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Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  1,292 ratings  ·  181 reviews
Most people assume that racism grows from a perception of human difference: the fact of race gives rise to the practice of racism. Sociologist Karen E. Fields and historian Barbara J. Fields argue otherwise: the practice of racism produces the illusion of race, through what they call “racecraft.” And this phenomenon is intimately entwined with other forms of inequality in ...more
Hardcover, 310 pages
Published October 9th 2012 by Verso
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Mike Goldstein
Nov 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Three stars not for the ideas, but for my personal reading experience. The basic ideas here, the way the authors are able to trace the establishment of American racial ideology, the way they explain the impetus for racist pseudo-science, are...well, just look at all the other reviews here. It's all really well done, and the book does a great job of getting at why concepts of "race" are so impervious to factual and logical rebuttals. The ideas will definitely stick with you.

But... I'm sure I'm at
Jun 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant work. The authors adopt Durkheimian approach to explain why, even though we all know that race is a cultural construct, it is still such a basic part of American culture. Their point is that since every society needs some basic principles which cannot be questioned to sustain its stability (they compare race in US to witchcraft in Africa) and since race was so basic to US culture, first as justification for slavery and later as a disguise for class, it will take much more than rational ...more
Conor Ahern
This is a powerful and highly intelligent exploration of the idea that racecraft is no more legitimate than witchcraft, and that the racism that follows from it is no more natural or explicable than the development of superstitions and punishments that flowed from centuries of adamant belief in witchcraft. It's a helpful heuristic--witchcraft makes sense to a group of people in search of explanations for complex, inexplicable phenomena. Witchcraft is rife with contradictions, completely fabricat ...more
Richard S
Jul 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: race
This book has a very interesting take on racism, one that is very different from the other books I've been reading. Unfortunately it comes across mostly as very garbled, academic and unconvincing. It basically says we agree that bioracism is factually wrong and indefensible as a coherent idea, but it argues that the way to attack racism is to attack the concept of race. To call race a social construct like Kendi does is racism because it requires us to treat races differently. As a result it's k ...more
Yên Ba
Race relations as an analysis of society takes for granted that race is a valid empirical datum and thereby shifts attention from the actions that constitute racism—enslavement, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, massacres, and pogroms—to the traits that constitute race.

What a brilliant book. Coming from the French education system, I've always been somewhat skeptical of the way American popular discourse approaches the concept of "race" (while also steering clear of the full Frenchie colo
Aug 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a good book. I recommend it. However, I don’t like all the essays equally. This a collection of essays Karen and Barbara Fields wrote over many years. I just flipped through the book to see if I could find which author wrote which essay and it’s not readily apparent. I’m guessing Karen wrote some and Barbara wrote some but maybe they wrote them all together the way Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels write essays together. Whatever the case, some of the essays are fantastic. Some of ...more
Dec 11, 2017 rated it liked it
So here's the thing: I really liked this book overall and think its arguments are important. However, there were a few passages that made me question a lot of the others. For instance, the authors completely misrepresent scholars who study Black English (or AAVE) and then destroy the (racist) straw man they've created. They come back to this two or three times. It may seem like a minor thing, but it made me question their representation of their opponents in other areas, as well. As a result, I ...more
Feb 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
easily worth about 1000 stars, or even a million... if you can read this book and not get totally fucking pissed off about America's racist problem (not racisM problem, mind you) then you are in such a state of ignorance and/or denial that you are most likely not human at all... this book crushes all the preconceived notions people have about "race" that it is impossible to even conceive of ever using the term except as a way of designating the user as a racist, par excellence... an essential bo ...more
Charlise Randall
Oct 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Written by 2 sisters who are professors. Essentially equates how we view Race and its perceived realness to the way people viewed witchcraft, seldom questioning the actual mechanism/connection between race and outcomes. (i.e. black men are violent. well what exactly is it about blackness that makes them violent?) There were no witches in Salem yet droves of people were accused and killed for witchcraft just as race is not real yet people (black people in particular) are targeted for it because o ...more
Jun 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Truly a book that we should have read in college, this book has enhanced my knowledge on more than my white male perspective.
Jan 24, 2018 rated it liked it
The first half of this book is excellent, laying out helpful definitions and distinctions of "race," "racism," and "racecraft" (think "witchcraft" with its irrational premise but utterly rational consequences). The second half is overly theoretical for my taste, spending a lot of time on the obscure conceptual and linguistic formulations of these ideas. It is academic writing, which is not my cup of tea.

