraft” is:

one among a complex system of beliefs, also with combined moral and cognitive content, that presuppose invisible, spiritual qualities underlying, and continually acting upon, the material realm of beings and events. […] Marking the terms [“racecraft” and “witchcraft”] linguistically with -craft announces that the workings of those phenomena are not open to objective or experimental demonstration, that is to say, by anyone, anywhere, and independent of doing or believing.

I’m just starting to work my way through Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, and so far I recommend it highly, especially in light of recent and perennial discussions of black culture. Here I just want to offer a couple points.

I have increasingly come to think that the language of “achievement gap” and the question “what can we do to encourage black success” is wrong. Or, rather, they assume too much and artificially limit the kinds of solutions we can consider. Too often, that “achievement gap” seems like one of Fields’s “topographical features” that has no origin that one must simply navigate, like sinkhole or potholes in the spring. As the road is something created by cooperative human effort, so to is the “achievement gap.” And as the pothole can be fixed with cooperative effort, so to can the “achievement gap.”

To believe that there is something inherently deficient in “black culture” is the very definition of racism. To refer to an African American culture that is somehow distinct from a broader American culture is the work of racecraft, the rhetorical work of explaining away systemic issues as if they had mysterious, even supernatural roots. As Lester Spence points out in a recent post, there is no shortage of unheroic hard work among black people. Anyone who has lived among the poor has seen them to be among the most stoically hardworking, uncomplaining segments of the population. The idea of the “lazy poor” has its origins in the construction and administration of racial and colonial logic from the English disdain for the Irish to the Western view of the Africans.

Asking how we increase black achievement obscures too much. First one would have to instill in students the sense that they can achieve, that all their efforts will be rewarded and worthwhile. Simply class analysis or instilling “middle class values” (as if these are wholly foreign to African Americans or the poor) won’t do much if there’s no path to the middle class. And the black middle class, as many scholars have noted, has been and continues to be much more precarious. We know that even following middle class paths have different outcomes for African Americans, and that there is wealth inequality between blacks and whites, in addition to income inequality. This is a matter of policy, implicit biases, everyday practices that have historical origins: in a word, of racecraft.

So, the first step to addressing black culture might be to treat it as a set of responses and practices developed in the specific context of racism, and race-based domination that is both everyday and historical, then ask how we defeat that. This is not a matter of “beating the odds” as President Obama said when he announced his Brothers and Keepers initiative. And it is not a matter of defeating “Cousin Pookie,” a disgraceful minstrel caricature if ever there was one (a combination of Zip Coon and Sambo). A crude stereotype should not be the person the President of the United States invokes to represent black people. To solve unemployment in the inner cities create meaningful, well-paying jobs. Promote labor organization and meaningful oversight. Nothing in “black culture” has lead to “achievement gaps” or to  African Americans being 9 percent of the global prison population. The perception of African Americans as especially prone to violence has done that work. There is nothing wrong with black culture that destroying racist underpinnings that produce and animate racial distinction would not fix.

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