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.

Which is where racecraft comes in. If today there is widespread agreement about the inadequacy of race as a biological concept, agreement is just as widespread that race is instead a social construction or, as the Fieldses put it, a ‘social fact’ – ‘like six o’clock, both an idea and a reality’. In Racial Formation in the United States (1986), the theorists of race Michael Omi and Howard Winant urged us not only to resist the ‘temptation’ to think of race as a biological essence but also and especially to resist the temptation to conclude that if it isn’t biological it’s a ‘mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate’. We aren’t, after all, tempted to think that because it’s never six o’clock in nature six o’clock is an illusion. Why should the fact that there are no races in nature cause us to doubt the existence of race?

But the neologism ‘racecraft’ is modelled on ‘witchcraft’, and is intended to suggest just such doubts. It isn’t that the Fieldses regard the commitment to race as a category as an irrational superstition. On the contrary, they are interested precisely in exploring its rationality – the role that beliefs about race play in structuring American society – while at the same time reminding us that those beliefs may be rational but they’re not true. As Tzvetan Todorov pointed out a long time ago, the fact that some women were once thought of as witches and sometimes burned as witches did not make them witches, even socially constructed ones, and the conceptual incoherence of the social construction of race is at least as clear. We no longer believe that one drop of black blood makes a black person not because we think it takes more than one drop but because we don’t think there is any such thing as black blood. What we think instead is that social practices like Jim Crow racialised both black and white populations. Of course, the people who invented and enforced Jim Crow did think there was such a thing as black blood, and although they were mistaken, their views were at least coherent: if there are such things as black blood or white genes, then the people who have them are indeed black and white. Once it was discovered that this wasn’t true, however, there were no longer grounds for people to continue treating each other as black or white. If I say that I treat you as black because I think you have black genes, I’ve given you a bad reason; if I say I treat you as black not because you have black genes but because I used to think you had black genes, I haven’t given you any reason at all.

The point is the same when people on whom race was imposed impose it instead on themselves. Some of the women who were burned as witches may have believed they were witches. But they were wrong. In an early defence of social construction, Sartre described a Jew not as someone with Jewish blood but as someone whom others take to have Jewish blood. And his advice was, essentially, choose to be what they say you are. But how, exactly, can you follow this advice? If you think you’re a Jew only because they think you’re a Jew, and they think you’re a Jew only because they believe in Jewish blood, what does your Jewishness consist in other than an endorsement of their error?

The Fieldses aren’t interested merely in exposing racecraft’s incoherence; they want to ‘eliminate’ it ‘from the fabric of our lives’. That is, while agreeing with all those who think it ludicrous that events like Obama’s election are treated as if they ushered the United States into a ‘postracial’ era, they believe that a postracial era would be a good thing. Why? Because, they argue, the ‘falsities’ of racecraft, like those of witchcraft, ‘lead to moral error and human suffering’. And, much more controversially, because those ‘falsities’ deprive Americans of any ‘legitimate language for talking about class’ and thus make it ‘all but impossible’ to ‘talk about class inequality’.

What makes this second argument controversial is that ‘attacks on the use of race as a concept’ appear to anti-racist writers like David Roediger as a ‘distressingly new’ critique of anti-racism, all the more unsettling because it comes from the left – which Racecraft does. In her brilliant essay of 1990, ‘Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America’ (reprinted in Racecraft), Barbara Fields criticised American historians precisely for treating race and racism as if they were autonomous from capitalism. Slavery, she argued, was not an expression of racism, much less, as one hapless scholar had described it, ‘the ultimate segregator’; if Europeans were seeking the ‘“ultimate” method of segregating Africans’, why did they go ‘to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa’. The Fieldses argue that ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ and ‘spokesmen for affirmative action’ remain ‘unable to promote or even define justice except by enhancing the authority and prestige of race’, thus showing a failure to understand that anti-racism – which is a commitment to ‘the reallocation of unemployment, poverty and injustice rather than their abolition’ – can be just as useful to capitalism as racism has been.

What makes people angry is that this insistence on the importance of what the Fieldses call ‘class inequality’ seems to make light of racial inequality. Writing in 2006, Roediger pointed out that ‘white family wealth’ was ‘about ten times that of black family wealth’, and what at the time he called the ‘colour-blind’ commitment to the importance of class no doubt seems even less tenable to him now: the net worth of black households has dropped by 53 per cent since 2006, while the median worth of white households has fallen by only 16 per cent. In the face of such disparities, what can it mean to insist on the emptiness of race as a category or on the limits, let alone the irrelevance, of anti-racism as a left politics?

The question raised by Racecraft, however, is not what it means to ignore such disparities, but rather what it means to insist on them. In particular, what does it mean to insist on them as the lens through which to see the problem of inequality? The short (analytic rather than historical) answer is that the focus on disparities between black and white renders those between rich and poor invisible. African Americans today are disproportionately poor; whites are disproportionately rich. But a world in which those proportions were corrected would not be more equal; it would just be differently unequal. In other words, as long as the problem is defined in terms of disparity between races, the solution can only be the ‘reallocation’ of poverty, not its ‘abolition’. This solution does nothing for the white poor (except increase their numbers), and nothing for most of the black poor (except give them the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the injustice they’re the victim of is no longer racism).