The torrid conclusion is a welcome coda, and it reads almost as manifesto. The last paragraph
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Beautiful essays on race. Some are a bit too academic, but very worthwhile
Jul 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dangerous lies do not always dress the part.

The Fields sisters persuasively argue that race is not a coherent empirical fact, but a concept created via the strange ideological legerdemain they call "racecraft." While race is not real, the racist framework and practice of a double standard based on the ideology of race is very real. Racism is an active social practice that takes for granted that race exists, thereby creating the latter in an act of imagination and social belief—an act of racecraf
Mike Benoit
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A masterpiece. I see our world more clearly for having read this.
Feb 13, 2018 rated it liked it
The premise of this book is that race, much like witchcraft, operates socially as a collective experience in which individuals and societies take part in the various rites, rituals and ceremonies that constitute a belief system. These belief systems then become self-perpetuating in that they affirm and reaffirm these concepts which do not stand up to scrutiny but nonetheless may be rooted in reason, in the sense that the belief in spirits and witchcraft reveal much about the way people experienc ...more
Sep 29, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very interesting commentary on racism in America today (and I suppose in other Western democracies). It equates our understanding of racism to "racecraft" or rather like witchcraft. How opinions of earlier Americans viewed witchcraft as this bizarre and unnatural thing, and used it to demonize behaviors that did not fit with their agenda (mainly Puritans I'd imagine).

So the book does a lot of good in that regard. I especially liked the authors retelling of their grandmother's story, wh
May 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book isn't just a challenge to racists, it's a challenge to: 1) Any attempt to define a human being by the concept of race and; 2) Any explanation that implies racism is a product of "race" or some other purported natural cause. Karen and Barbara fields argue the concept of "race" would not exist if it weren't for racism and modern attempts to find a scientific basis for race or to create a taxonomy of "races" are better understood as a renewal of the bio-racism and eugenics of the 19th and ...more
“The more dutifully scholars acknowledge that the concept of race belongs in the same category as geocentrism or witchcraft, the more blithely they invoke it as though it were both a coherent analytical category and a valid empirical datum. In place of Jefferson’s moment of impassioned truth-telling, his successors fall back on italics or quotation marks, typographical abbreviations for the trite formula, ‘race is a social construction.’ The formula is meant to spare those who invoke race in his ...more
Feb 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has repositioned by outlook on race entirely. "The fish will be the last to discover water." It's hard to see what we are all swimming in, and in the this case, in the U.S., it is Racecraft. There is so much taken for granted, when the road out begins with the question: what is race? In one hand it is an abstract made-up, and in the next moment it's somehow a biological reality. The authors reveal the quick hands of Racecraft, the invisible and moving rules by which it is followed. I'm ...more
Mark Lewis
While the overall theme of the book is laudable, the writing style leaves much to be desired. Slogging through this tome is like driving a Ferrari on a washboard road full of ruts and potholes. Any enthusiasm for the experience is quickly dampened by ambiguous wandering sentences that completely halt the flow of the narrative. Eventually I pulled off to the side of the road, hailed a taxi and moved on to my next book.
Matthew Perry
Jan 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
one of those books where once you finish you start seeing evidence for the main argument (as a collection of essays this book has many, but its most compelling + recurrent is that certain anti-racism discourses reproduce the logics of race science by mistaking the effects of racism for the inborn characteristics of race) nearly everywhere you look.
Jake Sauce
Mar 23, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Remarkable clarity and research. Hugely helpful distinction between "race" a pseudo-scientific justification for *racism* - the real structures and practices of oppression, and "racecraft" - the art and practice, like witchcraft, of producing "race" as a socially valid category. Can't recommend this one enough. ...more
Dec 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Sep 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: black-literature
There were portions of this book that were definitely over my head. Sometimes academics can write past me, because I’m not that astute a reader, especially when they start talking inside baseball. But for the parts that I could understand, this was a very interesting book. Firstly, I loved how the book opened:

