Believing in Unicorns

Walter Benn Michaels

  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields
    Verso, 302 pp, £20.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84467 994 2

The historian Barbara Fields and her sister, the sociologist Karen Fields, open Racecraft, their collection of linked essays, by denying that there are such things as races. Race today does not, they point out, refer to ‘a traditionally named group of people’ but to ‘a statistically defined population’. So, for example, the determining factor in susceptibility to sickle cell anaemia, long thought of as a ‘black disease’, is whether you have ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, which many of the people we think of as black do not, and some of the people we think of as white do. So, too, the relevant genetic information about a person is individual and familial, not racial. A person’s height, for example is determined mainly by the height of his or her actual ancestors, partly by environmental factors and not at all by the statistical entity that counts as his or her race. Thus, against developments like the growing demand for more ‘accurate’ racial designations and the recognition of biracial and multiracial identities, the Fieldses remind us that there are no accurate racial designations and no bi or multiracial identities. Genetically speaking, it makes no more sense to describe someone with, say, a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father as a person of mixed race than it would to describe someone with a tall mother and a short father as a person of mixed height. That we even have the idea there is such a thing as mixed race is a testament to our disarticulation of race from biological facts.

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