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  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields
  • Michael O. West (bio)
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields London and New York: Verso, 2012, 302 pages.

Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields are sisters by blood. Each is a distinguished scholar and accomplished academic in her own right, Karen in sociology and Barbara in history. In this bold book, they reemerge as discursive compañeras, combining deep learning and political passion to make for an impressive duet. Their subject is “racecraft,” a term they may not have coined but with this book will likely do much to popularize. As the Fieldses tell it, racecraft is to American life what witchcraft is to some other societies, a principal difference being that witchcraft is much more hoary than racecraft, its relatively recent cognate. On the terrain of history and ideology, the Fieldses reckon that the two, witchcraft and racecraft, share any number of features, rational and irrational. Between them, the authors would seem to know. Karen, whose previous research focused on Central Africa, is well familiar with witchcraft; while Barbara, an expert on U.S. slavery and its aftermath, is equally adept at racecraft. In this book, they jointly conclude that race is the American witch, a defining issue (if not the single most defining one) in the national experience, having served well its intended function as ideological obfuscation for inequality in practically all its forms.

Racecraft’s very Du Bosian subtitle, The Soul of Inequality in American Life, encapsulates the book’s central argument. (The allusion, of course, is to W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk.) Above all, Racecraft is a meditation on the decisive and corrosive effect of racial, nay racist, ideology [End Page 75] on U.S. society, to the historic and material disadvantage of its denizens, white and black alike. It bears noting that, despite occasional references to Americans of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, this is fundamentally a study in black and white. As told by the Fieldses, the racial saga in the United States, then and now, emerged largely from the crucible of interactions between Americans of African and European descent. In a rebuke to multiculturalism, at least of a certain kind, the book insists on the “uniqueness” of the U.S. black experience, “rejecting the false history, spurious logic, and expedient politics that collapse the situations of Afro-Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and indigenous Americans into a single category” (95). This amounts to throwing down a gauntlet, and some may be inclined to pick it up. If so, the Fieldses would seem to be up to the challenge.

Racecraft is a collection of old and new pieces. The former, consisting of six previously published essays, are offered here in revised form as chapters 3–8. Some of these, such as chapter 4 (Barbara’s “Slavery, Race, Ideology and the United States of America”) and chapter 8 (Karen’s “Individuality and the Intellectuals: An Imaginary Conversation Between Emile Durkheim and W.E.B. Du Bois”) are well known and widely cited. (Full disclosure: I am one of several persons credited, no doubt overgenerously in my case, for reading many moons ago drafts of the original chapter 8 and “sharing their erudition” with the author.) The remainder of the book, an introduction and a conclusion, plus chapters 1 and 2, are new and are appearing in print for the first time. The previously published, and solo-authored, essays form the spine of the work; while the newer, and apparently jointly written pieces, constitute the connecting tissues. Despite the disparateness of its constitutive parts, then, the collection holds together as a single whole. That said, the Fieldses, and their editors, could have aided readers to better determine authorial responsibility for the various chapters by indicating (in the contents or at the beginning of each chapter) exactly which author wrote what pieces, individually or jointly.

In writing, style matters. The Fieldses are nothing if not stylists, and that of a high Du Boisan order. Speaking of herself and her sister...


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pp. 75-79
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