“In the beginning was the deed.” - Ludwig Wittgenstein quoting Goethe misquoting John the Apostle

In such a way the authors introduce their notion of race craft:

“The ideas of racecraft are p
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Inspired but meandering history and sociology of racism

Racecraft is a 2012 collection of essays written by sisters Karen and Barbara Fields, respectively sociologist and historian by trade. It deals with racism in both historical and sociological perspectives, especially inspired by Émile Durkheim. (Karen Fields has translated The Elementary Forms of Religious Life into English.)

The main idea of the book is that race is a fiction and racecraft is the conjuring of race in the same way that witchc
Mack Hayden
Mar 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, politics, america
Given the wide berth of positive reviews here, take this one with a grain of salt. I have no issue with the content here—their central thesis is super spot on in my estimation and I definitely enjoyed quite a few passages from the book. But the prose here is so obtuse and devoid of lucidity that I could barely keep my head on straight as I was reading it. It seems like others had a much easier time, so I may just be dumb as a rock (definitely not opposed to that conclusion). Regardless, I was le ...more
Sanjay Varma
Jun 11, 2018 rated it liked it
This book reminded me of reading Julian Jaynes, or Nietzsche. A creative insight is being presented by an original thinker. But the authors also have aspirations to write a comprehensive history book, replete with citations. The authors fail to mesh these dual purposes. I felt like i was reading two separate books that had been mashed together.

The historical chapters are excellent, and will be of interest to readers not familiar with the gradual shifts that turned indentured servitude into slav
Nov 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
fucking mind-blowing
This got hella tedious as it went on, so I gave up, but the first five chapters are killer. The very concept of racecraft makes so much fucking sense and is so perfectly American just like the Salem-era witchcraft its tenets are rooted in, and it's a very helpful way of thinking through my dissertation subject, though it's also very obvious how dated the original essays are!! ...more
Sharad Pandian
It's a book of luminous essays by the historian Barbara Fields and the sociologist Karen Fields (cousins). There is a lot of great stuff, with different styles (a series of vignettes, an imagined conversation between Du Bois and Durkheim) and arguments throughout. I'm not even going to try to summarize all that, but here's maybe one way to think about what they're doing.

While this is not quite how they put it, I think of "racecraft" as drawing attention to the continuous social production of rac
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Karen E. Fields, an independent scholar, holds degrees from Harvard University, Brandeis University, and the Sorbonne. She is the author of many articles and three published books: Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa, about millennarianism; Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir (with Mamie Garvin Fields), about life in the 20th-century South; and a retranslation of Emile Dur ...more

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“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.”
“Ideology is best understood as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existence through which people make rough sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day. It is the language of consciousness that suits the particular way in which people deal with their fellows. It is the interpretation in thought of the social relations through which they constantly create and re­create their collective being, in all the varied forms their collective being may assume: family, clan, tribe, nation, class, party, busi­ness enterprise, church, army, club, and so on. As such, ideologies are not delusions but real, as real as the social relations for which they stand.

Ideologies are real, but it does not follow that they are scientifi­cally accurate, or that they provide an analysis of social relations that would make sense to anyone who does not take ritual part in those social relations. Some societies (including colonial New England) have explained troublesome relations between people as witchcraft and possession by the devil. The explanation makes sense to those whose daily lives produce and reproduce witchcraft, nor can any amount of rational "evidence" disprove it.”
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