The longer (and more historical) answer begins by noting, as Adolph Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun do in a recent paper in Socialist Register, that the discourse of disparity has come to the fore in the last thirty years, a period in which economic inequality has been rapidly increasing. What the ‘disparitarian perspective’ represents, they argue, is not a critical alternative to that inequality but ‘a concern to create competitive individual minority agents who might stand a better fighting chance in the neoliberal rat race’. No one, for example, thinks that sending more black students to elite universities will reduce inequality; what they think is that it will allow a few more black people to benefit from it. This is ‘a notable and striking reversal’, they remark, ‘from even the more left-inclined of War on Poverty era liberals, who spoke without shame about moving beyond simply placing people on an equal starting line – “equality of opportunity” – but also making sure they ended up closer to an equal finishing line.’

Equality of opportunity is key here. In its minimal form, it requires an end to all forms of discrimination – racism, sexism, heterosexism etc. More robustly, it would also require that people not be victimised because of their class. Legally, of course, only race matters, which is what the Fieldses mean when they say that ‘once racecraft takes over the imagination, it shrinks well-founded criticism of inequality to fit crabbed moral limits, leaving the social grievances of white Americans without a language in which to frame them.’ Thus, even though the poor are by far the most under-represented group in American four-year colleges and universities, when Jennifer Gratz (the lower-middle-class daughter of a man who never went to college) won her case against the University of Michigan in 2003, her complaint was of discrimination against white people. Abigail Fisher, the upper-middle-class daughter of a man who attended the very college that refused to admit her, and who thus belongs to a group that has no problem getting access to good colleges, has lodged exactly the same complaint, and her case is currently before the Supreme Court. In Racecraft’s terms, what we have is a situation in which poor white people can assert what is really a grievance against rich white people only by fighting a policy designed to benefit a few black people. And rich white people, by turn, can assert their class privilege over poor white people by fighting that same policy. The policy meanwhile is of no help to the black poor: ‘On highly selective campuses,’ according Richard Kahlenberg, a prominent proponent of class-based affirmative action, ‘86 per cent of African American students are middle or upper class.’ So while the true injustice of American higher education has been its increasing stratification by wealth, the debate about class that ought to have taken place has been almost entirely effaced by the debate about race.

Right now, while people wait for the court’s decision in Fisher, the most hotly debated question about university admissions is whether Asian Americans (by every measure the wealthiest ethnic group in the US) are victims of discrimination at universities like Harvard and Princeton, where they make up 21 per cent of current first years. What the right percentage of rich Asian kids at Ivy League universities should be is a social problem of almost no importance – except in a world where discrimination is the only form of inequality anyone cares about and where what the Fieldses call the ‘authority’ of race is so great that it extends even to the way we think of class. Many critics of race-based affirmative action want to make it class-based instead. The odds are against them: today about 45 per cent of Harvard students come from families with earnings in the top 5 per cent; about 18 per cent come from families in the bottom 60 per cent. If we want proportionate representation, a lot of clever young rich people will have to go home. But suppose they succeed. Or, even better, suppose we manage to create a world in which every university is as good as Harvard and everyone – black and white, rich and poor – gets to go to one. And then let’s imagine (actually we don’t have to) a United States in which only about 20 per cent of jobs require a degree from a four-year college. Everybody has a fancy education but only about one person in five has a job which requires that education. Or rewards it. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the fastest growing occupation in the US today is ‘personal care aide’ (second fastest is ‘home health care aide’). The level of education required is ‘less than high school’; the annual salary is $19,640. The people who currently end up in those jobs are disproportionately black and Latino and female and very badly educated. In our educational utopia, however, that won’t be true. Instead of 51 per cent of such workers being non-Hispanic whites, 63 per cent will be; instead of virtually all of them being women, half will be, and instead of 55 per cent of them having at best a high-school diploma, all of them will have college degrees. But men or women, blacks or non-Hispanic whites, Kantians or Hegelians, they’ll still be making $19,640. They won’t be victims of discrimination, but they will be poor.

A perfectly non-discriminatory workplace is not one in which everybody has the right to what the Fieldses call ‘a sustaining job’; it’s one in which everybody has the right to compete for a sustaining job. Equality of opportunity doesn’t mitigate inequality, it justifies it. Its primary beneficiaries are not employees but employers who, liberated from their own prejudices, now get to hire the best and the brightest rather than the mediocre but the whitest, and – as the neoliberal economist Gary Becker recognised decades ago – once the eligible workforce is increased, employers get to decrease that workforce’s wages.

Racecraft’s scepticism about race is thus at the same time a scepticism about the value of anti-racism. Not, obviously, because anti-racism is in itself wrong but because insofar as the racist/anti-racist opposition comes to define the terms of social justice, it leaves the conditions of social injustice intact. What they describe as the ‘ever expanding American immensity’ of the ‘so-called racial divide’ – ‘from hardy perennials like teenage pregnancy to novelties like … “disproportionate representation” on Twitter’ – plays a foundational role in maintaining this opposition. And that, for the Fieldses, is the point of taking racecraft seriously. When people stopped believing in the biological reality of unicorns, they didn’t start believing in unicorns as a social construction because nobody’s economic order was propped up by the unicorn. But we hang on to race – to racism and anti-racism – because race, unlike the unicorn, appears to be something we can’t live without.