A Trivial Objection to an Excellent Book

Here’s a question for all you people who had to take the GRE to get into grad school:

Witch : Witchcraft

Race : ________

A) Spacecraft

B) Gracecraft

C) Lacecraft

D) Racecraft

E) Facecraft

If you answered ‘D) Racecraft,’ congratulations! Karen and Barbara Fields argue in their book of that name that we - in the twenty-first century America - engage in a form of racecraft, whereby we explain certain social and political outcomes as the effect of race in the same way that 15th Century Europeans explained events (like illness and misfortune) as the effect of witches. Of course, witches didn’t exist, but nonetheless, the evidence of their existence seemed to be everywhere at the time; even the religious reformer and skeptic of superstition Martin Luther was convinced of their nefarious influence over his mother. In contemporary America:

“The term _race_ stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produces humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other groups… _Racism_ refers to the theory and practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard… _Racecraft_… refers to mental terrain and to pervasive belief… [it] originates not in nature but in human action and imagination…”

Racecraft, as they put it, is the enculturation and education of citizens to believe in the fact, pervasiveness, and the effects of race, such that it becomes plausible to explain social outcomes as caused by race. The Fields’ argue that race - as a natural fact - does not exist. To be sure, there are persons of varying shades of color, but this doesn’t translate into a set of inborn traits for members of each skin color group. Instead, race is created through a process of racecraft, so that we come to believe that - of course!! how could it be anything else?? - the reason for the generally worse social and economic outcomes for people of color is because of their race, rather than the social, economic, and political culture that leads people of a race to be lumped together as a group in the first place.

This is a provocative claim and is likely to, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, challenge a number of people who accept the fact of race and define themselves by race. I’m going to reserve final judgment on the book for the moment, although I’ve found the claims so far incredibly rich and probing. The authors have increased my consciousness of race, which is large part of their aim in the book, so to that extent it is a smashing success. I do, however, want to make one minor quibble.

The idea of racecraft is a valuable lens through which to look at issues of race and racism. And, moreover, I can see the link to witchcraft to the extent that, as a mater of physical fact, neither witches, nor race - so the authors claim - exist. However, through an interlocking assortment of beliefs and expectations, we have, at different times in history, come to believe in the existence of each. So, to this extent, there is an overlap between the idea of racecraft and witchcraft. 

This is, however, where the overlap between the two ends. After all, the witch does witchcraft; she casts spells and turns into cats, and all that. But, races don’t do anything on the authors’ view; race is inert. For one thing, race certainly doesn’t do racecraft because it is racecraft that makes race. So, the causal arrow goes in one direction for racecraft (racecraft creates race) and in the other direction for witchcraft (witches do/create witchcraft).

Secondly, and linked to the above, racecraft is a set of beliefs and mental associations according to which, we associate people with different skin colors to certain outcomes, which in turn leads people to believe that race is a factor of explanation for certain outcomes. (For example, we commonly associate poor academic performance with race, rather than social and political effects.) But, witchcraft is a practice rather than a set of beliefs; it’s the casting of spells and concocting of potions. Sure, racecraft has effects, but it’s nonetheless different in form to witchcraft.

Thirdly, one has to believe in witchcraft for one to see witches. By contrast, one doesn’t have to believe in have the mental associations and assumptions that comprise racecraft. Indeed, most people with these racecraft beliefs aren’t aware that they have them, hence the need for the book.

These really are trivial objections, however, because even if each was accurate, they do nothing to refute or take away from the broader claims the authors are making.

UPDATE (07-03-15): Or maybe that’s exactly their point. Witches didn’t exist, but what did exist was a belief in witch practices, like witchcraft. It was necessary to explain witchcraft, and so people like Martin Luther pointed to women they believed to be witches. They thereby created the class of witches. So, maybe witchcraft does create witches… but, as I said, witchcraft is an action or a practice rather than (merely) a set of beliefs, whereas racecraft is a set of beliefs which has practical effects. So, maybe it's beliefs about witchcraft that creates witches, rather than witchcraft itself: meta-level-witchcraft; witchcraft-craft.

This really is a complex knot… much like our views on race, I suppose. Touché, Karen and Barbara Fields.